We always love to learn about the destinations we fly – all their secret spots to try. That’s part of the reason we adore travel so much. Every destination we visit has different gems to offer: a coffee shop that makes lattes with flecks of gold in them, a beach stand bar with rope swings as chairs, or the best bagel shop you can find in New York City.
Today, though, we want to talk about Phoenix, Arizona. Specifically, Tonto National Forest. The forest embraces almost three million acres of gorgeous country from the Saguaro cactus desert to pine-infested mountains beneath the Mogollon Rim. Tonto National Forest is the most-visited “urban” forest in the U.S. and quickly became one of our favorites for a very unique reason. A reason that starts with the Lower Salt River and the wild horses that live there.
According to Arizona’s own historical records, the horses have lived along the Salt River since well before the Tonto National Forest was created in 1902. And they aren’t difficult to spot. The Lower Salt River Trail winds through campgrounds where locals go tubing, fish, barbecue, and camp. The river runs along Bush Highway, an effortless route to travel from the airport. The park itself is only a 25-minute drive, a beautiful and breezy one in fact, and worth the trip. We suggest plugging “Bush Highway” or “Phon D Sutton” into your phone and following directions all the way there. Another quick hot tip: if you’re craving lunch on the way, right off the Bush Highway exit are a ton of places to grab a bite. We recommend: Red, White, and Brew. Try the coal-fired pizza (yum).
The wild horses often hang out down by the river at dawn or dusk, sticking their entire noses into the water to munch on the eelgrass. Locals suggest stopping at any site along the way that looked packed with cars, a clear indication the horses may be nearby. One site, in particular, Phon D Sutton, often times has the horses’ hearts. They hang out there regularly. A Tonto daily pass is recommended for parking. It’s only $12 per day, if you purchase onsite (machines are at most campsite stops for purchasing), or retail vendors also sell them.
You can roam the paths along the river (they aren’t a tough hike) and enjoy the riverbed and cacti alike. We suggest bringing some extra water and snacks, it gets hot in the desert. Once the sun starts to fall, that’s when you should start looking for the horses. When you spot them, you’re sure to fall in love. They’re incredibly peaceful and calm, typically traveling in herds of 5-8 horses; such a surprise to admire with the backdrop of the forest’s pink mountains at dusk. When we saw them, they took our breath away. The river gurgled at their hooves, with tall river grass blowing softly behind their backs. Bring that camera. It’s a unique moment to be with them.
In fact, you can help keep them roaming the fields of Arizona. The Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (SRWHMG), a nonprofit organization dedicated to monitor, study, and protect the Salt River wild horses, monitors and documents these wild horses, fights for their permanent protection, rescues suffering horses when needed, and makes safety improvements to their habitat.
Brittany is a member of the Communications Team at Sun Country Airlines. Her favorite things about Sun Country are the close-knit family vibe and the passion behind the people, as if the employees and customers grew up loving the “airline next door.” Her favorite destination? The whimsical forests and rain of Seattle’s coast.