Dead Horse Ranch State Park

LivAbility Magazine

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Photo shows volunteer Joan Gray. She is a woman with curly hair, a sweater, and a skirt. She sits in a power wheelchair next to a wooded trail.

Dead Horse Ranch State Park

Can a Park be too Relaxing?

Story by Loren Worthington
Photo by Clinton McDaniel

When you think about places to visit in central Arizona, most people think of Sedona or Prescott. Both are great but there’s at least one more just off I-17, the main highway dividing Arizona in half.

Last year, we wrote about Cottonwood. It’s truly the center of Arizona and just outside of the town is Dead Horse Ranch State Park. It got its name from the Ireys family of Minnesota who were shopping for Arizona land in the 1940s. When Calvin Ireys asked his kids which parcel they liked, one replied, “The one with the dead horse.” Dead Horse Ranch became a state park in 1977. One of the conditions of the state’s acquisition was that the ranch retain its name.

The park is at an elevation of 3,300 feet so you won’t find saguaros or pine trees. It’s the high desert and the park lies along the fertile rich soils of the Verde River. The main feature of the park is three man-made lagoons (large ponds) with excellent accessible trails weaving about the waterfront, the picnic areas and the camping areas; massive shade trees provide cover everywhere.

If you reside in the urban world with all the noises of cars and smart phones, the first thing you’ll experience at the park is the calm pervasive sounds of tranquility. That may sound like a writer trying to be romantic, but it’s not even subtle. It’s almost too quiet at first.


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Everywhere you look, it’s clear that “someone” has thought about accessibility. That someone is Joan Gray. Gray was born during a polio outbreak in her Wisconsin neighborhood; she was four months old when she contracted the disease. Of the seven people infected in her area, one died. Gray recovered and grew into adulthood an avid hiker and kayaker. In her 30s she began to feel the effects of post-polio syndrome. As her muscles weakened she started using a manual wheelchair.

Gray has been a park volunteer since the 1980s and a constant presence in the park. As it became more difficult for her to put her kayak into the Verde River, the park manager at the time put in an accessible boat ramp. That was just the start.

“I would use this as my country club,” Gray said as we toured Dead Horse together. “It was a place to hide before work or after work. I did some camping in here too. I kayaked in both a hard-shell and inflatable kayak. Being able to put-in and take-out here with accessible river access made a big difference for me.”

Sean Hammond, Arizona State Parks and Trails ADA Coordinator works closely with Gray.

“Joan has been our eyes and ears up here on accessibility,” he said.

Together with park managers and Eagle Scout candidates in search of projects, the park was made to be more accessible, one trail, one cabin, one fishing ramada at a time.

The park is designed for fishing, the lagoons are stocked seasonally. The fishing docks are uniquely accessible for chair users. It’s for bird watchers and anyone wanting to roll through nature. There’s even an accessible trail created for those with sensitivity to chemicals (no herbicides, insecticides or pesticides are used on this trail or in the nearby bathrooms) that is also doable by most people in manual wheelchairs. You can enjoy the accessible ramadas all over the park.

For those wanting to stay longer, the park offers camping spots with various levels of amenities. Staff have worked with volunteers including numerous Eagle Scout projects to improve the accessibility of the park. It’s impressive. One feature added is raised tent platforms for folks using wheelchairs. You no longer need to sleep (or transfer) on the ground.

For those of us less rugged, the park has eight dry cabins, seven are accessible. Basically simple sleeping quarters for up to four people each has one full bed frame and a set of bunks. You need to bring your sleeping bags or linens. Each has a small table inside, but not much else. They have electricity (and an a/c unit) and there are public bathrooms (with roll-in showers) nearby. Each site has its own grill, fire ring and picnic table and most of them have good access. I like the concept as it’s something between camping and staying at a hotel.

On our tour, park staff indicated where more cabins have been scheduled to be added with accessibility planned for most if not all of them (based on natural terrain). Definitely some primo spots.

Dead Horse Ranch is a two hour drive from the Phoenix area making it a great location for a day trip to escape to nature or your first adventure “into the wild” as a camper. Check out the annual birding festival held each April.

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