The Salt River Recreation Area north of Mesa is a well-known destination for kayaking, tubing, fishing and picnicking. Although there are also some hiking trails near the water, riverside commotion, noisy crowds, entry fees and mounds of trash left behind by careless day trippers are buzz kills for trekkers in search of beauty and solitude. However, a nearby system of trails that overlooks the area offers peaceful wandering.
The Sonoran Desert (Hawes) Trail System in Tonto National Forest has more than 20 miles of interconnected paths located between Usery Pass Road and Bush Highway just south of the popular recreation area. The northern-most route in the system is the Wild Horse Trail which is also part of the Valley-circumnavigating Maricopa Trail. As its name suggests, the trail passes through the domain of wild horses.
The elegant and sometimes controversial beasts can be spotted wading in the river, poking around in the riparian corridors and grazing in the surrounding desert foothills. Regardless of where you might see them, it’s smart to keep your distance and enjoy the herds from afar. The Wild Horse/Maricopa Trail escapes the din of the crowds and is also high enough in the hills to afford inspiring vistas of the Salt River Valley, Four Peaks, Red Mountain and the Usery Mountains. Staring from the trailhead on Usery Pass Road, the trail heads out through wide washes and scoured gullies. You’ll cross an old “NRA pit” where rusting bullet casings, broken glass and other relics of target shooting activities remain in the sandy, buffered depression.
Shooting is no longer allowed there, but the sounds of gunfire can be heard from the Usery Mountain Shooting Range to the south. Once through the pit area, the pop-pop of rifles and revolvers is muffled by a corrugated terrain of arroyos, ravines and gently rolling hills. Beyond the half-mile point, the hike takes on a surprisingly remote feel. The green band of the Salt River snakes through a chiseled landscape to the north, then arches south where it wends around Red Mountain in the Granite Reed Dam area. The trail bears the hallmarks of its mountain biker origins.
Hairpin turns, swooping stretches and lots of swift-and-smooth roller coaster segments make for an ever-changing hike with surprises around every bend. What little shade the trail has is provided by pockets of ironwood and Palo Verde trees that thrive in water-whittled ravines. Another noteworthy botanical attraction here is a smattering of saguaro cacti skeletons in various stages of decomposition.
Their woody cores with sponge-like patterns and haunting postures lie bare the internal structure of Arizona’s iconic plant. The Wild Horse Trail ends at the 3.3-mile point but you can continue hiking on the Maricopa Trail for another 4.2 miles to Bush Highway for watery views and the best chance to see mustangs in the mist.
LENGTH: 3.3 miles one way for Wild Horse Trail or 7.5 miles one way for Maricopa Trail section to Bush Hwy.
ELEVATION: 1,320 – 1,880 feet
From US 60 in Mesa, take the Ellsworth Road exit 192 and go 9 miles north (Ellsworth turns into Usery Pass Road) to the Wild Horse trailhead on the left. The trailhead is marked by a Maricopa Trail sign and a no-shooting post. There’s space for about 6 vehicles in the dirt turnout parking area.
Maricopa Trail & Park Foundation