Horton Creek Trail: Complete Guide, Map, & Pro Tips

Horton Creek is a popular 8.6 miles hiking trail in the Tonto National Forest 17 miles north of Payson in Arizona. It is a moderately challenging hike along Horton Creek with waterfalls and fabulous views through magnificent stands of pine.

🔍 Route Details & Map

Horton Creek

  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Start: Tonto Creek Campground
  • End: Horton Spring
  • Distance: 8.6 miles out and back (13.8 km)
  • Elevation: 2,437 feet of climbing
  • Average time to finish: 3-4 hours
  • Fees: None
  • Kid-Friendly: Yes, older kids
  • Pet-Friendly: Yes, on leash only
  • When To Go: Spring through Fall

Horton Creek Hiking Trail Map:

Horton Creek Trail is a favorite hike for locals and road-trippers alike. This hike has it all: fresh spring water, towering pine trees, great weather, good trail conditions, and ease of access to the trailhead.

Located less than two hours from Mesa, Arizona, the Horton Creek Trail is a welcome escape from the heat of the Valley of the Sun.

The freshest, coldest spring water you’ve ever had in your life is waiting for you at the end of a pleasant 4-mile trek.

So bring your hiking boot, and let’s explore the trail!

Horton Creek Hiking Trail Guide

Horton Creek Hiking Trail: the Route Details

Hiking Along the Horton Creek Trail

Getting to the Horton Creek trailhead from Mesa is fairly simple; take the Beeline Highway (AZ-87 N) to Payson, and then jump on 260-E from there. Sixteen miles out of town, you’ll see a turn-off to the left for Horton Creek. Finding parking can be slightly tricky on weekends, but there are a few lots to choose from. You might have to walk a short distance to the actual trailhead.

The trail starts near the Tonto Creek campsites and is fairly flat and easy for the first mile. You’ll find the creek soon enough, and the trail follows Horton Creek for the majority of the hike.

One of the best features of this hike is the tall trees that provide plenty of shade for the entirety of your hike, which can be hard to find in Arizona.

Horton Creek Flowing with Ponderosa Pines Trees on Each Side
Horton Creek flows with Ponderosa Pines trees on each side

Horton Creek Trail is an out-and-back route, meaning you can make this hike as long or short as you want by turning around early.

I highly recommend making it all the way to the end, where the water gushes out of the ground, crystal clear and refreshingly cold. You can fill your water bottle* here for the trek back.

* I recommend getting a water bottle with a filtering system designed for hiking and outdoors. This one is a very good option.

The full route is 8.6 miles (almost 14 km), starts out flat for the first mile or so, and then climbs steadily from there. Over the hike, you’ll climb about 2,500 feet overall in elevation gain, but there are not any super steep sections.

Due to the higher elevation here than in Mesa/Phoenix, you might find yourself out of breath, so be sure to take plenty of breaks!

Most people can complete Horton Creek Trail in 3-4 hours, depending on your walking speed and how long you spend on breaks. There are even places to camp if you wanted to enjoy a weekend in the pines, and many Scouting groups and families backpack into Horton Creek for an overnight adventure.

Horton Creek Hiking Trail: What to Expect?

Waterfalls at Horton Creek

I’ve completed this hike twice in the past, once while backpacking overnight and again while carrying my then 8-month-old daughter. Each time was enjoyable with perfect weather and great trail conditions.

The trail is wide and easy to follow, ensuring that you won’t get lost, but it is always a good idea to download the trail map beforehand.

There are campsites scattered along the way, just be sure to always follow Leave No Trace principles!

I’m a decently quick hiker and don’t take too many breaks, and overall this hike took me 3 hours to complete, including time spent relaxing in the spring.

Zen Stacking at Horton Creek

There are some rocky sections where you’ll have to watch your footing, but the rest of the trail is packed with dirt and gravel. Beginner hikers can tackle this hike with plenty of water and breaks as needed.

Even though it is in the mountains, in the summer this hike could still be too hot for some.

On weekends, this hike is popular and can be crowded. Horseback riders also frequent this route, so give them plenty of room to pass.

