75 miles from the nearest town and notoriously difficult to find lies a faint route into Little Colorado Canyon known only as “Horse Trail.” Even the local Navajo when we’ve spoken with them out on the plateau are surprised to hear such a trail exists.
It’s not well-traveled, but of all the known ways into the Little Colorado gorge this is the easiest. Despite being comparatively easy, Horse has never been popular due to where it puts you at canyon bottom — at least a day or two’s walk (through quicksand and swift currents) from the start of the fabled blue water.
It takes about 4-5 hours to reach the bottom of Horse Trail, with some intermediate route-finding along the way.
There is no water along the trail. Footing is pretty good, loose in sections, rocky and rough in places where the trail flattens out. Do not attempt when rain or thunderstorms are forecasted anywhere in the region. Horse Trail is generally not as tight as Salt Canyon but there are several confining places where a sudden flash flood would be incredibly difficult to escape.
There are some heights fairly early on in the hike but nothing too daunting, aside from some loose footing. The only truly exposed section comes during the last couple hundred feet of the descent and it is brief, requiring a few steps along some carefully-placed pieces of driftwood to get past a gap in the cliff.
There’s not much written about Horse Trail, but the few accounts you will find all mention this part. I have talked to several people who have written-off this trail because of this obstacle. Having done it twice (once in the dark) it is not particularly scary and it’s over fast. If the makeshift driftwood bridge were to break, you’re dead — no question. That risk is something you’ll have to decide for yourself, and in-person, it feels pretty stable and secure.
Route-finding is an essential skill on this hike. It’s not a beginner’s route. The path is fairly easy to follow in most places but can be hard to detect in a few sections. If you go too long without cairns or signs of human foot traffic, stop, re-evaluate, and backtrack to the last firm position.
Horse Trail puts you at the bottom of the Little Colorado gorge about a day or two’s hike above Blue Spring, the start of the Little Colorado River’s perennial flow. While the descent on Horse Trail is straightforward, the journey from that point on is expert-only, with quicksand and swift currents in abundance.
It is a challenge, to say the least! Reaching the trailhead requires a long dusty drive along a maze of rough Navajo roads, over an hour from the nearest pavement, at least. Once you’re at the trailhead (just a rough clearing, a vehicle turnaround of sorts) it can be tricky to pick up the trail itself, too. Look for cairns, and once you find your way down to the main wash, just start walking down. Soon, you will come across more definitive signs of trail.
For details on finding the trailhead and some more information on the trail itself, a great write-up was posted over at HikeArizona outlining the details.
This hike is beautiful, especially after you drop below the upper reaches of the canyon, but I would not recommend it for a day hike. It’s a great trek, for sure, but its primary appeal is to serve as a jumping-off point for further exploration into the Little Colorado Gorge.
If you’re looking for the fastest sane route to the famed blue waters inside the gorge, the descent down Salt Canyon is a better choice as it leads you right to a prime section of river. Salt is more rugged but a bit easier to follow than Horse since it sees more traffic. Nevertheless, Horse Trail will always be one of my favorites. Other than grinding your way all the way down from Cameron, Horse Trail is the best way to witness the magical transition from dry canyon to clear water to magical blue. While that journey is difficult, the rewards are great.