Winding along and parallel to its namesake, the Horton Creek trail traverses a variety of landscapes and ecosystems as it makes its way up from the Upper Tonto Creek Campground until it meets up with the Highline Trail and the beginning of the Horton Springs Trail. These two trails provide a visitor with a complete experience for which the Rim Country is well known.
At the Horton Creek trailhead, which begins inside the campground, the trail immediately drops down to a normally dry wash, crosses over it, and proceeds along its left bank for 1/4 mile before reaching a gate. Cattle have been allowed to graze in this part of the forest from time to time and other gates will be encountered along the trail. Fencing can also be seen at various points. At 3/4 mile, the wash is soon left behind and the trail begins to follow the creek instead.
The trail passes through open meadows, dense stands of ponderosa pine, and a variety of fir and spruce, while soon following close to the banks of the creek itself. The creek, fed by the spring far above it, usually contains sufficient water year-round to add to a visitor's visit by providing a pleasant background as it gurgles and splashes its way down a number of of waterfalls and rocky stretches in its path. There are several short trails that lead down the steep bank to the creek, however, farther up its course, the trail actually passes quite near to it.
For the next 2 miles, the trail meanders along near the creek where portions of the trail are gentle and easily passed and others are steep and extremely rocky. Stay with these rocky areas, as they are part of the trail that follows and old logging road. At 2-3/4 miles you will encounter some logs that you will have to pass over before the trail veers off to the left. Another 1/4 mile will bring you to a fork in the trail.
Proceed along the right fork that continues to follow the creek. You will experience more rocky areas interspersed with easy ones. All provide views of more waterfalls and the first good ones of the upper part of the Rim.
Another 3/4 mile from here, the trail meets with the Highline Trail and reaches the Horton Springs Trailhead. Several options exist at this point as a visitor can also proceed in either direction along the Highline Trail to other trails that connect to it. To the north, the trail eventually crosses the road just below the Tonto Creek Fish Hatchery. A shuttle could also be set up in the hatchery parking lot, which is nearby the trailhead at the road.
The hatchery itself is worth a visit as it contains a feeding pond, several breeding tanks, and a visitor's center that provides a great deal of information about it. Children especially will enjoy having an opportunity to observe and feed some rather large trout of several different species and seeing close up the progression the trout at the hatchery go through as they grow from fingerling fry to creek and river ready fish. To get to the hatchery from the initial trailhead at Upper Tonto Creek Campground simply continue east on the road for about two miles until you come to its entrance. There are no fees for visiting the hatchery, but please follow its rules and requirements when visiting.
The springs trail is only about 1/2 mile long, however it contains some of the most difficult part of the terrain as it reaches up a steeper portion of the face of the Rim. From the spring, there is another 1/2 to 3/4 mile section that actually clears the face of the Rim and provides some breathtaking views of the scenery below. As in the lower portions of the trail, you will encounter sections where the trail is quite rocky and can require caution when traveling on it. The spring is worth the trip as it represents a water source that is, though not necessarily unique, often rare along the Mogollon Rim.
To get there
From the intersection of Highways 87 and 260, proceed east on 260 for 16.2 miles. Watch for signs at the bottom of a ravine on a divided portion of the highway that indicate that you are approaching the turnoff to the road to Kohl's Ranch, on the right, and the Tonto Creek Campground on the left. Cross over the divided highway to the left and take the road (FR 289) for about 3/4 mile until you come to a narrow bridge. Cross over the bridge and watch for a sign on the left side, just beyond the bridge, that indicates a parking lot for the Tonto Creek Picnic Area and park in that lot. The only restroom facilities for visitors are adjacent to the parking lot. To get to the trail, cross back over the bridge and enter the Upper Tonto Creek Campground, which is a short distance above the road. Proceed up the road that leads into the campground and watch for the trailhead signs that are to the left beyond a curve in the road.
For visitors that wish to receive additional information on the Rim and the trails along it, stop by the Payson District Ranger's office for the Tonto National Forest for a map. It is entitled "Highline Trails Guide," and is provided free of charge by the office. The office is located one mile east of the intersection on Highway 260. Watch for a sign near the highway on the right side of the road as you drive out of town.