Hiking along Horton Creek Trail

Last weekend, Kathryn and I decided to take a break from our usual summer routine of doing absolutely nothing in the sweltering Phoenix heat. Instead, we made a day trip to the slightly cooler Payson area to do some hiking along Horton Creek, just under the Mogollon Rim in Tonto National Forest.

We got an early start Saturday morning, leaving around 6:30 to make the roughly 90-minute drive to Payson. We had a hearty breakfast at Crosswinds Restaurant, a diner at the airport, before continuing the last half-hour or so to the trail, arriving around 9:30.

Parking for the trail, which begins at the Horton Creek Campground on Forest Road 289, is limited. We found the parking lot full when we arrived, but additional parking was available by driving back a few hundred yards. Still more parking was available alongside the road in certain places. If you arrive planning to hike all day, plan to hike a little further to your car.

Trailhead sign at Horton Creek Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona
The trailhead sign at Horton Creek Trail

We had never been hiking in this area before, but there were plenty of other people around. We spotted another couple heading in the same direction, so we followed them. They gave us some information about what to expect, and we ended up crossing paths a number of times. At one point, they even scratched an arrow in the dirt for us to follow. We missed it and went the wrong way, but eventually we wound up on the trail again.

(I’ll be the first to admit I should have been better prepared for this hike. Still, I feel I was being reasonable. Our car was parked at the junction of two streams, and we were hiking uphill between them. If we got horribly lost, I reckoned we could always walk downhill until we reached one of the streams and follow it back to the junction of the other. Water flows downhill, right?)

Clearing along Horton Creek Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona
Horton Creek Trail traverses several clearings in the forest

The hike from the trailhead to Horton Spring, our destination, is about three-and-a-half miles through varied terrain. Some parts are rocky or even sandy. Other parts are single-track trail through meadows. Horton Creek was just a trickle of water to the right of the trail as we started out, but after about a half-hour of hiking, it was a babbling stream that we could hear as the trail switched back and forth toward and away from it.

Cairn marking Horton Creek Trail, Tonto National Forest, Arizona
A cairn marks the way along Horton Creek Trail

After almost two hours of hiking, sometimes in the shade, sometimes in bright sun, we arrived at Horton Spring, the source of Horton Creek. To be honest, I was expecting something more dramatic after all our effort, but it was still kind of cool to see a stream gushing out the side of Mogollon Rim.

Horton Spring, Tonto National Forest, Arizona
Horton Spring is the source of Horton Creek

After arriving at the Horton Spring, we broke out our provisions and had a makeshift picnic lunch. I had made us macaroni with tomato sauce, onion, and cheddar cheese the night before, and after a good reheating it managed to stay hot in our thermal jar. We also had honey-roasted peanuts and beef jerky. Like I said, it was makeshift, but it bought us enough energy to hike back to our car.

When it comes to exercise, I have a tendency to get quite lazy during the hot Phoenix summers. Add that to the fact I’m getting older, and the sum is my legs were hurting me more than I had expected. Long story short, getting back to the car took almost as long as climbing the trail. By about 1:30 we had made it.

My original plan was to have a late lunch at a popular bar and grill in Payson before heading back to Phoenix. However, the pasta had filled us up, and all either of us wanted was a giant cold soda. Under the circumstances, the Golden Arches sufficed.

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