Horse Mountain is a major summit in the southern Bradshaw Mountains of central Arizona, and it has what most of the other principal summits in the range lack: actual views, not just of the nearby forest. Located about 8 road-miles northwest of the fascinating mountain town of Crown King, a hike to Horse's summit takes just a few hours, some of it along an old trail but most of it cross-country. The summit is a bald cap of rock outcrops, which are easily scaled, offering fantastic views up and down the entire spine of the range.
Getting there is about two-thirds of the fun (and frustration, depending on your vehicle). Just getting to Crown King requires 26 miles of dirt-road driving along supposedly good dirt road (it's often very washboarded), then another eight miles along the Senator Highway (Prescott National Forest Rd 52), some of which is not regularly maintained. You will probably be the only person on the peak if you choose to hike it. The log averages out to one or two signatures a year. But the views are outstanding, and the best I have seen from any summit in the Bradshaws.
Your journey starts at the Bumble Bee exit off of Interstate-17 (Exit 248), about 45 miles north of downtown Phoenix. The road is paved for about a mile, then "maintained" dirt all the way to Crown King. After five miles, you pass through the town of Bumble Bee, which was an old stage stop back in the 19th-century. There are a few homes and ranches scattered about the area. Another nine miles (14 since the highway), you come into Cleator, perhaps the most interesting of the old-time towns that still somehow cling to life here in 2011. The ramshackle village has about 10 people, but boasts a bar and survives precisely because of the dependable traffic to and from Crown King.
The road quality worsens just after Cleator. Mostly, it's just washboard and ruts, but it's consistent all the way to Crown King, which gets very old very fast. So just take a few breaths and plow ahead.
For much of the latter half of the drive, the road follows the gentle grades of an old ore railroad track, built to ferry down the rocks from the Crown King mines back in the 1870s. The road is usually very wide and safe, but you still need to be careful, take it slow, watch around blind corners, and be safe. Lots of ATVers and others taking the corners fast must be considered.
The last mile into Crown King is the most impressive: the road is cut directly into the side of a cliff. You then enter into a hanging valley and there it is, Crown King, the most peculiar town you'll ever see. The homes and other buildings are jumbled into the narrow canyons, and the business district is very small, with a general store (with gas), a couple bars and a restaurant. There's also a one-room schoolhouse, and a bed-&-breakfast if you want stay in a building. The town has about 100 people full-time, and is completely dependent on tourism. Take the time to walk around the "town center".
To get to Horse Mountain, you continue westish along the main forest road to a right-turn, now on the Senator Highway (FR-52), which goes all the way to Prescott (38 miles) and was the old stage route between Prescott and Phoenix way back in the 1870s when Prescott was the territorial capital. Stay on FR-52. Its condition is pretty good for about 5 miles to the junction with FR-520, a side road leading up to Towers Mountain.
Hereafter, the main road (FR-52) is in bad shape, requiring 4-wheel drive to manage the ruts and multitude of rock intrusions. You need to ease up and down over these, and deal with some slightly steep grades too. I used 4wd-low and it worked well. High clearance is a must!!! This poor portion goes 2.5 miles to Hooper Saddle. Hang a quick right and you'll see the sign for Horse Mountain Trail. We actually parked on the Senator Highway.
(1) I had driven the whole Senator Highway once before and do not recall it being in such bad shape. The forest service evidently leaves it alone. If you want no part of this road, you could park back at the 52/520 junction and walk it. It'll add 5 miles to your hike.
(2) The road into the Horse Mtn Trailhead was very brushy with some branches encroaching into the road, so we did not drive it for that reason.
(3) We though about going all the way to Prescott but were fearful the road would be in bad shape all the way there.
In all, the road itself was unpleasant, but the area is very nice, and probably with no one around.
North view, with the Range Highpoint, Mount Union, visible off to the distant right.
Camp at the trailhead.
There are many pullouts nearer Crown King along FR-52, and developed sites south of Crown King at the Horsethief Basin Recreation Area.
East view, Towers Mountain
External LinksTrip report, 6-4-11
Crown King website
Prescott National Forest
Some info on Cleator
Follow old trail 212 into the woody brush and low trees. The trail is pretty good for about 400 feet, then simply "ends". Now the fun begins. The next half-mile will be spent seeking out the trail amid the thick overgrown brush. You may have to get on hands and knees to eyeball through the greenery. Be patient and eventually it'll open up again.
When the trail surmounts the ridge at 6,640 feet, the brush lightens and you soon enter into some ponderosa. The trail essentially is gone, but an old fence line helps as a nav device. Aim for a highspot (s.e. 6,871 feet), then angle right (west). Just go around the brush and keep the fence to your right. Keep an eye for some cairns. Chances are you'll just make your own way through some sections. The fence line goes all the way to the top, interestingly. Scramble up the rocks for the amazing views. A metal cross/memorial is set here for Mr Bill Ray, a local who died in 2001.
The one-way hike is about 2 miles and 1,100 feet of gain. Wear long everything because you WILL get scratched.
This peak can be hiked all year, depending on the condition of the roads. Spring and Fall may be most ideal. Keep an eye out for snakes and black bear.