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The Best Hike Near Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix, Arizona, is one of the best places for hiking in the United States.

Located in the middle of the state, Phoenix is a major metropolitan area surrounded by pristine nature trails and parks in the wild Sonoran Desert.

While Phoenix is world-famous for hot weather and desert landscapes, it can also be a hiker's paradise.

The best hike near Phoenix includes trails around Elephant Mountain.
Elephant Mountain

Weekend fitness buffs can hike, bike, and walk all over the Valley of the Sun.

There are many parks and trails in the Phoenix area, but the hike I'm going to recommend stands out as a challenge.

Spur Cross Recreation Area trail map
Spur Cross Recreation Area trail map

Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area

I have visited Phoenix more than 20 times over the last 15 years, and I go on a hike nearly every time.

My favorite areas are the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area and the Elephant Mountain Trail.

I even add the Metate and Tortuga trails to create a “super loop” and get a route that is a total of nine miles (15 kilometers).

My Elephant Mountain Super Loop Trail is a sure way to get a great workout and spend time on the trail with very few people around.

The last time my better half and I made the circuit was on New Year's Day.

The weather was clear and cold – it was just 43 F (6 C) at the trailhead.

A cold, early morning New Year's Day start hiking in the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area near Phoenix, AZ.
A cold, early morning New Year's Day start.

Dangerous, but Beautiful

Half of the year, this trail is hot and dangerous.

Signs at the trailhead warn of heat and not hydrating enough to make it back to the car.

Additionally, diamondback rattlesnakes are a common reptile in this area.

There are warnings on the trail map that state that much of the route is steep in places, unmaintained, and not for novice hikers or equestrian travel.

Dogs on a leash are welcome at Spur Cross Ranch, and we see several pups near the start and the end of our hike.

There are perhaps more than 80 dirt and gravel parking spaces at Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area entrance, but there are few spaces taken on this New Year's morning.

Spur Cross Conservation Area is the newest edition to Maricopa County's Regional Park System.

The area was an old cattle ranch and mining claim, and several archaeological sites are still present on the 2,154 acres (870 hectares) of Sonoran Desert land.

This time of year, there were very few animals around, but the Arizona Audubon Society says this area is important because of the diverse species' habitat.

It is part of a global network of places recognized for its outstanding value to bird conservation.

See also: McDowell Mountain Hiking in Phoenix

Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area is north of downtown Phoenix
Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area is north of downtown Phoenix

Where is Spur Cross Ranch?

The Spur Cross Conservation Area is less than an hour north of Phoenix, just past the upscale but quaint, historical towns of Cave Creek and Carefree.

A simple request on your directional map app for: “Spur Cross Trailhead” will take you there.

The drive is mostly freeway, but later changes to the back roads of “Old Town” Cave Creek, where a post-hike stop for lunch, dinner, or art gallery shopping is a must.

Cave Creek and Carefree have several hotels and motels.

We stayed at a lovely Airbnb in Carefree with a view of Elephant Mountain and the surrounding gorgeous open space in every direction.

Cave Creek runs through the desert around Phoenix, Arizona
Cave Creek runs through the desert

As you arrive at the trailhead for the best hike near Phoenix, there is no fee for parking, but a $3 fee per person entrance is collected by a volunteer docent at the gate.

We asked for a map and information about current conditions and hazards.

This is a dream hangout for snakes during the warm months, but on New Year's Day, they are tucked underground for the winter.

Cactus is Everywhere

The trail is filled with healthy examples of an endless variety of cacti.

The dominant saguaro is everywhere, and it is hard to miss at every turn because it is as big as a tree.

However, the area is also littered with barrel cactus, beehive and Santa Cruz cactus, prickly pear (paddle) cactus, and several cholla and hedgehog cactus varieties as well.

Since Cave Creek runs right through the area, everything seems well-watered and lush.

Crazy cactus: CT is stopped by a stunning saguaro
Crazy cactus: CT is stopped by a stunning saguaro

Nine-Mile Elephant Mountain Trail

After picking up your map at the trailhead, hike past the restrooms and picnic area and stay on the dirt road labeled Spur Cross toward the “old gate.”

This section of trails is mostly downhill and gives the hiker an overall perspective of what is to come.

After about one mile (1.6 kilometers), a sign directs you to take an almost hairpin turn to the left on the Metate Trail, which runs along Cave Creek and into the heart of the old Dude Ranch site and through the Solar Oasis.

This is an enjoyable and beautiful part of the trail.

Ready to climb up Tortuga Trail
Ready to climb up Tortuga Trail

After passing the Dude Ranch, make a right turn going up, up, up, and follow signs to Tortuga Trail.

Tortuga Trail rises quickly to a vantage point over the whole area but then falls again rapidly into the valley made by another tributary creek.

Once we are hiking on Tortuga Trail, we see no other people for nearly two hours.

CT hiking the easy section of Tortuga Trail
CT hiking the easy section of Tortuga Trail

Much of the trail is rocky and steep, and parts of the route even go through a dry creek bed.

Eventually, Tortuga Trail joins Elephant Mountain Trail.

Take a right turn and mark 3.6 miles (5.8 kilometers) down, 5.4 miles (8.6 kilometers) to go.

Elephant Mountain Trail
Elephant Mountain Trail

Elephant Mountain Trail is steep and rugged – just the kind of challenge we like, and another reason it's the best hike near Phoenix.

No horses or bikes are allowed here, and the final mile to the base of the final climb to the mountain is straight up.

See also: Sierra Nevada Adventure – White Mountain Peak

Food and phone break with a view
Food and phone break

We stop for a meal break and take in the views at the pass. It is the halfway point.

Downtown Phoenix is just visible to the naked eye, but the wilderness area feels rare – so close to a major city like Phoenix.

We are just a half-hour's hike from the summit of Elephant Mountain.

An unmaintained trail seems to lead up to the peak, but an official sign states that the path is closed.

Making our way down
Making our way down

After our rest and food stop, we complete the Elephant Trail Super Loop and go full speed down the mountain for 4.5 additional miles (7.4 kilometers) directly to the truck.

Our hike was four hours of pure bliss; it's the best hike in Phoenix.

***

The next time you're in Phoenix, Arizona, strap your boots on and make your way to Star Cross Ranch Conservation Area.

My Elephant Mountain Super Loop Trail may just become your favorite too.

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