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Seven Springs Recreation Area, Outer Loop - 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). Several decent loop hikes can be made from the Cave Creek Trailhead. I will describe a long loop hike circumnavigating the entire area using the Cottonwood and Cave Creek Trails. Be aware that mountain bikes and horses are allowed on all trails in the area.
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: 20 miles
Date Hiked: December 2003
Weather Conditions: Warm and sunny
Required Skills:
Hike Description: The loop is described traveling clockwise. 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. Stay left on the Cottonwood Trail which climbs a grassy slope dotted with: juniper, prickly pear, cholla, scrub oak, bursage, cat's claw and sugar sumac. The path bends right and enters a wide gully, traveling along a hillside; first on the right, then on the left side, until you eventually reach a junction with the left branching trail #245 (which is not shown on the map, but I believe it leads to the Bronco Trailhead). The trail then begins climbing gently through an area of low rolling hills, past a fence then down the other side to follow a wash. Shortly after climbing out of the wash on the right, you'll reach a junction with the right branching Skull Mesa Trail #248 (5 miles), stay straight on #247. The trail 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 (notice a trend yet?). 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). Continue through the fence, remaining on the Cottonwood Trail as the path follows a ridge line down, crosses a wash, performs a short, steep climb to another ridge, then begins descending once again. You'll catch a glimpse of Forest Road #48 as you complete a series of switchbacks, finally reaching the signed junction 'T' with the Cave Creek Trail #4 which heads right (left will take you to the FR #48 road end). Turn right and begin walking up a wide dirt road (10 miles). When you reach a saddle, the path becomes more of a trail as it begins to wind it's way up a wide valley between two prominent ridges. The scenery changes little over the next 5 miles as you stump along the rocky path. Eventually, after passing through a fence, you will reach an sign which indicates the Skunk Creek Trail #246 is 2 miles ahead, Cottonwood Trail is 5 miles (15 miles). A bit further, after passing a corral and gate, the rocks underfoot abate somewhat as the path becomes somewhat more level as you begin to follow a drainage, which was flowing when I was here, to a junction with the right branching Skunk Creek Trail #246 (Quien Sabe Trail #250 is 2 miles right, Cottonwood Trail is 5 miles right). The sign also indicates that the Cave Creek Trailhead is 5.5 miles straight, which is incorrect, the distance is closer to 3 miles (17 miles). Continue straight 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 completed the hike at a brisk pace in 8 hours, which included a 0.5 hour detour to look for some secret ruins and petroglyphs.
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.

Typical view along the
Cottonwood Trail.
Petroglyphs found off
the trail.
Saguaros and triangular rocks
along the Cave Creek Trail.
Crested Saguaro.