Arizona's Tonto National Forest embraces three million acres of rugged, scenic landscapes ranging from cactus-studded deserts to pine-clad mountains.
Ranging in elevation from 1,300 feet in the Sonoran Desert to 8,000 feet on the Mogollon Rim, this forest provides year-round recreational opportunities.
There are 900 miles of maintained trails for equestrian and hiker use. Trail conditions range from poor to excellent.
We selected three trails southeast of Phoenix, near the town of Superior. These trails are close to each other and to several horse camps.
Arizona Trail North
Our first trail was the Arizona Trail North. The entire Arizona Trail is 800 miles long, stretching from Mexico to Utah. (For more information, visit the Arizona Trail Association's website, www.aztrail.org.)
To find the trailhead, drive to Florence Junction, southeast of Phoenix. Then proceed east on U.S. Route 60 to Milepost 222.
Look for the sign to Rd. 357. Turn left on this road, and drive a short distance. Pull into the second parking lot to access the Arizona Trail.
On this trip, we rode with friends from King Stables, a horse camp in nearby Apache Junction. Our riding day was filled with golden sunshine; the sky was a crystalline blue.
From the parking lot, the Arizona Trail is right over the railroad tracks. We headed out at a good clip.
What we really enjoyed about this ride was the solitude, spectacular scenery, and the ever-changing trail. The trail gradually climbs to a ridge that offers overviews of Potts Canyon framed by the Superstition Mountains in the distance.
After following the ridge for a while, the trail descends into another canyon, where it winds its way through old creek beds and tunnels under a canopy of mesquite trees.
Mother Nature had quite a time with some of these canyon walls! Vivid hues of scarlet and gold were boldly splashed across looming rock palettes. Streaks of gray, black, and brown cascaded randomly.
This masterpiece of color was texturized with clumps of cacti, shrubbery, and golden-green lichen.
After seven miles, we reached an old cowboy camp consisting of corrals, a large cistern, and small line shack.
We tied our horses, grabbed our lunches, and headed for the shade of a large cottonwood tree. This is a great place to stop for lunch before riding back.
The Picketpost Trailhead is located just before the turnoff to the Apache Tears Trail, which we rode next. It's a southern extension of the Arizona Trail.
Drive east on U.S. Route 60 toward Superior. Just after Milepost 221, look for the Picketpost Trailhead sign. Turn right, and drive past the corrals, about one mile to the official trailhead.
This trail's namesake is Picketpost Mountain, elevation 4,375 feet, located east of the trailhead.
Leave the trailhead, and follow the trail to the left of the sign in the parking lot. The trail is well-signed and easy to follow; it makes a 14-mile loop.
We rode at a steady pace, working our way uphill through gorgeous Sonoran desert scenery. The shoulder of Picketpost Mountain loomed to our left, silently tracking our progress.
After about eight miles, the trail comes to a dirt road in a wash. This is a good spot to tie up and have lunch. To make a loop, simply follow the dirt road downhill to the west.
As you ride down the road, take note of the gorgeous yellow-rock structures on your right. They reminded us of rumpled loaves of bread.
This road heads toward Picketpost Mountain. Near the base of the mountain, the road veers right.
Look for the unmarked trail to the left. This trail will take you to the left side of the mountain and back to the trail you started out on. From there, turn right, and head back to the trailhead.
Apache Tears Trail
The Apache Tears Trail is just south of the town of Superior and past Superior High School. Directions for this trail are difficult. There's no specific trailhead and few signs.
We rode to the base of the cliff and found an ancient Native American dwelling. It was probably built by the Hohokam group and was at least 800 years old.
Following this, we dropped into a tree-scalloped valley bisected by a meandering stream. This is a cool, inviting place for lunch and a horse rest.
After lunch, our trusty steeds took us north a short distance to historic wagon tracks. To the east of the wagon ruts, you'll see the horse trail going north. Follow this trail a short distance to a tunnel going under the highway. Our entire group rode through the tunnel. We all wore our sunglasses, then wondered why that tunnel was so dark!
After riding through the tunnel, follow the trail up to a power line. Then follow the power line about one mile to the east to the old Pinal Cemetery. Graves in this cemetery appear scattered about as though dropped from the sky.
One historical figure interred here is Mattie Earp. For eight years, Mattie was the common-law wife of famous lawman Wyatt Earp.
To complete this ride, return to the Apache Tears cliff. From there, you can ride down into a deep canyon lined with towering walls, edged with rock pinnacles, and return to the starting point.
Below the cliffs, brilliant Arizona poppies were smeared around like melting butter. We oohed and ahhed our happy appreciation!
For more information on Tonto National Forest, call (602) 225-6200, or go to www.fs.usda.gov/tonto/.
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. During riding seasons, you can usually find them on the trail, checking out new places to ride.