From November through April, the warm, sunny Arizona desert offers winter trail riding at its finest. Here, Jule Drown rides her gelding, Alegro, while ponying Clementino, on a beautiful winter’s day near Tucson’s Santa Catalina Mountains.
From November through April, the warm, sunny Arizona desert offers winter trail riding at its finest. If you plan to head to this area this winter, here are some helpful hints from a local.
Pick a Locale
If you have time, bring your horse, and stay for an extended visit. If you’re looking for a combination of nice weather, plenty of trails, and nearby amenities, head to Phoenix or Tucson, Arizona’s two largest cities. Day temperatures will usually range from the 50s to 80s.
There are several horse-oriented communities in the Phoenix area. Two of the best are Apache Junction and Cave Creek. Both offer plenty of spectacular desert riding. In Tucson, check out Saguaro National Park, both the West and East units.
The town of Catalina, north of Tucson, attracts numerous snowbirds with horses. Many people rent or own winter homes in Catalina with a corral for their horses. You can ride your horse right down the little streets of Catalina to access miles of trails along the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills.
If you like slightly cooler temperatures and would rather be away from the city, head to a smaller community, suck as Willcox, Benson, or Wickenburg. In these areas, you’ll need a trailer to reach outlying trailheads on public lands.
Hit the Trails
It’ll probably be easy to hook up with other riders to explore the local trails. For example, in Tucson, riding clubs — such as the Tucson Saddle Club and the County Line Riders — offer volunteer-led rides every week. Check the clubs’ websites for detailed information on their activities and how to join.
It’s also easy to incorporate trail riding into a short winter vacation in Arizona. Around my home in Tucson, I recommend Hay Creek Ranch in Oracle, Arizona, and Lazy Horse Ranch in Pearce, Arizona, near wine country and the mountains once frequented by the Apaches.
The White Stallion Ranch and Tanque Verde Ranch are established guest ranches in Tucson.
Three fabulous state parks in Arizona welcome equestrians: Catalina State Park; Oracle State Park; and Dead Horse State Park.
Catalina State Park, northwest of Tucson, has pipe corrals that hold up to 16 horses. You can also set up your own pen. If you’d like to stay a week or two, there’s plenty of room for your living-quarters trailer. The overnight fee is nominal and restaurants are located right across the street from the park entrance.
My friends and I like to tent camp for a weekend with my horses at the park’s equestrian center. It’s also a popular destination for local riders who enjoy day rides.
Oracle State Park is on the other side of the Santa Catalina Mountains from Tucson. Although there isn’t any overnight camping, you can stay at nearby Hay Creek Ranch. The Arizona Trail is among many trails that cut straight through the park.
The town of Catalina, north of Tucson, attracts numerous snowbirds with horses. Shown is Spirit Dog Ranch, one of the town’s boarding facilities.
All trails allow riders, except for the ones surrounding the park’s visitor center, which is used for environmental education. The park, 3,700 to 4,600 feet in elevation, is rainier than the other parks listed here; this wetter climate supports trees and grass. With no cities in sight, the park also offers amazing vistas.
Be forewarned: Oracle can receive snow during a cold winter storm. However, you’ll be fine during inclement weather at Horse Creek Ranch, which offers covered stalls and a large clubhouse with a fireplace, kitchen, showers, and couches.
I’m looking forward to my first visit to Dead Horse State Park soon. It’s located in the high-desert country of Cottonwood, north of Phoenix. The most popular time to visit is fall and spring. But winter is also a good time to camp and trail ride, as long as there isn’t any rain.
In the park are six corrals that can hold two horses each. You can reserve a campsite and corral (with payment) up to a year in advance.
As you prepare for your winter trip to Arizona, be ready for all kinds of weather. If you come to the lower desert, such as the Phoenix or Tucson area, rain isn’t common, but may prevent you from riding for a day or two. You’re far more likely to feel hot, even in winter.
If you’re uncomfortable with the heat, plan to ride early or late in the day, and wear light-colored clothes that dry quickly.
If you’ll be riding in higher elevations, pack for the cold, especially if you’ll be staying overnight.
You’re almost guaranteed lots of sun in Arizona, so bring a brimmed riding helmet or hat, sunglasses, and plenty of sunscreen. Also bring water to drink on every ride, and wear lip balm with sunscreen.