Located just outside the metro Phoenix area, there’s a surprisingly cool waterfall that flows during the rare occasions when water is being released from Horseshoe Reservoir. The best part of this easy-to-get-to adventure is that you can walk behind the waterfall along a concrete walkway.
When to go
The “waterfall” only occurs when water is being released from Horseshoe Reservoir, one of several dams storing and delivering water to metro Phoenix. Unfortunately, large releases from Horseshoe Dam aren’t that common, usually only occurring during wet periods when the system can’t safely store any additional water.
That means that you’ll need to pay close attention to conditions to catch it at the right time. If you see someone post a video or photo of the waterfall running, I’d hop on the chance to get there.
Your best bet is to check the SRP daily water report when you think there might be a release happening. Select today’s date and look for the Reservoir Release section about halfway down. If you don’t see Horseshoe Reservoir listed (it’s currently highlighted in a little yellow box below the section), then you’re out of luck. As you can see from this screenshot, the release was 425 cfs in the photos and videos you see here.
The parking area is located about 24 miles from Carefree, Arizona. The road is about half paved and half good gravel or dirt. There are numerous potholes that blend in with the dirt, so pay attention and take it slow. If you’re careful, you can make it in a sedan, though you’d probably be more comfortable in an SUV. There is one short section—maybe 20 yards long—that is quite rocky; be sure you go slowly over this section in particular.
Starting at the corner of Tom Darlington (Scottsdale Rd) and Cave Creek Rd in the town of Carefree, head east for a little over 6 miles. Turn right onto Bartlett Dam Road/FR205; you’ll see signs for a ranger station and Bartlett Dam. You’ll take this road for 6.25 miles until you see a well-signed road heading left (north) for Horseshoe Reservoir. Turn left onto this road and follow it for 10.5 miles.
You’ll then want to turn right onto a well-maintained road signed for Horseshoe Dam Vista. Follow that for nearly half a mile until you reach the parking area. From the parking area, you’ll be faced with two roads in front of you. The one on the right goes to a great viewpoint of the dam and the waterfall. The one on the left goes to a higher viewpoint, and is where you access the walkway behind the waterfall.
I’ve embedded a google map below with the route and some points of interest. You can clearly see the parking area and the viewpoints you’ll want to see. You can even open this map using the Google Maps app on your phone to follow along.
Do you need a Tonto Pass?
Along the way, you’ll see many signs telling you that you need a Tonto Pass. Sadly, an “interagency” pass, such as the America the Beautiful pass, does not count—that pass doesn’t cover areas with “enhanced amenities,” which is how Tonto National Forest gets away with not accepting the interagency pass. If this frustrates you as much as it does me, check out this organization that’s leading the fight against additional fees.
The area that you’ll be parking in does not have the elements required by law to qualify as an enhanced amenity area, but Tonto National Forest may disagree and ticket you anyway if you don’t have one. I keep an unused one in my vehicle, so I often play-it-by-ear when I’m in an area that doesn’t seem to qualify but is signed inappropriately. This is your decision, not mine, so don’t blame me if you get a ticket.
What you’ll see
I suggest starting with the viewpoint found on the road to the right from the parking area (point 3 on the map). This is the best view from this side and gives you a good overview of the scene.
From there, you can backtrack to the parking area and take the higher road on the left, or find one of the paths that leads up the slope to the higher road near where you’re already at. From that viewpoint (point 5), you can clearly see the entrance to the walkway in front of you.
Once you’re behind the falls, watch where you’re walking—the footbed turns to gravel and puddles about halfway through. It’s pretty relaxing to stare out as the water falls down in front you, separated into streams by debris barriers above you. The roar of the water is quite loud, and there’s quite a bit of mist and some water dripping too.
Keeping walking and you’ll find yourself on the other side of the dam. There’s a sloping path up (point 6) to a viewpoint (point 7) that provides an interesting perspective looking back towards where you started. There are a number of cascades and smaller falls facing you, as the water finds its way down to the river channel below.
From here, you can make your way down the slope closer to the water for a slightly different view. Be careful, it’s a steep slope that can get wet and slippery from the mist.
You can also make your way back towards the damn, arriving just below the walkway right where the water falls onto bare rock (point 8). The force of the water is very apparently from this vantage point.
When you’re done exploring, head back the way you came—back up the slope, across the walkway, and back to the original vista point.
For an additional view of the runoff, follow the very rough road downstream that leads you to Fishermans Point. From here, you can wander out onto the rocks (point 9) for a good water-level view up towards the dam.
Before you head back to the city, you might want to explore more around this gorgeous area.