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Seven Springs Recreation Area, Inner Trails - Tonto National Forest

Summary: The Seven Springs Recreation area is located just north of the town of Cave Creek. Be aware that this is a fee area ($4 per carload per day). This report describes a shorter 10 mile loop hike using the Skunk Creek Trail and a longer hike (~20 miles) using The Skunk Creek, Quien Sabe and Skull Mesa Trails. I'm not sure about the mileage of these hikes as the numbers on the trail signs often didn't match the amount of time it took to hike a section of trail. Take them for what they're worth.
Directions: From Phoenix, drive north on I-17 to exit #223 and head east on the Carefree Highway. Drive all the way to the end at a 'T' intersection and turn left on Tom Darlington Dr. and follow it a few miles until it ends at Cave Creek Rd. where you'll turn right. You'll pass a small airport on the left and further down the road, Desert Mountain (also on the left). Where the road splits, you'll see a sign for Bartlett Lake & Rangers Station to the right; you'll want to stay left (this is Forest Road 24). Shortly afterwards you'll pass a sign for Seven Springs, Sears Kay Ruin, Camp Creek, Residential Area. After 2 miles you'll enter the Tonto National Forest. At the 4.5 mile point the pavement ends in a well graded dirt road. Continue winding along the road, at the 12 mile point you'll hit a short stretch of pavement as you enter the Seven Springs Recreation area and Cave Creek Campground (there is an electronic self service fee station in the middle of the road when you enter the area. ). Drive past the camp sites & look for a green 'Trail' sign which points to a parking area (with bathroom) on the left side of the road.
Road Conditions: Passenger Car
Navigation: Moderate - the path is generally easy to follow and all trail junctions are signed, but there are a few faint sections of trail
Length: ~10 miles - Skunk Creek loop
~20 miles - the hike as described
Date Hiked: January 2005
Weather Conditions: Cloudy and cool
Required Skills:
Hike Description: Just to give you a feel for the semi-loop described below, open up the map in another window and follow along. From the Cave Creek Trailhead we'll take trails 4 > 247 > 246 > 250 > 248 (left) > 247 (right) > 248 > 250 > 246 (left) > 4 (right) > Cave Creek Trailhead. So off we go - from the Cave Creek Trailhead pick up the Cave Creek Trail #4 as it travels behind the campgrounds paralleling the road. The path crosses a dirt road (ignore the unsigned junction on the left, and remain on #4) and drops down beside Cave Creek to a junction with the left branching Cottonwood Trail #247. Turn left on #247 which crosses the stream then climbs a hill to the junction with the Skunk Creek Trail #246 which branches right. Turn right on the Skunk Creek trail and follow this old road as it soon begins climbing moderately steeply through the hills in an area mainly consisting of scrub oak, juniper and sugar sumac. The path eventually bends right and levels off, traversing the side of a hill until you reach the junction with the left branching Quien Sabe Trail #250 (which means 'who knows' in Spanish in case you're interested). The sign indicates you've come 3 miles on the Skunk Creek Trail, but I'm guessing it's more like 1.5 miles. You may continue straight on the Skunk Creek Trail for a shorter loop, we'll turn left however, on the Quien Sabe Trail, which begins climbing gradually on another old road. The path reaches a small shoulder, then drops down along a somewhat faint path (marked with cairns) with some nicer views. Eventually the path drops down and crosses a small stream bed, and climbs out the other side to soon join the Skull Mesa Trail #248 at a 'T' junction (sign says 2 miles each way to the Cave Creek Trail #4, I'd say it's more like 1.5 miles left and 2.5 right). Turn left on the Skull Mesa Trail which winds its way through some desert scenery, climbing gently until you reach a fence, at which point it begins descending steeply from the mesa to the 'T' junction with the Cottonwood Trail #247. Turn right on the Cottonwood Trail which follows a ridgeline down to a wash, becoming more rocky as it goes, and entering lower desert with saguaro and jojoba. Once in the wash, the path is somewhat faint; simply walk down the wash. After passing a corral, it climbs up and over a low hill on the right to follow another wash. After passing another corral, the path bends right then begins climbing moderately towards some white outcropping of rock on the edge of Skull Mesa. As you enter an area with dirt of a dark brown color, the path becomes somewhat faint as it climbs the rocky hillside in an area which exhibits the characteristics of overgrazing. Look for small cairns which lead up to a shoulder which is divided by a fence and contains a signed junction with the other end of the Skull Mesa Trail which heads right). Turn right on the Skull Mesa Trail which climbs moderately to steeply straight up the hillside towards the mesa above. As you get closer to the top, the path negotiates a series of switchbacks until it eventually reaches the top of the mesa. The trail then bends right and winds its way along a level path through a grassy area dotted with basalt boulders. There are supposedly some old rock walls from ancient Indian dwellings in the area, but I did not see them. I did see several large flocks of small birds which covered the mesa and made quite a racket. Eventually the path reaches the edge of the mesa and descends along a steep path to the junction with the Quien Sabe Trail. Turn left and follow the Quien Sabe Trail back to the Skunk Creek Trail. If you've come this far and are tired the shorter way back to your car is to turn right on the Skunk Creek Trail and return the way you came earlier. If you still want to hike some more, turn left on the Skunk Creek Trail which descends moderately through a series of hills to arrive at a gate and stock pond. The path then bends right and begins descending moderately along the right hillside above the deep 'V' shaped drainage of Skunk Creek. The trail descends more steeply as you drop down into the drainage of Cave Creek and the junction with (what else?) the Cave Creek Trail #4. The sign also indicates that the Cave Creek Trailhead is 5.5 miles straight, which is incorrect, the distance is closer to 3 miles. Turn right on the Cave Creek Trail as the path bends right to follow a flowing stream on one side of the bank or the other. Look for a good example of a crested saguaro when the trail is traveling along the left hillside above the stream bed. After passing this cactus, the path drops down and crosses the stream bed, travels on the right hillside for a while, then descends to stream level, following a wide flat track through the riparian vegetation to the junction with the right branching Cottonwood Trail you had taken earlier. Continue straight the remaining distance back to your car (~20 miles).
Rating (1-5 stars):
A nice long desert hike which is nice enough, if a bit rocky. The author, realizing he'd left his headlamp at home, walked fast the entire way to avoid getting stuck out after sunset completing the hike in just under 8 hours.
Maps: Tonto National Forest Map or Click here (note: I reproduced this this map by copying the sign the Forest Service placed at the Cave Creek Trailhead. It is only as accurate as the Forest Service made it.)
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.
Desert vegetation along the
Skull Mesa Trail.
Skull Mesa from the
Cottonwood Trail.
Waterfall along the
Cottonwood Trail.
The climb up to Skull Mesa.