Weekdays are the best time to visit Horton Creek Trail, with fewer crowds and more time to enjoy the peaceful quiet of the forest.

Where to Stay and How to Get Around?

Payson is the nearest town, with several small hotels and motels if you wished to stay in the area for a day or two. There are also several campsites at the trailhead that require reservations in advance or more backcountry-style campsites scattered along the Horton Creek Trail.

A tent in Payton, Arizona

Look for fire rings from previous campers to find the good spots, but be cognizant of fire restrictions in the area.

There are no buses that service this area of Arizona, so driving by car is a must.

After your trek, head back through Payson and enjoy a meal at one of the several chain restaurants or mom-and-pop cafes in town. Five Guys Burgers, Fargo’s Steakhouse, and Macky’s Grill are a few favorites.

Browse and choose the best accommodation here.

Resources, Guides, and Maps

Because there will be no cellphone coverage in the area, I highly recommend bringing a map with you. Here’s a really good one (National Geographic Edition) that is also waterproof and tearproof.

I also recommend getting this book that will introduce you to Arizona’s most natural wonders. Filled with detailed information, pictures, and maps, it’s a must-have for outdoors enthusiasts: Hiking Arizona: A Guide to the State’s Greatest Hiking Adventures.

Pro Tips for Hiking Horton Creek Trail

  • Start early! This hike is doable in the summer, but only if you start early, as temperatures can still soar to the upper 90’s or even low 100’s.
  • Fill your water at the natural spring at the top of the trail, and bring extra bottles if you want to take some home! This water is delicious and is as fresh as it gets.
  • Go on a weekday. This is one of the more popular trails near Payson and weekends get very busy!
  • Watch for cattle and horses on the trail. There’s no danger from free-range cattle or horses but you’ll want to give them space to pass by.
  • Keep your dog on a leash. This trail is dog friendly, but please keep them on a leash to protect local wildlife and to respect other hikers. Always pick up after your pets!
  • Enjoy the journey! This is one of the most beautiful trails in Arizona, and in the spring months, the creek flows high and the greenery of the trees is incredible. Take plenty of breaks and enjoy this oasis.
  • Wear sturdy shoes. The trail gets rocky at times and you’ll want to protect against rolling your ankles or slipping.
  • Check the weather beforehand. The trail is at the base of the Mogollon Rim, a plateau that stretches across most of Arizona and it is known for strong storms that can pop up without warning! I’ve seen snow in April at Horton Creek.
Crossing Horton Creek

Nearby Routes You Can Tackle Next

The Highline Trail starts in Pine and follows the Mogollon Rim until coming out on top near the Rim Lakes area. Over 55 miles long, few people do the entire trail but there are many sections of it that are accessible by other trails.

The Highline Trail crosses near the end of the Horton Creek trail near the spring, and you can make a loop out of Horton Creek, Highline, and nearby Derrick Trail #33 for a 9+ miles hike.

A view of Mogollon Rim in Arizona

Another 20 minutes past the turnoff to Horton Creek, Highway 260 will take you to the top of Mogollon Rim and you’ll see Rim Lakes Road on the left.

Here, you’ll find the paved and wheelchair-accessible Rim Lakes Vista Trail that follows the rim of the plateau for several miles. The views here are unmatched and are a must-see!

Before You Go

Hiking Horton Creek Trail should be on every Arizona hiker’s to-do list.

Us Arizonans are so used to desert vistas and brown scenery, that hiking along the lush green of Horton Creek is a refreshing change. The towering trees provide plenty of shade for a more enjoyable trek.

The relative proximity to the Phoenix area makes Horton Creek Trail a great choice for a day trip.

Hikers of all ages and abilities can do this trail, or at least parts of it, and enjoy some of the best scenery and hiking that Arizona has to offer. This area offers a welcome respite from the soaring temperatures of the Valley and you’ll find yourself daydreaming about the cool shaded trail year-round!

Read my next article to discover even more waterfalls days out: 16 Most Beautiful Waterfall Hikes in Arizona