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Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Get Hooked on the Maricopa Trail in 2021


Beautiful back country on the Maricopa Trail

Sometimes, an addiction is a good thing.  Swapping a junk food obsession or a movie streaming fixation for a commitment to healthful foods and regular outdoor recreation are the kinds of addictions that improve quality of life.  Kicking bad habits isn’t easy, but hiking can help wean even the most devout triple-burger-with-the-works aficionados off the artery-hardening stuff.

The route crosses Cave Creek several times

That’s because, like eating potato chips, once you start, it’s difficult to stop.  And when you really get into it, you’ll be inspired to get fit to take on longer, more difficult treks.

A bird verifies Audubon Arizona important bird area

As with goals in general, it helps to have a plan. 

An old forest service sign on the Maricopa Trail

For Phoenix-area hikers, there’s a ready-made plan already in place. It’s called the Maricopa Trail.  The 315-mile route circumnavigates the Valley, connecting 10 county regional parks, urban centers, suburbs and national forest trails.  Outfitted with dozens of trailheads and community access points, the trail is easily accessed from anywhere in the Valley.  While the route is still expanding and improving, the main course is complete. There’s a beginning, middle and end which makes it a perfect choice for anybody who wants to earn the feeling of accomplishment that comes with completing a long-distance hike without committing to a months-long, non-stop journey. This one can be knocked off in approachable day hikes. 
The Maricopa Trail is 315-mile route

The route passes through a stony corridor

Of course, to get “addicted” it’s best to start with the juiciest segment.  While naming the “best” segment of the Maricopa Trail is purely subjective, the bit that goes from Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek to the Skull Mesa trailhead in Tonto National Forest is as fine a candidate as any.

Rich in biodiversity, ecozones, history and scenic beauty, this short, easy hike is a great way to sample and possibly get hooked on the Maricopa Trail. Begin by hiking north on the Spur Cross Trail, an old ranch road that has been incorporated into the trail.  Right from the start, the hike embodies a remote feel as it delves into hilly back country along the leafy corridor of Cave Creek.  The waterway fosters a healthy community of cottonwoods, sycamores and mesquite trees where many species of birds thrive in the area that has been named an important bird area by Audubon Arizona. 

An abandoned corral on the Maricopa Trail

The Tonto National Forest boundary

After a mild uphill walk and a couple of usually dry creek crossings, the trail enters Tonto National Forest. Staying close to the creek bed, the last mile passes through rocky corridors and cliffs cluttered with enormous saguaros. A few creek hops later, the path meets the Skull Mesa trailhead where a vintage wood sign displays a map and key mileage notes.
Huge saguaros grow along the route

From this point, the Maricopa Trail continues on through one of its most remote, rugged and mountainous sections.  But for an introductory outing, the wood sign makes for a good turnaround point that will inspire you to come back for more.
Elephant Mtn is a dominate feature on the hike

LENGTH:  4 miles roundtrip

RATING: easy

ELEVATION: 2,263 – 2,407 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.


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