by Brian Curtice – I can still recall the first time I saw the bright yellow Salt River Canyon ‘Watch for Horses’ sign. It stood in stark contrast to a landscape muted in greens and browns, immediately catching the entire family’s attention. Watch for horses, in the middle of the desert? All eyes were on equine lookout as I slowly drove on the empty, twisty, hilly road.
Rounding a corner, we saw a brown U.S. Forest Service sign for a place we’d never heard of, the Phon (pronounced ‘fawn’) D Sutton Recreation Site. A nicely-paved road took us a mile deeper into the Arizona desert, ending in an expansive parking lot containing roughly two dozen dinosaur-sized RVs, most with gigantic solar arrays that reminded us of the arms on a giant octopus. We parked near a veranda atop a bluff overlooking a narrow river valley.
A steep, rocky path led to the confluence of two rivers, the trickling Salt River and the swift Verde River, a well-groomed trail providing a scenic walk along the Salt River Canyon. Birds were everywhere; red-winged blackbirds, great-tailed grackles, great blue herons, greater egrets, turkey vultures, a pair of bald eagles, a belted kingfisher, numerous LBJs (“little brown jobs”), neotropical and double-crested cormorants, numerous species of hummingbirds, black phoebes, Abert’s towhee and these were just the ones we spotted walking a short distance along the riverside trail.
Evidence of the elusive Salt River horses abounded, both in the large piles of fresh dung that dotted the trail and in broken branches, trampled grasses, and hoof prints on the ground and along the shore. We walked for a bit, about .3 miles, taking in the sights of the mountains and river valley while enjoying the cacophony of birds.
Where Are the Salt River Wild Horses?
Then we heard a new noise, the unmistakable sound of hooves clop-clopping on river rocks. My youngest son saw them first – horses!
A family of them emerged from dense reeds across the river from us, so we sat on rocks and watched them nip the vegetation along the shoreline. The Salt River horses looked skinnier than domestic horses and their coats showed signs of having been scratched repeatedly by the desert flora or each other, but their neighing and snorting, the clop-clop of hooves echoing on the rocks mixed in with a background of birdsongs, was powerful.
The thought that we had lived within 10 miles of this stretch of the Bush Highway for over a decade yet had never even heard of this place astounded and embarrassed me, a self-proclaimed outdoorsman who knows all the good hiking spots. Yet, here we were, only 35 minutes away from Sky Harbor International Airport and downtown Phoenix, the 6th-largest city in the United States, thoroughly immersed in a riparian desert.
PRO TIP: The wild horses of the lower Salt River roam the area between the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Reservation, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, and into Tonto National Forest.
Salt River Canyon, Arizona
A Tonto National Forest day use pass is required to park at any of the developed areas along the Salt River. As of January 2016 overnight camping at Phon D Sutton is no longer permitted. Camping at nearby Coon Bluff is possible on Friday and Saturday nights during the camping season. Day passes grant kayaking and tubing privileges during the river flow season. Download Outdoor Families Magazine’s free printable family camping packing list to ensure you don’t forget anything!
As of 2016 the price is $8 per day, however, passes are not available for purchase anywhere along the river itself, so make sure to buy one at a gas station before heading to the Salt River; the closest being the Shell station on Power Road and McKellips (8 miles away from Phon D Sutton) and the Chevron station on Ellsworth Road and Brown (13 miles away).
Glassware is not permitted anywhere along the river. The lower Salt River Canyon region offers fantastic family outdoor fun in a desert riparian habitat, including fishing, hiking, swimming, kayaking, tubing, rappelling (Coon Bluff only), and wildlife watching.
As the Salt River does not flow year round, the Tonto National Forest agency assigns 2 distinct seasons: the camping season from October 15th to May 15th, where overnight stays are allowed, and the day use season, from May 15th to October 15th, where the river usually flows at a high volume. It is important for visitors to know which season is in effect when planning a road trip.
The day use season allows visitors to take advantage of the flowing Salt River, flowing continuously between Memorial Day and Labor Day. But, if visiting outside of those dates, check to make sure Stewart Mountain (the dam that controls the Salt River) is actually releasing water.
Salt River Canyon Kayaking and Tubing
A Tonto National Forest day use pass allows kayaking on the Salt River. Kayaking and tubing are great ways to leisurely see the fantastic desert scenery, and a kayak trip from Coon Bluff to Phon D Sutton takes only 20 minutes. Additional sites upriver, such as Goldfield, Blue Point and Water User’s offer longer kayak floats. Phon D Sutton is an excellent egress thanks to its shore, however dragging the kayaks up the river-rock hill to the parking lot can be challenging, so go slow and step carefully.
Kayakers looking for rapids need paddle elsewhere as this section of the Salt River offers some minor water turbulence at best. Kayak rental companies service the area, with most offering guided tours. Salt River Recreation rents tubes ($20, cash only) and provides shuttle bus rides (included in the tube rental fee) for those that want to experience the river with less effort.
Salt River Canyon Camping
Lower Salt River Canyon camping is permissible only Friday and Saturday nights at Coon Bluff, a site about three miles away. For $8 tent campers can take advantage of the wonderful mesquite forest while RVs and trailers up to 40′ can set up on the paved areas. There are no reservations, formally delineated spots, or hookups. Each site has covered toilets and shaded verandas with concrete benches and bbq grills.
Pro Tip: Book your family travel through Booking.com. They guarantee the best prices for any type of property and no booking fees!
Salt River Canyon Swimming, Wading and Fishing
Phon D Sutton’s shoreline and lack of river tubers makes it the most child-friendly of the developed Salt River Canyon sites. The confluence of the Verde River with the Salt River means water is present essentially all year, making Phon D Sutton a popular fishing spot as well.
Hiking and Biking in the Salt River Canyon
Numerous desert trails provide excellent hiking and mountain biking. A one-mile, heavily wild horse-traveled trail connects Phon D Sutton to Coon Bluff, the next developed site upriver. At approximately Mile .7 the trail meets a gulley that requires hikers to scale a roughly 10-foot section of rock or hike inland some distance for a gentler crossing. Small children will likely need be carried up the rocks at this juncture.
The trail continues up the bluff itself, providing spectacular views of the river valley and the Four Peaks, and access to the only rappelling cliff for miles. The trail down the bluff can be hard to follow, so take care and move slowly — rocks here can be slippery.
Salt River Canyon Desert Wildlife
Close encounters with Salt River horses can occur anywhere along the Lower Salt River. More than once we have been waked by the sounds of hooves mere feet from our tent. Please remember the Salt River horses are wild, and it is recommended that all visitors stay at least 50 feet from them.
Gila monsters, rattlesnakes, scorpions, wasps, bees, ants, velvet ants and tarantula hawks, all of which can provide a nasty sting or bite, exist at Phon D Sutton, and many desert plants possess spiny, thorny leaves. Learn more about desert wildlife from the State of Arizona’s wildlife page.
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Dr. Brian Curtice is a dinosaur paleontologist, ownschooling advocate, and photography enthusiast based out of Mesa, Arizona.