Head onto Horton Trail and experience some of Central Arizona's best wilderness.
- Region: Mogollon Rim, Tonto National Forest
- Trail: Horton Creek Trail, Horton Springs
- Trail Length: 7.5 miles
- Trail Time: 3.5 hours
- Elevation Change: 5,360 feet - 6420 feet (change 1,060 feet)
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Attractions: water, spring
If you're coming from Phoenix, drive two hours up the AZ-87. Merge right onto AZ-270. Drive 16 miles to Nf-289 on the left. This is the turn off for the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery. Drive 0.8 miles on Nf-289 until you cross a small bridge. Immediately after the bridge, you’ll see the parking lot on the left marked for Horton Springs Trailhead.
Get directions here.
Horton Creek Trail Trailhead Preparations and Hiking Safety Tips
Day hiking in the Tonto National Forest is a great getaway for those who live in Phoenix, Payson, Prescott, or Sedona. There are lots of things you should bring. But don’t forget to check the weather forecast, because it can be really cool at these higher elevations, even when it’s hot in the Valley. There’s a restroom at the parking area, as well as at the campground.
Starting the Horton Creek Trail Hike
The first thing to know about the Horton Creek Trail is how to actually find it.
Traveling in a van from Phoenix to Payson with friends, we had a GPS, snacks, and eagerness. Our GPS got us to Payson, and even to the Tonto National Forest.
Where we failed was finding the trailhead. Note: If you hit the fish hatchery, you’ve gone too far.
We backtracked, found the correct trailhead, and parked. From the parking lot, we walked across the bridge and turned left onto an old Jeep road. We followed the dirt road up a short hill to find Tonto Creek Campground, with the trailhead on the left.
Then the adventure started.
The great thing about Horton Creek Trail is the immediate beauty and crispness. If you’re a lover of trees, this is a perfect trail for you. The weather was significantly cooler (to the dismay of one of the people in our group who failed to pack a jacket), but not so cold that it was uncomfortable.
As we walked, we were soon met with Horton Creek. A couple of us immediately stopped to take our GORE-TEX SURROUND® hiking boots for a spin in the cool creek. After playing around for a bit, we decided to move on (with dry socks, thankfully).
The creek stayed near us almost the whole way, offering peaceful sounds throughout the hike.
I’ll be honest though, if you’re more of a once-every-couple-of-weekends hiker, your legs are going to feel the burn of this hike. Our group stopped for water breaks, snack breaks, lunch breaks, and photo breaks. And also, leg breaks.
Despite the burn, no one wanted to call it. The peaceful surroundings and promise of a waterfall at the end was enough to keep everyone motivated.
After about two miles, the trail turned away from the creek and began a rocky climb with several switchbacks. Around this point, we encountered a friendly, and frank, hiker.
"I’m not gonna lie,” he said when asked how much farther the trail was. “When you get to that crummy switchback, and you’re thinking you just want to die, that’s when you’ve made it, and the end of the trail is just 100 meters off.”
Our group trudged on up that “crummy” switchback to find a wooden sign indicating Horton Springs was to the right.
We continued on the trail, greeted some boy scouts camping out, and crossed a small wooden bridge across the creek.
Back up a hill we went, where we found what some call a faucet, and farther up the hill again and to the left, the reason we came: the waterfall.
As we sat for a waterfall break, we all agreed, any sore legs would definitely be worth it tomorrow.
Hiking Essentials for Horton Creek Trail
- Sunday Afternoons Adventure Hat: Purchased with the thought of protecting my face from the sun, this hat turned out to be perfect for a light sprinkle, too. Our hike went from sunny to overcast and a bit rainy; the hat was great for both elements.
- Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen Sensitive: Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide combine for broad spectrum UVA and UVB skin protection. As a pale redhead, sunscreen is vital for any outdoor adventure (even getting the mail) and Blue Lizard has never left me burnt. The 3-ounce tube even fits conveniently in a side pocket or fanny pack (if you’re into that).
- Octane™ 18X: No need to stop and sip with this expandable pack. With ultra-light materials, this reservoir is perfect for a 3-hour plus day hike.
- Hydro Flask Wide-Mouth Vacuum Bottle: For those without the investment of a reservoir pack, the Hydro Flask is another great option. You’ll have less water depending on your size (I have a 40-ounce), but water and ice stay cold for up to 24 hours.
- La Sportiva Synthesis GORE-TEX SURROUND® Boot: Horton Creek Trail has lots of options for playing in and around water. With these hiking boots we didn’t have to worry about skipping stone to stone. The GORE-TEX product technology allowed us to feel the creek’s ripples through our shoes, but without leaving our socks wet at all.
- KIND and Clif bars: Easy to pack, easy to snack. Just remember: Leave no trace. We picked up a few abandoned wrappers of fellow hikers along the way.
- Marmot Minimalist Rain Jacket: Though 60 degrees Fahrenheit isn’t necessarily cold, when you’re coming from 80-degree weather in Phoenix, it can be quite the adjustment. This jacket is engineered with GORE-TEX PACLITE® product technology and only weighs 15 ounces.
- Day Hiker First Aid Kit: Thankfully we didn’t have to actually use this kit, but bringing along a day hike kit such as this one gives you the supplies you might need in case of an emergency.
The gear needed for a nice day hike doesn’t have to be fancy. Make sure you’re prepared for any weather changes or emergencies that may come up. If you like your hikes full of trees, crisp air, and a nice creek, check out our feature on the Horton Creek Trail in Payson, Arizona.
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