Horton Creek spills over moss-covered boulders as it flows from the base of the Mogollon Rim to Tonto Creek, near Kohls Ranch.
© Nick Berezenko
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Horton Creek TrailIf water is music to the ears, this trail is Mozart in Bigfoot's family room.
By Robert Stieve
horton was an elephant who heard a Who. He was born in the imagination of Dr. Suess, and was recently "voiced" by Jim Carrey in an animated film. Horton Creek has nothing to do with any of that, and no matter how hard you listen, you won't hear a Who along this trail. You will, however, hear water, which in Arizona is always like music to the ears.
The trail, which is named for the creek which is named for settler L.J. Horton, begins at the foot of the Mogollon Rim, about 150 feet from the Upper Tonto Creek Campground, and follows an old logging road that parallels the stream. The first quarter-mile or so is an easy pine-needle-covered path that cuts through a grove of ponderosas and aspens. To this point, you won't hear any water, but once you pass through the Forest Service gate, you'll hear the creek. Unless, of course, you're hiking with friends who prefer reciting lines from Will Ferrell movies to listening to the calming sounds of running water.
For most of the hike, you'll be within a hundred feet of the creek. By all means, hop off the trail and get your feet wet. There are several creek crossings — mostly boulders, which are slippery when wet — and they're worth the side trip. You'll also notice some idyllic campsites, which you'll want to keep in mind for another day.
Continuing uphill, past the lush colonies of roses, wild grapes, ferns and strawberries, you might start feeling a burn in your quads. It's not poison ivy, although that diabolical plant does grow in the area. The burn is from the incline, which is unexpected — this hike is deceptively steep, and gains more than 1,000 feet in elevation. Another challenge, as you get farther up, is a bed of rocks caused by an old rockslide. Be careful, the trail follows the rocks, which drool at the thought of twisting unsuspecting ankles.
Eventually, you'll leave the rocks, and at the 1.5-mile mark, you'll see a monstrous alligator juniper to your left — this tree is to junipers what the General Sherman is to Sequoias. The surrounding maples and Douglas firs are worth noting, as well. The views are worth a thousand words.
The nature of the trail stays the same until you near the top, where you'll hit a series of switchbacks that lead away from the creek — don't be fooled by that. At the 4-mile mark, the Horton Creek Trail intersects with the Highline Trail, which is a 40-mile marathon hike for those who don't have to be at work on Monday.
Just beyond that intersection is Horton Spring, which pours out of the rocks about 30 feet above the stream and nurtures the lush surroundings of horsetails, mosses and grasses. These are the headwaters of the creek, and if ever there were a place to relax and get lost in your imagination, this would be it. You won't hear a Who, but who cares?
Trail Guideclick to expand
Length: 8 miles round-trip
Elevation Gain: 5,360 to 6,700 feet
Directions: From Payson, drive 17 miles east on State Route 260 to Tonto Creek Road (Forest Road 289, near Kohls Ranch), turn left and drive 1 mile to the Upper Tonto Creek Campground; the trailhead is at the campground.
Special Consideration: A $5 day pass is required.
USGS Map: Mount Bigelow
Leave No Trace Ethics: