Of the lakes surrounding Phoenix, Horseshoe is the hardest to get to and probably the least known. That all makes this little corner of the Tonto National Park a nice place to escape the crowds, and enjoy the beauty of the Sonoran Desert. If you have a four-wheel drive vehicle, this is definitely a day trip that I would suggest as some unique hiking in the Tonto National Forest. Horseshoe Lake AZ has beautiful mountain vistas, a dam with mossy waterfalls cascading down to the river, and an adventurous approach that makes for the perfect day trip from the city.
The Distant Lake of Phoenix
Horseshoe Lake AZ is a man-made lake that serves as one of several reservoirs for the Phoenix metro-area. It feeds off of the Verde River and is maintained by its namesake dam. If you are choosing among the seven lakes in the Phoenix area, this one might be of extra interest to you if you enjoy a bit of tame 4-wheel driving. It’s also great if you are looking for some peace and quiet.
- 1 The Distant Lake of Phoenix
- 2 Need to Know Information
- 3 Getting to Horseshoe Lake AZ
- 4 What to Do Once You Get There
- 5 Safety in the Wilderness
- 6 Responsible Travel in Arizona
- 7 More Hiking in the Tonto National Forest
- 8 Love this? Share on Pinterest!
Need to Know Information
Horseshoe Lake is located within Tonto National Forest, and as such, you need a Tonto pass or should bring your Annual America the Beautiful pass. The Tonto day pass is $8 and can be purchased online. The America the Beautiful Pass is likewise available online for $80; it covers National Parks and National Forests. If you are planning on boating or camping, please access the Tonto National Forest website to identify the permit that you need. In 2020, since so many visitor centers are closed due to COVID-19, you may need to buy online. If this is the case, make sure to give yourself enough lead time in case you need anything mailed.
The only facilities at Horseshoe Lake AZ are a few outhouses at the end of the dirt road. There is also a small, concrete boat ramp in this area.
The lake is drained fairly often due to water demand. Furthermore, it is drained annually to support native birds that nest in the area, and reduce the population of invasive fish. When drained, do not approach the dam or collect any dead fish that might be scattered along the water’s edge.
Getting to Horseshoe Lake AZ
There is only one way to access Horseshoe Lake. So where-ever you are coming from, you will need to head into Cave Creek/Carefree and take Cave Creek Road northeast. After passing through town, you will follow the road through neighborhood areas that are less and less dense. Eventually, you will see signs for Bartlett Lake, and you will take a right hand turn onto Bartlett Dam Road. This will take you past the local Tonto Ranger station, and east towards Bartlett and some very sweeping views of the mountains. About halfway to the lake you will hang a left onto Horseshoe Dam Rd. A little ways in this direction, the dirt road will begin.
While the National Forest maintains this road to some extent, it is definitely not passable by car. At least, there are times during the year where you could get stuck on this road if you were to bring your car. So, I suggest that you take a vehicle with clearance. All-wheel drive will come in handy too. In fact, this is the only road that I have explored where I had to engage four-wheel drive in order to keep moving. That being said, I’m not an off-road person. So if you do a lot of off-road driving, you will not find this road challenging.
You will need to navigate about 10 miles on the dirt road before you make it to the lake. There are some places to turn once you approach Horseshoe Lake AZ, and it is the more apparent road to the right (as you head north) that will take you to the dam and the Horseshoe campground. If you continue going straight, you will see the outhouses and the road will end with the boat ramp.
What to Do Once You Get There
If you are looking for hiking in the Tonto National Forest, there are a few options around Horseshoe for you. Although they aren’t as apparent as you might hope.
When we came up here for some hiking, we struggled to find any good trails along the lake’s edge. So we headed down to the dam. Once there, we were delighted to find that there is a walkway that crosses under the flowing water. There are some very beautiful waterfalls here. And you can see the magnificent “back-side of water.” All that being said, this is a dam, so it one must be careful while exploring the area. For one, never go anywhere with signs telling you to keep away. Do not try to cross while they are clearing the lake or when the water appears to be high. It also goes without saying, but don’t attempt to enter the water beneath the dam. You might end up being washed over the falls.
In any case, if you cross the dam, you will be able to follow the dirt, Horseshoe Lake Road for as short or long of a hike as you’d like. It’s quite beautiful and peaceful on the other side of the river.
You can find a variety of fish in Horseshoe Lake AZ, including Crappie, Large and Smallmouth Bass, Channel and Flathead Catfish, Carp, and Bluegill. While there is some nice variety here, Horseshoe is often drained to the point of being nearly dry whenever the water in the reservoir is needed. Since it is the first man-made lake in the Salt River Project system supporting Phoenix and the surrounding areas, it is the first to drop when water is needed.
If you expect to fish and arrive when it is in this state, do not take fish left out in the mud. They are not safe to consume when in that condition. Of course, since Horseshoe is on Tonto National Forest land, you will need to make sure that you have the proper permits for fishing.
If you can haul a small boat out to the lake, there is a ramp available for your use. That being said, the road out to Horseshoe can be quite rough. So, this might not be the best place for a day on the water unless you are bringing small craft or kayaks. Furthermore, with the lake often being drained, you may be disappointed if you bring your boat all the way up there and then find that there isn’t enough water to enjoy. (An easier alternative would be Bartlett Lake, which is just down stream).
There are also reports of there being debris just under the surface of the water, which could make paddling difficult. So, while boating is possible here, I wouldn’t be the first to suggest it. If you do end up giving this a try, direction of travel is counter clock-wise and you can find permitting information on Tonto National Forest’s website.
There are a variety of places to camp near Horseshoe Lake AZ. Due to the relative remoteness of this lake, you might find some peace and quiet here. (That being said, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this place was pretty busy). Near the lakeside, there are a few different possible spots for unimproved camping within a short walk of some outhouses. Beneath the dam along Verde River there are some other options as well. But you should be aware that being below the dam puts you in a risky position in case of dam breakage. In either case, expect to be in primitive conditions.
For the same reason that I would hesitate to encourage hauling a boat up here, I would not suggest bringing a camping trailer. The road is narrow and rough. In fact, it’s one of the few roads that I found myself forced to use 4-wheel on. If you’d like to camp, pack a tent!
It is $16 a night to camp, there is a 14 day maximum restriction. Campground fees must be paid at the Cave Creek District Office, and cannot be paid at the site. For more information, see the official website for the campground.
For up-to-date information on lake status, recreation and passes, please visit the official Tonto website.
Safety in the Wilderness
Horseshoe Lake should be considered wilderness when thinking about safety and planning for any trips. You have to drive a considerable distance on a dirt road to get there. Besides other visitors and possible ranger visits, you will be alone. Bring extra food and water, and make sure someone at home knows where you are going and when you will be back.
Remember, your safety in the outdoors is your own responsibility. Nothing in this post is a promise of safety nor encouragement to carry out any risky activities (including hiking). Do not do anything you are not physically, mentally, and literally prepared for.
(1) I know I’ve already said it, but I am going to say it again- BRING EXTRA FOOD AND WATER with you. Whether you are day tripping or camping, make sure you have enough food and water to sustain you if you get stuck on the road or elsewhere.
(2) Only attempt to get to Horseshoe Lake if you have a reliable, high-clearance vehicle with 4-wheel drive.
(3) Likewise, if you are hiking, make sure you are properly outfitted. Wear close-toed shoes, long pants and long sleeves to protect you from both the sun and the Sonoran Desert’s more prickly plant life. Bring a first aid kit appropriate for your party size and length of stay.
(4) Please take all precautions with yourself and your children near water. The lake itself is not a good place to swim due to debris beneath the surface. And neither is the Verde River below- as rivers are powerful even when they look calm and this is a remote area.
Responsible Travel in Arizona
(1) If you are visiting Arizona and won’t be camping, please avoid Airbnb or any other short-term-rental (e.g. VRBO, TurnKey, etc.). In Arizona, this form of lodging is unregulated and is having extremely bad impacts on communities. Until Airbnb and other STR companies act to prevent and ban dangerous party houses, they will not be a responsible way to stay in our state. Luckily, there are many great hotels to stay in Cave Creek and North Phoenix/Scottsdale.
(2) When traveling in wilderness areas, pack all of your trash out. Places that are hard for you to get to can be hard for rangers as well, making trash a big problem. You can help nature and local people by taking your trash back to the city with you, where you can dispose of it easily.
(3) Respect fire bans. If there are none in place, practice fire safety with the utmost caution. A single fire in 2020 alone destroyed nearly 200,000 acres of Sonoran Desert, including hundreds (possibly thousands) of saguaros. Saguaros and many desert plants are not fire adapted, meaning that fire kills them and they don’t rebound quickly. Thus, every fire in the Sonoran Desert is a tragedy. It can kill saguaros and other plants that might be hundreds of years old. At the same time, many of our invasive plants are fire adapted, which allows them to regrow and out-compete our favorite Sonoran natives.
Make sure that you clear brush from your fire area. Always supervise your fire. And when you put it out, make sure it is dead out. I like pouring water all over it, stirring with a stick, and then continuing to pour and stir until no more steam or heat is coming from the fire pit. Often, just to be sure, I water log the whole thing. Of course, Smokey Bear can offer more suggestions!
More Hiking in the Tonto National Forest
The Tonto National Forest is massive, so there is no lack of things to explore here.
If you want to take a beautiful drive and hike near Canyon lake- check out the Apache Trail Road.
For a scrambling hike, Fish Creek is also be a great option.
I definitely enjoyed reading this. Arizona is such a beauty. Thanks for all your tips especially the tip on avoiding short term rentals like Air BnB and the others. That’s really useful to note.
Thank you so much! It’s hard for travelers to know where Airbnb is working and where it isn’t unless locals share! And it’s SO important to only stay at Airbnbs where local regulations are in place to protect local people. I wish it were the case for my home!
Gooorgeous! I would love to go hiking in Tonto National forest as well, but everything at Horseshoe lake looks lovely!!
Did you manage to catch any fish!? It’s be cool to catch one, then eat it as you camp!!
This is a part of Tonto National Forest. 🙂 It’s probably quite different from other NFs that you have visited (unless you’ve been before) because it’s in the middle of the desert! Sadly, we didn’t catch any fish; that would have been so fun!
Wow! This sounds amazing. Aren’t you so lucky to have it around for a break from city chaos? Will love hiking here.
100%. I would not survive the chaos of Phoenix during this pandemic without nature escapes- people have been partying in the unregulated Airbnb next to me all lockdown! It has been horrible on top of everything else.