There are thousands of wild horses across the western United States. If you're looking for them, Arizona has some of the most accessible bands.
Arizona has several wild horse population centers, but the most famous live along the Salt River in Tonto National Forest. Wild horses can also be found in the Gila River Indian Community, the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community, and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, among other places.
The lower Salt River recreation area is a relatively small area where you can nearly always find these horses if you know where and when to look.
Along the lower Salt River recreation area, you'll find a number of places to pull off and stop to the left and the right side of the road. Because of the river, trees are fairly abundant in this area, and they provide shade and privacy for these horses. It's not an absolute guarantee that you'll find them if you go out looking at any time.
While the river recreation area is a focal point in the hunt for horses, some bands travel extensively throughout the area, even as far as the landfill on the Salt River Pima Maricopa Indian Community. They have also been known to travel up the Verde River and across Beeline Highway at multiple points. You may see some as you pass over the Verde River bridge next to Fort McDowell Casino on Beeline Highway (87).
One of the upsides for tourists and locals is the ability to tube float down the river. As you can imagine, this is extremely popular on a hot day. Salt River Tubing will rent you a tube, and you may see some horses as you float down the river. With extreme summer temperatures, this is a beloved spot to cool down and enjoy the scenery.
Unfortunately for humans and horses alike, this means that there are cans, bottles, sandals, shirts, and every kind of recreational trash imaginable floating down the river. Most of the visible trash is relegated to the area between Saguaro Lake and Gold Field Recreation site. For photographers in particular, the garbage can ruin an otherwise beautiful shot. The continued interest in the site means that despite regular maintenance, omnipresent provided trash receptacles, and volunteer clean efforts, visitors continue to leave piles of garbage behind in the area. While the litter presents an environmental danger to the ecosystem and wildlife, it can also be challenging for humans trying to enjoy the natural scenery.
Due to the river being a part of the very limited water resources available to the horses, they do tolerate the presence of humans fairly well. Unless directly approached, horses will generally just watch people as they float or walk past them. If they feel threatened, they will charge humans.
Remember, these are feral horses. These are not domesticated barn yard animals. They will not tolerate being touched, petted, or harassed, you cannot feed them, and they will defend their young if you approach them. It is always recommended that you stay at least 50 feet away from any wild horses. A single kick from an adult horse can be fatal for humans. Additionally, the harassment of wild horses can mean that they are more wary of human visitors. Leave them in peace so that everyone can enjoy them. Disregard these guidelines, and you'll be arrested. Salt River wild horses are protected from human harassment by Arizona state law. The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has two substations in the Lower Salt River Recreation area and regularly patrol the area by vehicle, air, boat, and on foot. They are also checking for Tonto Passes displayed in vehicles, which are required for parking. There are a few alternatives you may have that substitute for the Tonto Pass if you're a regular outdoors traveler. Generally, camping and overnight visitation is prohibited in the area with limited exceptions. The north side of the river is off-limits during certain times of the year for various reasons--one of them being bald eagle breeding.
Following the above guidelines, you're ready to go check them out. More recently, the horses are being regularly spotted around sunrise and sunset between Coon Bluff Campground and Gold Field Recreation site. These two sites are adjacent, have plenty of tree cover, and provide shallow and easy access to the north side of the river.
The river doesn't just provide water for the horses; it also provides food, temperature regulation in hot months, and cover from biting flies. You may see horses splashing in the water to cool down or ward off insects. These make for wonderful photographs and video clips. Additionally, males will battle for control of a harem of females in the bands. You might even be lucky enough to catch a dramatic fight in the water.
Here's a list of dos and don'ts.
DO: Bring a camera and a good zoom lens. You'll be happy you did.
DO: Be prepared to walk, paddle, or float up and down the river. The bank is sandy and they're not always standing next to the parking lot.
DO: Get a Tonto pass. Help support maintenance of the site and stay in legal compliance. It's like 8 dollars. You can afford it.
DO: Keep an eye out for rattlesnakes, Africanized bees, and other dangerous wildlife. They are in the area and even on the river bank. I was very fortunate that I stepped directly over a young rattlesnake instead of on it when I didn't see it without getting bitten about five feet from the river's edge.
DO: Be prepared for traffic, horses running across the road in front of you, and the inability to find a convenient parking spot. This is a popular area, and you're not the only person that reads this blog.
DO: Camp at Coon Bluff if you get the chance on a Friday or Saturday night. No permit or fee is needed beyond the Tonto Pass or applicable substitute. Wake up before sunrise, and you'll see both wild horses and bald eagles up and down the river surrounded by Saguaro cacti. You may shed a single tear of red, white, and blue. You may hear Toby Keith in the distance when you see this majestic western American sight. Camp fires are allowed depending upon fire conditions.
DO: Bring plenty of water and a snack. You might have to walk a mile or two. The hot weather can take a toll on your body, even if you think you're in great shape. Don't be the person being dragged out in an ambulance or helicopter. Do not underestimate the conditions and do not overestimate your abilities. It happens almost constantly in Arizona. You will be a joke among the locals.
DO: Try to be as non-invasive and non-disturbing as possible. The horses don't mind if you watch them or take photos. They don't mind if you talk to them to let them know you're in the area. They do mind if you stalk them like a predator, chase them, or yell at them.
DO: Move out of the way if they approach you, especially if it is a young horse with its parents. Younger horses may be curious about you and walk toward you to get a closer look. Give them their space. Their parents will defend them.
DO: Keep an eye out for bald eagles. There is a healthy breeding population that fly up and down the river at sunrise and sunset. They mostly nest on the north side of the river in the taller trees a few hundred yards north.
DO: Check out the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group. Not only are they doing great work keeping the local horse population sustainable and healthy, they also know great locations to find and photograph them. Help support their mission here.
DON'T: Yell at, approach, chase, feed, or touch these horses. It bothers them and can really mess up your day even if you don't end up in jail or dead.
DON'T: Litter. There are dumpsters and trash cans everywhere. It is so simple to pack in, which means it's even easier to pack out since you don't have to take your garbage back into your car.
DON'T: Use flash photography. You may get charged by the horses or scare them away.
DON'T: Go looking for bald eagle nests. One uninvited guest can permanently drive the eagles away. You aren't going to get any good photos from underneath the tree anyway. Accessing the entire north side of the river is prohibited for this specific reason during certain times. You may also be trespassing into sovereign tribal territory if you walk into the wrong area over there. Just don't go over there.
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