You might have heard about the famous Salt River Wild Horses who roam inside the Tonto Forest. And yes, the rumors are true. The horses are there, and they’re gorgeous! So, if you want the best chance of seeing them in action, here you go…
The Salt River runs through the Tonto Forest and is about 200 miles long. It can be found in central Arizona, just east of Phoenix and Scottsdale, ending at Roosevelt Lake. There are many small tributaries that run from the Salt River, which is why finding the wild horses can be tricky.
According to the Bureau of Land Management, there are an estimated 500 wild horses dispersed throughout the Tonto Forest. Of course, the herds aren’t all together in one specific spot, which means there can be more or less any given day.
Yes, the Salt River wild horses are truly wild. They are free to roam as they please, which is why you should always drive and hike with care while inside the forest. You’ll see many horse-crossing signs along the roads and trails. It’s important to remember that this is their land, and we’re just visitors.
You can absolutely see the Salt River wild horses without a tour. We’ve seen them in various locations while hiking and never used a tour. It’s also popular to see them while camping inside the Tonto Forest and tubing down the Salt River.
Keep in mind that you are not guaranteed to see any of the wild horses during any visit. They are indeed wild, meaning there’s no specific place they’ll be at any time. BUT, that being said, they do tend to hang out at recurring locations.
Each site listed is located along the Salt River off the Bush Highway (running off the AZ 87)
Here are some popular places to spot them:
Note: each location is either a recreational site area where trails meet the water.
As with searching for most wild animals, the best time to spot the Salt River wild horses is right before sunset when they come down to the river to drink. The same can be said for sunrise. The horses are most active and thirsty at these times. And for photography, these are also the best times to capture the horses, during “golden hour.”
There are also some fantastic trails within the Tonto Forest that lead along or to the Salt River. We hiked the Coon Bluff Hiking Trail, where we saw the most horses. The trail is 2.7 miles round trip, of moderate level, and takes about an hour to hike. The trail does have a few steep areas, but overall it’s quite a safe trail with areas leading to the shore banks.
There are also camping facilities where you can gain entrance to the hike as well as fishing, kayaking, swimming, and other recreational activities. We hiked the trail an hour before sunset and spotted the horses down at the River for their evening drink.
How to Arrive: From Phoenix, take the US 60 to Power Road exit and continue to Bush Highway. You can reach the trailhead from Phon D. Sutton Recreation Site Road or join the trail at Coon Bluff Road.
If you head to the Tonto Forest in the Spring, you might get to experience both wild horses and wildflowers together. During the months of March and April, be on the lookout for Arizona’s wildflower season. We were lucky to experience the Superbloom of 2023 AND come across the wild horses enjoying all the benefits of those yummy grasses.
Besides gazing upon the spectacular Salt River wild horses, there are many things to see and do inside the Tonto Forest. From hiking, tubing, kayaking and swimming on the Salt River, you can also venture inside the forest for more fun activities. Here are some ideas for a fun day in the Tonto Forest.
Tortilla Flat is a great stop on a road trip through Tonto Forest. Take a ride through history as you stroll down the main street of this old west town. And make sure you eat at the Tortilla Flat saloon and become part of history by placing your dollar on the wall. Super fun!
If you’re wondering what a real ghost town looks like, make a stop at Goldfield Ghost Town. This once thriving town is now an abandoned gold mine town that has many fun family things to do. We loved stopping at Goldfield and seeing all that it has to offer.
If you want to stay for more than just a day, camping inside the Tonto Forest is the way to go. There are many fantastic campgrounds, including Usery Mountain, where we camped for a couple of days. It was one of our favorite campsites on our 10-day Arizona RV trip, with the most incredible views of the Superstition Mountains all around. If you want more information on camping in Arizona, check out our RV camping in Arizona series.
For more even fun activities inside the Tonto Forest, read our 7 Things to Do in Tonto National Forest