Travel Tab Adventurer – Plenty of sunny days, mild temperatures and absolutely beautiful weather is really what Arizona is most famous for with the fall and winter months being the peak season for attracting millions of visitors from all over the U.S. and the world each year. Here in the central and southern regions of the state of Arizona, the fall and winter months are especially popular and “primetime” for hiking and getting out to enjoy the gorgeous Sonoran desert scenery and rugged mountain vistas. If you’re looking for an excellent place to go within the Phoenix area that’s beautiful and serene, a little less traveled and off the beaten path, and if you’re up for a great work out and more of a desert outback trek and adventure then check out the Spur Cross Trail-Elephant Mountain Loop hike, the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area, Cave Creek, Arizona.
The beautiful Spur Cross Ranch Conservation area just north of Cave Creek is absolutely one of my favorite places to getaway and hike without having to travel very far from Phoenix. It’s a beautiful yet very quiet and serene desert retreat where you can view wildlife, visit ancient Hohokam Indian Ruins, or just take in the beautiful desert mountain scenery. The Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area, which centers around the riparian habitat of Cave Creek, consists of roughly 2,154 acres of undisturbed desert wilderness territory bordered to the north by the Tonto National Forest and only began in 2004, so its not widely known or visited. I hike the mostly easy-moderate trail system at Spur Cross Ranch every year and when I saw that the TLC Hiking Group, led and organized by Eric Kinneman, was planning on hiking out to Elephant Mountain, a 7.4 mile moderate level hike and loop, I was absolutely thrilled.
So on a beautiful October weekend morning, I met up with a few friends and fellow TLC Hiking Group members and together we set out for the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area. From North Phoenix we headed out I-17 North to the exit for Carefree Highway (aka State Route 74), then hung a right and headed east for about 8.5 miles until we reached Cave Creek Road. At Cave Creek road, we turned left and headed north into the town of Cave Creek, for roughly about 3 miles until we came to Spur Cross Ranch Road. We made a left and drove the beautiful 4.5 miles through the rolling foot hills of the residential Cave Creek neighborhood, until we reached the end with the last 1.5 miles of Spur Cross Ranch Road an all dirt, but well graded road in very good condition and passable for regular vehicles.
We met Eric Kinneman, and the TLC Hiking Group at 8am at the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation area parking lot and by 8:15 am, after a quick briefing and paying the $3 required park use fee at the kiosk and self pay station, we were quickly off on our day’s outback hiking adventure.
Beginning from the parking area we followed the Spur Cross Trail, an old jeep trail along the winding Cave Creek, which after about 1.5 miles drops down and crosses across the creek bottom, then continues on for a total of about 2.0 miles until you come to the “old corral”. We had been advised by Eric Kinneman prior to the hike of the importance of staying together as a group due to the most challenging aspect of this trail being the navigation and not missing the critical turn off points and getting lost in the desert wilderness. However, with Eric’s guidance, we made it successfully all together as a group, then swung a left on through the corral and onto TR 252, also known as the Limestone Trail.
From the corral, the further we journeyed out on TR 252, the more beautiful and spectacular the scenery and views got all around you. Wow! Surrounded by the Tonto National Forest and following a ridgeline with Sugar Loaf Mountain to the North, and no one else out on the trail, you really start to feel like you’re out somewhere really remote and backcountry which is really quite incredible and what I love most about hiking the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area, because you are literally only minutes away of the Phoenix metro area. After stopping for a short break, I looked up and all around me and thought, wow how incredibly beautiful, and so peaceful and serene too!
With Eric leading the front end of the group and visible off in the distance about 1/4 mile, the rest of us remaining TLC members kept together and continued trekking on but in close communication with Eric via 2 way radio to help ensure that we would be able to find and make the next critical turn off point that being for Ring Neck Spring. By this time, the trail had become a little more challenging due to it being mostly “unmaintained” and harder to identify. You really need to pay close attention to where you are heading by this point as you continue on the Limestone Trail. There were several times when we thought we were on course but had actually ventured off the trail! However, with the help and assistance from Eric by radio communications, advising us of where and when to look for the hand built cairns to use as guides and trail markers, and with the help of another fellow friend and hiking member waiting for us to arrive, we successfully made the next critical turn off and with Elephant Mountain now straight in front of us, we were on course and venturing on our way to Ring Neck Spring.
It was mid morning by now and the temperature for the day was steadily rising. It had been forecasted to be around 100 degrees, which is common for early-mid October in the desert, so things were starting to heat up. As a result, those of us holding up the back end were now starting to slow down to keep from overheating. With my friends Dan and Karen needing to head back sooner, they headed left at the intersection of the Tortuga Trail turn off, while the rest of us remaining TLC hikers journeyed on attentively listening for and following Eric’s guidance as we neared Ring Neck Spring. As advised, we followed the cairns, passed down through a wash and safely arrived at Ring Neck Spring by about 11am where met up with a few more TLC Hiking members and after a short rest break, we hung a left onto the Elephant Mountain Trail then ventured on a south to southeast trajectory for roughly about a mile, intersecting with the Tortuga Trail until we arrived at the intersection of the Spur Cross Trail again.
By about 12:30-1pm, the rest of us remaining TLC hikers arrived back at the parking lot then drove the 4.5 miles back on Spur Cross Ranch Road to meet back up with Eric Kinneman and the rest of the TLC Hiking group members where we had an excellent time at the “Horny Toad Restaurant”, located on Cave Creek Road, about a mile north of Spur Cross Ranch Road on Cave Creek Road, on the north side. The “Horny Toad Restaurant” is Cave Creek’s oldest original restaurant and famous for its rustic western atmosphere, great food and its incredible fried chicken.
In all, a total hiking time of about 4.0 hours and a really fun and excellent inter-valley hike, that’s not too challenging if you’re first aware of and prepared for the navigational aspects of the route beforehand. However, if you have some basic route finding skills, follow the cairns and also have a map of the park, you should be fine. Eric Kinnemans’s own words he quotes, “this is a trail that will really test your trail finding skills or help sharpen them as well!” So for a great fall-winter desert hike and workout, and an excellent place to go that’s beautiful and serene, close to Phoenix, yet off the beaten path, I highly recommend the Spur Cross Trail-Elephant Mountain Loop hike where you can retreat and experience for yourself your own rugged desert outback trek and adventure!