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Hike #26 – Horseshoe Cienega Lake

Horseshoe Cienega Lake
Horseshoe Cienega Lake

Location: From the Pinetop Post Office on SR 260 (map):

  • Drive east about 17.9 miles on 260 past Hon-Dah and past SR 473 and look for a green sign for Horseshoe Cienega Lake.
  • Turn right and follow the paved then gravel road until you see the lake.
  • Select one of the following options:
    • Option 1: Circumvent the lake - Turn left just before you reach the dam and park in the large parking area anywhere in the shade (see Option 1 below).
    • Option 2: Walk the south shore and back through the campground – Drive across the dam and past the buildings on the left (see Option 2 below).
  • Drive down the hill and take the second right road and drive about one tenth of a mile where the road is divided by pine trees in the center. Right after the trees, turn left and see the restroom ahead of you.
  • Drive to and park on the left of the restroom.

Trail: The trails are dirt, some bushwhacking across grasslands in Option 1 is required, and all the roads are gravel.

Fall Foliage at Horseshoe Cienega Lake
Fall Foliage at Horseshoe Cienega Lake

Trailhead and Directions:

Option 1: The trailhead is at the eastern end of the parking area where several posts create a passage through the fence that you can fit through but cows cannot. Follow the foot trail across the meadow on the north side of the lake. Watch for cattle and horses that sometimes can be friendly. Once you reach a group of pine trees, the trail peters out and you have to wander over the grass towards the lakeshore ahead. Follow the lakeshore around to the north. There is a small creek in a wet meadow at the farthest north point of the lake. Usually there are some logs that cross the thin stream or sometimes the stream is dry. Cross over and follow the lakeshore back to the south. There are many alternate cow trails along the eastern side of the lake. Continue around where the trail heads east and come to a fence. There is a fallen dead tree through the fence. You can get through the fence on either side of this large fallen tree. Again you will have to cut across a low marsh and cross a small creek that is usually dry or has some logs making a bridge. From here you have two choices. You can walk the fishermen trails along the south side of the lake all the way back to the dam, or you can walk up into the camping area and follow the dirt roads around and back to the western end of the lake. Once you get to the southwestern corner of the lake, there is a restroom nearby. Follow the trails and gravel roads to the north on the inside of the dam back along the western lakeshore, past the boat launch area, the rarely open visitor center, across the dam, and back to the parking lot and your car on the northwest corner of the lake. See map for Option 1.

Option 2: From the restroom, walk to the south shore of the lake and along the dirt fishermen trail to the east as far as you wish. If you go all the way to the end of the lake, you can take a trail uphill to the right (south) and walk through the campground on the dirt roads. But there is an old unused road through the aspen trees closer to the lake. You will have to step over and around many aspens downed by beavers. This old road will take you to the restroom and your car. Or you can go up into the campground or down to the lake shore at several places. See map for Option 2.

Access: Hiking. We have never seen bicycles here or anyone riding horses. No motorized vehicles. Not handicapped accessible except on the gravel roads. An Apache Reservation day use permit is required.

Distance: If you walk the perimeter of the lake (Option 1) and do not deviate up into the campground, the distance is 2.7 miles. Option 2 may be 1.5 miles but I have not measured it.

Difficulty: Easy walking all on flat land, but moderate difficulty where you have to get across two narrow stream channels on boards or logs.

Features: The first section of the trail in Option 1 across the meadow gives you a sweeping view of the area and across the lake. On weekdays, there are few people around, but on weekends and holidays, the lake may be crowded with boaters and fishermen. Flowers are abundant in the meadow with several species of Asteraceae including Owl’s Claw and Helianthella and vetch. The eastern shore offers Apache Lobelia, Besseya, Heal-All, Indian Paintbrush, onions, Whipple’s Penstemon, Silverleaf, and buttercups.

We have seen up to 100 Canada Geese usually in the northern section of the lake, many Mallards, Ruddy, and other ducks, Common Mergansers, Great Blue Herons, Double-crested Cormorants, and Pied-billed Grebes. Ospreys are common and there are occasional Bald Eagles. The eastern and southern sides of the lake are typical Ponderosa Pine and Quaking Aspen forest with kinglets, warblers, chickadees, juncos, crows, and ravens. At least three species of swallows are common: Violet-green, Barn, and Northern Rough-winged. Twin-flower Honeysuckle and Red Osier Dogwood bushes are along the south shore. Beaver are resident on the south shore.

Connections: None.

Option 1

Horseshoe Cienega Lake Option 1
Download Map

Option 2

Horseshoe Cienega Lake Option 2
Download Map

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