Find A Trail. Start Your Search Here:

Thursday, February 21, 2013

GPS withdrawal at Skunk Tank

Tonto National Forest
Cave Creek Trail

New River Mesa as seen from Skunk Tank Trail
Except for an A minus I once achieved in a grad school statistics class, I've never been particularly gifted with numbers.  This might explain my befuddlement over the actual length of Tonto National Forest’s Skunk Tank-Cave Creek Loop hike.  Additionally, inconsistent signage and conflicting published reports didn't help rectify the numbers.    It's pretty common knowledge that forest service trail signs are rounded up or down to convenient fractions.  Trail segments that are actually 0.3 mile might well be posted as .25 mile and 0.6 mile as 0.5 mile.   Yup, that's me splitting hairs for no good reason, and yet, over 10 miles or more, with 5 trail junctions, the discrepancy can add up and escalate into a hot topic especially along that last mile which always feels longer than its advertised range.  A check of various hike books, maps and web sites declare this trail length at anywhere from 9.2 miles to 12 miles.   So, I geared up for a 12-miler, grabbed my GPS and stepped out to get my own read.  Now, I wasn't about to place too much trust in my GPS either.  That's because on past hikes, GPS-totting trekkers in my group have all come up with different mileage reads on their devises----BIG differences, like 2-3 miles.  But, since my devise is brand new and set up to acquire all those extra Russian satellites, I figured, why not give it a try.
But, I refuse to be a GPS junkie---checking moving speed and elevation profiles every half-mile and robotically announcing the results to bored travel companions as if it mattered.  Nope. Set up, hit track, waypoint when necessary and don't look again until trail's end.  We began the loop hiking counterclockwise to take on Skunk Tank Trail #246 (note: some trail signs mistakenly say Skunk "Creek").  This open-to-the-sky segment makes a steady climb over rolling desert hills dotted with cactus and the sprouts of what may be a good wildflower season .  At 1.4 mile from the 246 junction, run off from Quien Sabe (means: "who knows") Spring spills down a narrow gully.  The spring itself is 0.3 mile up the gully, but it's a bushwhack to get there, and frankly, not worth the effort.  Skunk Tank Trail tops out at a 4100' lookout point with dizzying views of New River Mesa, Humboldt Mountain and Quien Sabe Peak. 
From here, the route plunges downhill toward Skunk Tank on a slim path cut into sloping, exposed (not for acrophobics) hillsides.  The tank is a lovely willow-ringed oasis where swarms of birds and other local wildlife---like mountain lions and deer---gather to quench their thirsts and maybe score a meal. Pass through the tank's rustic barbed wire fence and soon the junction with Cave Creek Trail #4 comes into view signaling the final leg of the hike.  This is also the best part because trail #4 moves among the waters of Cave Creek, lofty canyon walls, a lush riparian ecosystem and two rare crested saguaros.  Back at the trailhead, my GPS read 10.385 miles.  I'm gonna call it 10.4-miles, and "who knows" if it's really 10.6 or 10.2. Who cares?
Cave Creek water: Feb. 16, 2013

LENGTH:  10.4 loop
RATING:  moderate
ELEVATION:  2980'-4100'
FEES: a Tonto Pass is NOT required at the hiker trailhead, but may be required if you park at other recreation sites in the area.
Cave Creek Trailhead (as described here): From the Loop 101 in Scottsdale, take the Pima/Princess Road exit 36 and go 13 miles north on Pima to Cave Creek Road.  Turn right (east) and go 12.5 miles on Cave Creek Road (a.k.a FR 24 and Seven Springs Road) past Seven Spring Recreation Area to Cave Creek trailhead on the left located between MCDOT mile markers 12 and 13.  Roads are a mixture pf pavement and good dirt passable by passenger cars when dry. Two minor creek crossings on cement are required—do not attempt after heavy rains.

From the trailhead, pick up Cave Creek Trail #4 and hike 0.6 mile south to the Cottonwood Trail #247 junction.  (NOTE: winter 2013 flooding has washed out much of this area.  Cairns and red trail tape have been placed have been placed as temporary navigation tools).  Follow #247 less than a mile to the Skunk Tank Trail #246.  Follow #246 to Cave Creek Trail #4, turn right and follow it back to the trailhead.
Cave Creek Ranger District, Tonto National Forest, 480-595-3300


No comments: