Dead Horse Ranch State Park

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Dead Horse Ranch State Park, Arizona, offers miles of riding trails featuring gorgeous vistas. The park sits on the outskirts of Cottonwood, just a few miles west of Interstate 17, between Phoenix and Flagstaff.

Jule Drown’s camping spot at Dead Horse Ranch State Park. “This site is situated along a river, near trees,  and adjacent to the trail system,” notes Drown.

Jule Drown’s camping spot at Dead Horse Ranch State Park. “This site is situated along a river, near trees, and adjacent to the trail system,” notes Drown.

Nestled in the Verde River Valley, the park’s trails lead into high-desert country, which offers panoramic views of mountains and red-tinged sandstone mesas.

The park makes a great destination for fall and spring riding; winter is nice, too, if you’re not tent camping. If you prefer to leave your horse at home, or are riding with horseless friends, you may lease a horse through the in-park concessionaire, Trail Horse Adventures.

Out of the saddle, you can also explore Arizona history. The park is close to the historic towns of Clarkdale, Cottonwood, and Jerome. You can also visit Tuzigoot National Monument, an ancient Sinagua pueblo on a hilltop, and ride on the Verde Canyon Railroad along the gorge of the Verde River. (For contact information of destinations mentioned, see below.)

Dead Horse Ranch State Park features four horse pens and parking for large rigs; there’s one pullout dedicated to horse trailers. The parking is right beside the major trails. However, while there are camping spots, there’s no water, electricity, or shade.

Rustic Camping

Last November, I went on a two-day camping adventure at Dead Horse with my husband and my riding friend, Heidi. We trailered two of my Paso Finos, Alegro and Natalie, from Tucson; it’s about a four-hour journey.

I’d made reservations months in advance at one of the park’s two rustic horse campgrounds. At this camp, in back of a large tent campground, there are two small, uncovered, double corrals. This group site is more secluded than the other horse camp, which is just a pullout off the road. This site is also situated along a river, near trees, and is adjacent to the trail system.

Unfortunately, our site had some drawbacks. The water spigot was about 10 yards from the pens, so we had to haul water to the horses. Plus, there’s no hose to rinse off your horse after a sweaty uphill ride in warm weather. The hitching post was amid trees and brush, rather than in an open area.

The corrals had gaps between rails wide enough for a horse to injure himself. And the corrals’ footing was poor — if it had rained, my horses’ hooves would’ve churned the pens into a sloppy mess.

Despite the inconveniences, we had a marvelous time. Arriving on a sunny fall afternoon we put the horses in their pens and pitched our tents. We were grateful for the large, clean bathroom.
Overnight, the temperature dropped to almost 40 degrees. That’s cold when you’re in a sleeping bag and tent! We bought firewood from the campground host and enjoyed the toasty warmth of a campfire every evening and early morning.
At night, it was beautiful beneath the light of a full moon, as we relaxed on camp chairs around the crackling fire, gazing at the outline of Tuzigoot in one direction and the twinkling lights of Jerome clinging to a steep mountain in the other.

Dead Horse Ranch State Park offers a nice, well-marked trail system. However, your horse will need to be well-conditioned to handle the elevation gain and steep terrain. You’ll also need a trail map to stay on the right path.

The multiuse trails are used by hikers and mountain bikers, as well as equestrians.

When Heidi and I headed out, we found the trails were rocky and eroded in some areas from recent heavy rains. I even dismounted once or twice to walk my horse over a rutted ravine. After two days of three- to four-hour rides, Alegro and Natalie were sore.

From our camping spot, the trails took us uphill quickly. Before long, we were looking down at the meandering Verde River framed by groves of trees and meadows.

When we made it up to higher country, we enjoyed beautiful views of sunset-colored mesas in the distance as we looked out toward the red rock area of Sedona.

My favorite memory is of one of our returns from a high elevation. As our mounts picked their way down the trail to our camping

Dead Horse Ranch State Park offers a nice, well-marked trail system. However, your horse will need to be well-conditioned to handle the elevation gain and steep terrain. You’ll also need a trail map to stay on the right path.

The multiuse trails are used by hikers and mountain bikers, as well as equestrians.

When Heidi and I headed out, we found the trails were rocky and eroded in some areas from recent heavy rains. I even dismounted once or twice to walk my horse over a rutted ravine. After two days of three- to four-hour rides, Alegro and Natalie were sore.

From our camping spot, the trails took us uphill quickly. Before long, we were looking down at the meandering Verde River framed by groves of trees and meadows.

When we made it up to higher country, we enjoyed beautiful views of sunset-colored mesas in the distance as we looked out toward the red rock area of Sedona.

My favorite memory is of one of our returns from a high elevation. As our mounts picked their way down the trail to our camping completing.

End of the Trail

I’ve had a great time sharing with The Trail Rider readers the adventures I’ve had with my four Paso Finos in the beautiful desert of Tucson, Arizona, through my column over the last 10 years.

However, I now want to spend more of my free time in riding boots and less time sitting at a computer keyboard.

This marks my final column, but I look forward to writing the occasional feature story for this wonderful magazine that unites us trail riders.


Longtime horse owner Jule Drown is a Tucson, Arizona, health-care manager.