Tommy J. DeBardeleben

Horseshoe Lake Recreation Area

Fast Flight Facts

Target Species:  Desert, chaparral, and riparian species, waterbirds at Horseshoe Lake

Elevation: 2500-3500'

Habitat:  A nice mix of Lower and Upper Sonoran, riparian, and aquatic habitats 

Overall Birding Rating: 5

Difficulty: 1-3 (Easy to Moderate)

Birding Type: Easy to Moderate Hiking, Stopping and Scanning

Facilities:  Parking, Restrooms, Camping

Fees/Ownership:  $6.00 Tonto Forest Pass/Tonto National Forest

Closest Town or City/How far from Phoenix:  Cave Creek /35 miles northeast of Phoenix

Getting there:  Reached from Bartlett Dam Road, and then a rough eleven mile dirt road to Horseshoe Lake on Horseshoe Dam Road

Overview:  The route to Horseshoe Lake is a beautiful but rough route for eleven miles to the lake itself.  Horseshoe Dam Road takes the birder through this scenic route with wonderful views of the surrounding mountains.  Horseshoe Lake isn't a reservoir filled with a lot of water, as water levels are rather low much of the time.  Low water levels that vary give this lake a "marshy" look if there is water in the reservoir.  Varying water levels also give the reservoir potential to be a good birding location throughout the year, for different waterfowl, raptors, and probably shorebirds.  The best birding here actually isn't at Horseshoe Lake, but is done along the eleven mile route on Horseshoe Dam Road at many different stops and pull offs.  This eleven mile stretch has an interesting assortment of different habitats to hold a variety of birdlife.  The first six to seven miles of Horseshoe Dam Road passes through both Lower and Upper Sonoran habitats.  Some of the hills and stretches are filled with numerous saguaro cacti and Lower Sonoran vegetation.  A lot of the sections are also filled with extensive chaparral habitat which is characteristic of Upper Sonoran habitat.  The Verde River is what creates Horseshoe Lake, and the Verde River is met roadside eight miles into the drive before the lake is met.  Here there are places to bird along the river, which holds amazing riparian habitat south of Horseshoe Lake Dam for several miles.  Thick stands of willows line the Verde River, which also has fair amount of cottonwoods.  With the willows and cottonwoods are several large and thick mesquite bosques.  The mesquite bosques are in midst of several camping and picnic areas and provide excellent birding.  Birding in these riparian areas will round a trip out here and result in a lot of different species seen in the area.  The Horseshoe Lake Recreation Area is eleven miles of great birding potential, so come and explore this promising area!

As mentioned above, the habitat diversity is amazing along this eleven mile route to the lake.  With the mix of chaparral and desert habitats, there are many birds to listen and watch for.  This will include Black-chinned Sparrow, Western Scrub-Jay, Spotted and Canyon Towhees, and Bewick's Wrens in the chaparral, and Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Gilded Flicker, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Loggerhead Shrike, Bell's Vireo, Verdin, Cactus and Rock Wrens, Phainopepla, Lucy's Warbler, Black-throated Sparrow, and Northern Cardinal in the desert habitats.  Watch for raptors also along this stretch, including Zone-tailed, Red-tailed, and Harris Hawks, as well as Prairie Falcon.  Birding the riparian habitats along the river will result in seeing species typical of willow and cottonwood habitats.  In the mesquite bosques throughout the area, watch for Vermilion Flycatchers, Lucy's Warblers, Phainopepla, and more.  If Horseshoe Lake has a decent amount of water in it, it may provide excellent habitat for waterfowl and good feeding areas for raptors such as Bald Eagles. 

Birding Tip:  This recreation area should be explored throughout the year.  If coming to bird here, take time to stop along the road often (Horseshoe Dam Road) and bird throughout the different habitats.  The habitat makeup is excellent all along the way and the different locations should be stopped at often.  Once the Verde River comes close to the road at about 8 miles into the recreation area, try birding in various places along the river.  The Mesquite Recreation Area is located at mile marker 8.5, and is an excellent place for camping, picnicking, and of course birding.  This area is an excellent place to bird a mesquite bosque as well as willows and riverside habitat along the Verde River.  Continue on Horseshoe Dam Road for other stops and camping areas along the Verde River.  Horseshoe Lake is then met right at mile marker 11.  Bring a scope to scan this lake, which may have a good amount of water at times.  This is an area with limited cell phone reception.  Consider bringing another person at all times when birding here.  Horseshoe Dam Road is also a very rough road and bumpy road overall, another thing to consider before driving here. 

Directions:  From the east side of the loop 101, take the Pima Road Exit and then Pima Road north for 12 miles until the intersection of Pima and Cave Creek Roads meet.  Then take Cave Creek Road east for four miles until you see the turnoff for Bartlett Dam Road.  Take Bartlett Dam Road east for 6.2 miles to the turnoff to Horseshoe Dam Road, which is on the north side of Bartlett Dam Road.  Take Horseshoe Dam Road north for 11 miles to Horseshoe Lake.  The first mile or so of this road is paved before it turns into a rough dirt road.  When turning on Bartlett Dam Road, the Cave Creek Ranger Station is immediately there, where Tonto National Forest daily use passes (six dollars) may be purchased.  After Cave Creek Road goes north past Bartlett Dam Road, it turns into Seven Springs Road, which the Seven Springs Recreation Area is another great area to explore that isn't far from Horseshoe Lake.


Horseshoe Lake Recreation Area Maps


Scenes and Sights from the Horseshoe Lake Recreation Area:

Horseshoe Lake


Birdlife of Horseshoe Lake Recreation Area:

Bald Eagles

Harris's Hawk

Black-crowned Night-Heron

This page was made possible by Trevor Knupp of Chief Jeep Navigations..


Back to Area 12-Lower Verde River

Birding in Maricopa County

An online guide to the birds and birding locations of Maricopa County


Birding in Greenlee County

An online guide to Greenlee County Birding


Birding in Arizona's White Mountains

An online guide to Birding in Arizona's White Mountains