This is a beautiful and challenging trail. It is challenging because of the relentless climb, and the softball size loose stones that make footing difficult and tiring. It is very different from many Arizona hikes in that it has multiple distinct landscapes, one of which could easily be found in the pacific northwest.
I suggest parking at the Derrick Trail parking lot which is the first lot past the campground as you come down Zane Grey Highway. This is closer to the Derrick Trailhead than the Horton Creek Trail parking lot. The trailhead is not altogether obvious. It is across the street from the parking lot and there is just a hiking sign with no verbiage.
The hike begins in a typical, but beautiful Mogollon Rim forest. Ponderosa and Piñon pines are fairly thick and provide some needed shade.
After an hour or so (when you think there can’t possibly be any more “up” to go, you cross into a different (higher altitude) ecosystem of mostly manzanita.
The old adage of – where there are manzanita trees/shrubs there are bears – is definitely true for this area, but we did not encounter any of the cuddly little dudes on our hike.
After a few hours, you will hit the Highline Trail. The Highline trail is a section of the Arizona Trail. The Arizona Trail runs 800 miles, from the Mexico border in the south, to the Utah border in the north, traversing the entire state. You might look at the whole of the Arizona Trail and say, “one of these things is not like the other,” and you’d be talking about this particular section. A large part of the Highline trail here looks and feels like an Oregon forest. It is lush, densely wooded, and at times feels quite cool and even a bit damp.It teases you into feeling that you must be nearing the Horton Creek Trail because of the temperature change and the dampness. But the Horton Creek Trail is some distance off. The 68-72F temperature of this section is really a welcome change for an Arizonan who is spending a day away from the 106F temperatures in the valley. The contrast between the tall pines, the dense undergrowth and damp air, is a shocking change from the desert below. In my opinion, this area of the trail is the real gem of the hike and definitely worth the effort.
This does not seem to be a popular loop. Horton Creek Trail is very popular, but we didn’t see another soul on our hike until we joined up with the end of the Horton Creek Trail. That’s about four solid hours of hiking without seeing another hiker. To me this was a real bonus.
When you hit Horton Creek Trail, it can be a bit confusing. A good thing to remember is just stay to the left. You will likely encounter campers at the creek crossing. Cross the creek on the split log, and head left where the creek follows the trail. Oddly there is no signage before, or at the crossing, but once you have started down the trail (about 100 feet later), you will come upon a Horton Creek Trail sign to reassure you that you are going the right way. The best views of the creek are in the first third of this section. I suppose it makes sense that these are the payoff if you walked inbound on the Horton Trail. The last two-thirds of this section moves a bit away from the creek. As you near the end, you will come out at the entry road to a campground. Stay right, and follow the road around the backside of the campground to hook back up with the last little bit of the trail.
By the Numbers:
Distance: 10.2 Miles
Net Elevation Gain: ~ 1,500 Feet
Total Elevation Gain: ~ 2,200 Feet
Hike Time: 5 hours
Difficulty: 7 out of 10
You will find many conflicting statistics on this trail. For starters, let me just say that it is significantly longer than the 8.8 miles that a number of sources list. I clocked it at 10.2 miles. I’m not sure what’s going on here, but be aware that it is longer than posted on the various trail sites.
1,500 Net Gain
I highly recommend starting on the Derrick Trail (hiking the loop anti-clockwise), because the first hour and a half is a constant climb. After which, you descend a bit then climb some more (quite a bit more). There are times hiking this trail when you will believe the trail was made by none other than M.C. Escher. How on earth could we still be climbing if we are working our way toward a creek in a ravine? There is at least 2,300 feet of total climbing here, but about 1,500 feet of actual elevation gain.
4.5 – 5 Hours
This trail is a time commitment. Because of the large, loose stones that cover a great deal of the trail, combined with extended climbs, don’t expect to fly through this hike. If you average 2mph you are doing great.
7 out of 10 Difficulty
This trail requires a reasonable fitness level. If you are looking for a walk in the park, this is not that. The climbs are only steep at a few points, but some of the climbs are long and unrelenting. Also, don’t forget, you are starting this hike at altitude, which exacerbates the difficulty of the climb. You will be spending the day between 6,000 and 7,600 feet, so hydrate and rest accordingly. Footing is difficult, and especially tough on your ankles. It would be very easy to sprain an ankle here.
Many of Arizona’s trails offer spectacular vistas. This hike has a few, but this one is not so much about getting to any particular waterfall or rock formation, it’s more about the journey. The scenery tends to be fairly close in, for the majority of the trail. It is definitely challenging from a photography standpoint. There are a few spots where you can see for miles, and the beautiful cliffs in the distance. Mostly though, you will be in forests with very little chance to see beyond the trees. Take the opportunity to look closer. We found beautiful butterflies, a few Arizona short horned lizards (aka horny toads), and numerous other natural wonders.
Whew! That was a quite a hike!