Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area is the newest addition (in 2005) to the Maricopa County Regional Parks System. The conservation area encompasses 2,154 acres of diverse, rugged upper Sonoran Desert ranging from lush riparian areas along Cave Creek, which flows most of the year to rugged desert uplands with sweeping vistas as you ascend. Spur Cross contains fascinating archaeology sites from the prehistoric Hohokam people as well as remnants of early mining and ranching. The park's abundant vegetation provides a rich habitat for wildlife and potential for wildflower displays in the spring.
(Photo left: Scenic view from a ridge line on the Limestone Trail.)
The conservation area offers over seven miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. The trails are mainly along old jeep roads and are largely unimproved. The Spur Cross and Metate Trails feature several crossings of Cave Creek where you might very well get wet during periods of high water.
Tonto National Forest borders the northern edge of Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area. Forest Trail 252, the Limestone Trail, connects the Spur Cross Trail in Cave Creek canyon to the Elephant Mountain Trail in several places. This creates several loop routes, the shortest and easiest being 6.1 miles and about 3-4 hours of hiking. The loop allows you to sample several park trails and varying environments. The rocky, unmaintained, and very lightly traveled Limestone Trail spends much time following a ridge with many spectacular views. During our visit there were no other hikers on this trail. (Photo right: Lush terrace on the Metate Trail.)
From the information board (where there are maps available) at the trailhead, go left (west) on the Spur Cross Trail. You quickly cross Cave Creek, then head right on the Metate Trail. The scenic trail weaves through terraces and floodplains along Cave Creek with lush vegetation. There are several remnants of old ranch structures. After crossing the creek again, you'll pass through a lush area with numerous huge, multi-armed saguaros (photo, left).
The Metate Trail returns to the Spur Cross Trail which ends just ahead with another crossing of Cave Creek. A few yards ahead a gate marks the start of Tonto National Forest. The route continues north on an old jeep road, FS-48. The road crosses back to the east side of the creek, and then quickly back to the west side. On these last two crossings, you'll probably need to hunt for good steppingstones to avoid getting wet shoes. (Photo right: Crossing of Cave Creek.)
While still on the creek's east side, you will see remnants of a corral on the other side. The Limestone Trail starts at the south end of this corral. After crossing back to the west side of Cave Creek, you will immediately see a huge rock cairn. The entrance to the corral is behind and to the left of this cairn. The trail at the south end of the corral has a sign and is fairly obvious. Note that it turns right almost immediately and starts heading up the saddle. There the trail is very rocky and faint here but occasional rock cairns make the route obvious.
(Photo right: This corral marks the start of the Limestone Trail.)
(Photo left: Limestone Trail starts at the south end of the corral.)
(Photo below, right: This trail climbs this ridge, staying close to the wash. Note the saguaros closely following the wash.)
Before reaching Limestone Spring, we encounter a three-foot rattlesnake (photo, left) sprawled across the trail. The snakes often like to sun themselves on mild spring days such as this. The trail is free of shrubs making it a good spot for sunbathing. We do the right thing, which is to give the snake a width berth and leave it alone.
Limestone Spring is a concrete tank with stagnant water, lots of tadpoles, and an adjacent beehive. Not a good place to stop for lunch. The trail shortly drops into a wash, then heads upstream into a shady area where it may be easy to miss the sharp left turn out of the wash on the other side. The trail then climbs high onto a north-south ridgeline with outstanding views of the distant mountains to the east. This is a good place to stop for lunch. As the trail turns more to the southwest, you'll get fine views of Skull Mesa and Sugarloaf Mountain to the north. (Photo below, left: Skull Mesa, below, right: Sugarloaf Mountain.)
Page Spring is about thirty minutes past Limestone Spring on a spur trail through dense vegetation. The main trail, marked with a cairn, turns right and climbs a short rise. There's another side trail going left; the main trail stays right. You soon reach a trail intersection with a large, decorated rock cairn (photo, left). Take the trail left for the shortest loop. Going straight will add at least 1.5 miles and a stretch of the tough Elephant Mountain trail.
The trail south goes through a grassy area with nice wildflowers this year. Elephant Mountain (photo, right) is prominent to the west. At the intersection continue south (straight) on the Elephant Mountain Trail. At the Tortuga Trail intersection, turn left. This trail goes sharply down a hill on a very rocky, old jeep trail before reaching the Spur Cross Trail, where you head left on a better old road. There is one more hill, up and down, before reaching Cave Creek and then the trailhead.
Park information. This fine loop provides a variety of environments and vistas in a very unspoiled desert setting. The best times to go would be fall through spring. With the higher elevations, summertime would be comfortable early in the morning. The park is open for day-use only, 6am to 8pm. The entry fee is $3 per person.
Rangers offer interpretive programs on an ongoing basis. For a program schedule, more infomration, or to obtain hiking maps, visit the Maricopa County Parks & Recreation Department's web site. To reach the conservation area, drive 4.5 miles north on Spur Cross Road, from Cave Creek Road in downtown Cave Creek, to the designated parking area. Beware that the road turns sharply right and then left just north of Cave Creek Road. (It appears to be a different road.)
Below is a trail map of this hike. Note that the trailhead (T.H.) is at the bottom, right. Click on the map for a printable copy. (PDF file, Adobe Reader required.)
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