The Salt River Wild Horses roam the lower Salt River as part of their territory in the Tonto National Forest. They are a favorite subject of Arizona wildlife photographers and tourists to this part of the state and are an iconic representation of the wild, free-spirited history of the American West.
In December 2021 I was invited, for my second trip to the river with two friends to photograph these desert nomads and I was eager to catch them in the river as my previous trip there that opportunity evaded me. Heading down the 202 to N. Power Rd takes you into the Lower Salt River and the various access points. It is over a two-hour drive for us to reach our destination so leaving home at sunrise gives us ample time to track these elusive herds to get those river shots.
We took Bush Hwy as far as Saguaro Lake, continuously scanning both sides of the road to spot any wildlife photo-ops. We had spotted small herds in the foothills, but they were too far with difficult access due to fencing and parking. We were getting anxious after the long drive when we finally spotted a small herd in the nearby hills and fortunately, we found a nearby narrow off road parking area. We had to skirt along a barbed fence until we found a low enough section to crawl underneath and hike up to the herd in the low foothills. We were able to get some good photographs as they grazed in the desert scrub and cacti, the horses were not spooked or bothered with our presence as they are protected and used to humans.
Taking to the road again we moved down to the Blue Point recreation area located at a river overpass popular with fishermen but found no herds only a single horse near the shore that never seemed to move. We hit the road shortly afterwards then moved down to Coon Bluff recreation area where trails track along the ridge above the river and down to the river. It was late morning and there were no horses to be found anywhere near the water. We then headed down to Phon B. Sutton and again after an area recon came up empty. Back at Coon Bluff we meet a local bird watcher on the trail and she told us that the horses tend to come down to the river in the late afternoon. We thought that was our best lead and so decided to go into Mesa to visit a saddle shop and have lunch before heading back to get another crack at it.
Our return trip took us to Coon Bluff where we hit the trail along the ridge heading towards the Phon D. Sutton Rec area. There were horse tracks along the ridge trail which we followed for some distance before we followed them down the ridge towards the river. As we made our way down and off the ridge to the tree and brush covered stretch that leads to the river's shore where we heard the thunderous and unmistakable sound of a running herd, just like the countless westerns we have all watched, bound for the river. We picked up our pace and got to the shore just after the herd made its way onto the river and we were rewarded with the late day sun, rim lighting these handsome healthy horses in their natural river habitat . The three of us and one other photographer were treated to a great series of shots of these wild horses cooling their hooves, drinking, interacting and relaxing . . a beautiful scene to watch. When they left the river they casually strolled right by us, in single file, back into the desert foothills that they call home.
Please visit Behindtheshutterphotography.com to see these Salt River Wild Horses in their natural habitat. They make excellent wildlife art images for my barn wood shutter frames.