Cross Loop
Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area

Snow-covered Skull Mesa reflects in Cave Creek

A wet autumn
and snowy start to 2019 has boosted the benefits of hiking in Spur Cross Ranch
Conservation Area in Cave Creek.

just a few clicks north of Metro Phoenix, the 2,154-acre preserve has a
surprisingly remote feel, a variety of hiking trails and a plethora of native
vegetation that bursts with color when infused with a little extra

Saguaros on the Metate Trail

The site, which is part of the Maricopa County parks system,
bumps up against the foothills of Tonto National Forest where mountain-borne
moisture flows through the area’s creeks, washes and drainages in year-round
fits and spurts.

Tonto National Forest peaks seen from Spur Cross Trail
Spur Cross Trail

the water arrives in a rage such as during spring snow melt season and monsoon rains,
but mostly, the water that spills over the site’s hiking trails passes through
in lazy trickles. Getting around the water-centric
park rarely means getting your feet wet, though. When water levels are high,
the park ranger places plank bridges to assist crossings of Cave Creek.

Skull Mesa had a dusting of snow on January 1, 2019.
There's a bumper crop of wolf berries this season.

This year,
ample moisture has coaxed out the greenery in a big way making a hike on the classic
Metate-Spur Cross loop a botanical smorgasbord. This short, moderate-rating hike is a perfect
place to introduce winter visitors to area trails. Desert newbies will be awed
by the medley of ecosystems and even locals will likely gain wider appreciation
for the rare cocktail of vegetation living in this tiny plot.

the preserve is the smallest of the ten county parks, it has the most diverse
and profuse collection of Sonoran Desert plant species growing within its hilly

Cave Creek flows across the Spur Cross Trail.
Recent storms have caused the desert to bloom.

optimize the plant tour, begin hiking northwest (go left at the main trailhead
kiosk) on the Spur Cross Trail. The wide
path makes a gradual descent among acres of brittlebush, jojoba and multiple
species of cacti. Most prominent here
are wolfberry shrubs dripping in ripe orange fruits and a demonstration garden
of agaves.

Tiny Desert rock peas bloom along the trails.

In less than a half-mile, the
ragged floodplain of Cave Creek hosts a riparian community of cottonwoods,
willows and bunches of desert marigolds sprouting from the sandy corridor. Cross the creek and head right on the Metate
Trail for a walk through a massive saguaro forest and an enchanting mesquite
bosque—a streamside gallery forest .

Wild cucumber vine on the Towhee Trail

Be sure to make a stop at the solar oasis,
a wildlife water hole and an ancient Native American metate or grinding stone. A
detour on the 0.2-mile Towhee Trail reveals a damp, birdy enclave entwined with
wild cucumber vines and desert hackberry shrubs.

Plank bridges aid creek crossings.

After a second creek crossing,
the trail heads up an embankment where ocotillo, cholla and prickly pear cacti
dress the walk on a ridge high above the water while sweet views of New River
and Skull Mesas stand as imposing bastions on the horizons.

Brittlebush colors the Metate Trail

At the 1.3-mile point, head right on the Spur Cross
Trail for the final leg back to the trailhead.
For a longer trek, consult the park website for maps or to join a
ranger-led hike to the many hidden gems within the preserve.

Ancient Native American grinding stone (metate).
New River Mesa seen from Metate Trail

2.2 mile loop


2179 – 2250 feet


Spur Cross
ranch Conservation Area:

37622 N
Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek.

From Loop 101 in Phoenix, take Cave Creek Road north to Spur
Cross Road (on the left just as you enter the downtown area) and go 4.5 miles north
to the parking area.

FEE: $3
per person daily fee. Bring exact change for the self-serve kiosk.