Dead Horse Ranch teeming with life

Cicadas hum in the distance, lizards scramble through the underbrush, flowering trees lace the breeze with a sweet scent, and a blue heron wades in the water.

To say the Verde River is a living thing is a bit of an understatement.

Take a walk along the stretch of the Verde that makes up Dead Horse Ranch State Park, and the vitality of the river will jolt your senses.

Tucked away in the Verde Valley community of Cottonwood, Dead Horse Ranch State Park offers an almost tropical experience.

In places, eight-foot-high reeds separate the flow into smaller streams that cascade over slippery rocks to meet up once again with the lazy main channel. The river humidity combines with mid-summer temperatures of 100 degrees or more to add to the steamy feel.

But the cool water is always there to offer relief. Tubers, swimmers and waders beat the heat one day in late June by lounging in the cool depths.

Keith Ayotte, assistant manager of Dead Horse, pointed out that mid-summer is the park’s downtime. People tend to flock to the park in February, March, and April to take advantage of the mild Verde Valley temperatures and the springtime renaissance of the river life.

"Our biggest users are snowbirds," Ayotte said. Winter visitors who are on their way home from Phoenix or Tucson often stop off at Dead Horse for one last excursion in the spring before heading north.

But recently, Ayotte said, Dead Horse has also been attracting a lot of families, who come to the park for the quality campsites, abundance of recreational opportunities, and proximity to Sedona and Jerome.

Use has been steadily rising at the park, to the point where nearly 100,000 people will visit Dead Horse this year.

One thing that often stands out with first-time visitors is the distinctive and slightly ominous name. For the uninitiated, there is no "dead horse" at the park — at least not now.

As the story goes, the park picked up the Dead Horse moniker back in the late 1940s, when the Ireys family, emigrating from Minnesota, was looking for a ranch to buy in the Verde Valley.

At one of the ranches, the family spotted the remains of a dead horse lying by the road. "After two days of viewing ranches, Dad Ireys asked the kids which ranch they liked best," states a brochure about the state park. The vote among the children was unanimous – "the one with the dead horse," they chorused.

So, the Ireys’ home became known as the Dead Horse Ranch. In 1973, when the Arizona State Parks Department acquired the property, the Ireys made retaining the name a condition of the sale.

But the Dead Horse name contrasts starkly with the summertime offerings at the park. From the trails to a fishing lagoon to more than 100 campsites, the park is teeming with activities.

Dead Horse encompasses some six miles of the river, known as the Verde River Greenway.

Ayotte estimates that about five or six miles of trails criss-cross that stretch of river. In addition, hikers can access miles more of Coconino National Forest trails from several points in Dead Horse.

And the trails are a work in progress. Ayotte pointed out that a new trail, the Jail Trail, is currently in the works. Nearly complete, the trail connects the park with Old Town Cottonwood, which is about a mile up-river.

The new trail travels through lush river vegetation, and then turns away from the river, toward the old Cottonwood jail. Hikers abruptly leave the cottonwood trees and fine-sandy trail to come out onto the streets of Old Town. The old Jail, which now serves as the headquarters for the city’s Main Street program, provides a second trailhead.

Ayotte said the purpose of the trail is to encourage Dead Horse visitors to venture into Old Town, where they can find restaurants and shops.

But the highlight of Dead Horse may be the fishing. Ayotte said people often visit the park with pole in hand, to find a favorite fishing hole on the river. Arizona Game & Fish regularly stocks the river with rainbow trout in two Dead Horse-area locations.

A four-acre fishing pond is also a magnet for fishermen. The lagoon, which sits at the east end of the park, also gets regular stocking. Ayotte said the pond gets supplies of rainbow trout from November through March, and catfish throughout the summer.

Bird-watching is another activity that regularly brings people to Dead Horse, Ayotte said.

And with 127 camping spaces and an additional 22 group spaces, Dead Horse is also popular with RVers and other campers. Ayotte said Dead Horse employees pride themselves on the clean bathrooms and showers, and they often get compliments from the people who camp there.

Dead Horse charges $4 for day use at the park. Non-hookup camping spots cost $10 per night, while hookup spots cost $15 per night.

If you go:

From the intersection of Arizona 260 and 89A in Cottonwood, head toward Old Town on 89A. Before you get to Old Town, turn right on North 10th Street. Cross the bridge to the Dead Horse entrance on your right.

Depending on your interests, a fishing pole, water tubes, hiking shoes or binoculars could come in handy. Bring sunscreen and water, and dress for hot temperatures this time of year. The cost for day users is $4. Non-hookup camping costs $10 per night, while hookup spots cost $15.

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