See herds of wild burros on this easy hike near Phoenix. Here's how to do it

Mare Czinar
Special for The Arizona Republic
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Wild burros make lots of tracks — and lots of little burros. That’s a concern for hikers and land managers because overpopulation can lead to overgrazing, negative impacts on native wildlife and public safety issues around roadways. 

With few natural predators and a law that protects them from human hunters, the sturdy African imports that are the descendants of escaped or released pack animals used by the military, ranchers, Spanish explorers and miners dating back to the 1500s, the herds of wild burros can become hordes.

The free-roaming, prolific breeders adapted to the Sonoran Desert and other areas in the Western states. Herds quickly grew to the point where they exceeded the land’s capacity to support them.

The 1971 Wild-Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act states that the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are responsible for managing and protecting herds and their rangelands as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”  

Wild burros on the Biscuit Flat segment of the Black Canyon National Recreation Trail near Phoenix.

To thin the burro herds and maintain the animals' health here in Arizona, the BLM uses fertility control and vaccine programs along with periodic “gathers” where burros are helicoptered out of congested public lands and either put up for adoption or transferred to Midwest private pastures where they are taken care of for the rest of their lives.

Burro spotting:You'll probably see wild burros on this part of the Black Canyon Trail. Here's where to go

Where to see wild burros near metro Phoenix

The four-legged “spirits of the West” can be observed wandering in several Arizona ranges, including the Lake Pleasant Herd Management Area, a 103,000-acre space 25 miles northwest of Phoenix. The Biscuit Flat segment of the Black Canyon National Recreation Trail provides nonmotorized access into the heart of burro country.

Like the burros that average 400 pounds and 48 inches high, the roughly 100-mile-long historic trail is very much a spirit of Western heritage.

It runs from Carefree Highway in Phoenix to the town of Mayer in central Arizona and has recently been extended into the Verde Valley. Following a mashup of ancient travel corridors, wagon roads and livestock tracks that predate Interstate 17, the route traverses mountain passes, valleys, sprawling rangelands, defunct mining operations and heritage sites that date back thousands of years.

An uncommon white burro on Biscuit Flat, part of the Black Canyon National Recreation Trail near Phoenix.

The 5.9-mile Biscuit Flat segment is, well, flat. It’s the first stretch of the route that begins at Carefree Highway and makes a straight shot north to the Emery Henderson trailhead on New River Road, 3 miles west of Interstate 17.

The utterly pancake-level expanse registers like a mood board for a Martian landscape — that is if Mars had cactus, creosote and an ephemeral river running through it. Resembling images sent back from Mars landers, the place is a massive basin surrounded by volcanic mountain ranges.

The thorny plain is dressed in scuffed shades of green muddled with dusty earth and, of course, dried forbs. Like the Native inhabitants and pioneers that wandered through, this place cut its teeth on surviving in the unforgiving spillway of a desert river.

Without obvious lures, the vultures come anyway. Riding updrafts, the carrion-eating scavengers make lazy loops and investigative swoops often enough to suggest that something below is dead.  Maybe a javelina, rabbit or coyote. 

Wild burros cross the Biscuit Flat segment of the Black Canyon National Recreation Trail near Phoenix.

What’s alive are the burros, along with expanding suburbs, a widening interstate, shooting range, prison complex, fairways, a municipal transfer station and the massive semiconductor manufacturing plant rising from the desert that surrounds the dusty trail and its relics of the past.

Start at the Emery Henderson trailhead

Beginning at the north end of the segment at the Emery Henderson trailhead, the path heads south on a mix of single-track, two-track and dirt roads. 

The trail is signed throughout but is crisscrossed with trampled paths made by the burros and fading dirt roads that can be confusing. Hikers must take care at intersections to spot the next sign to stay on track. (Some signs were down at this writing but did not present a navigation problem). 

At about the 2-mile point, the trail enters the sandy floodplain of New River and makes a rocky crossing through a tamarisk-choked channel. Signs anchored by rock piles guide the way through the weedy waterway. On the south bank, the trail heads up an embankment, passes a gate and begins a shadeless walk through open desert. 

The pop-pop of pistol fire from the nearby Arizona Game & Fish Department-managed Ben Avery Shooting Facility grows louder where the trail briefly shares space with the Valley-circling Maricopa Trail and crosses Deadman Wash. The south trailhead is little more than a dirt pullout and gate along the busy Carefree Highway. 

If you parked a shuttle vehicle here, be sure to close the gate behind you to keep the legacy burros from wandering into 21st century traffic.

Wild burro hike: Black Canyon National Recreation Trail

Length: 5.9 miles one way.

Rating: Easy.

Elevation: 1,598-1,878 feet.

Getting there: From the north, use Emery Henderson Trailhead. From Interstate 17 in north Phoenix, take New River Road (Exit 232) and go 3.1 miles west to the trailhead on the right. The large parking area has space for trailers. There’s a restroom, but it was out of order at this writing.

From the south, use Bob Bentley Trailhead. From Interstate 17 in north Phoenix, take State Route 74/Carefree Highway (Exit 223) and go 1.8 miles west to the trailhead on the right. No facilities.

Details: Black Canyon Trail Coalition, bctaz.org. Wild burro information, blm.gov. Wild burro adoptions, aci.az.gov.

Read more of Mare Czinar's hikes at arizonahiking.blogspot.com.

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