There is alot of variety to Cave Creek hiking, and Go John Trail is one of the most well known trails in this area. In fact, it was previously showcased by Sweat Magazine as reader’s choice best hike. And all for good reason. The Go John Trail is just the right amount of challenge mixed in with all the beauty you could possibly want. Sweeping views of the Sonoran Desert, and rolling, mountainous hills, covered with saguaro. This trail will take you through lush washes, and arid landscapes. And now, after the fires of 2020, it is also home to a burn scar which will shape the landscape for years and years to come.
Whether you are a local or just visiting, if you have the time (and weather) for this trail, it is a must.
Need to Know
Location: Cave Creek Regional Park
Run By: Maricopa County
Fee: $7 per car
General Difficulty: Moderate
Round Trip Length: 5.4-6 miles (8.7 km)
Accumulated Gain: 1,260 feet (384 meters)
Crowd Levels: Light
Other activities: Camping, picnicking, visiting the nature center (where there is a desert tortoise!)
Why Do the Go John Trail?
The first time that I did this trail, I was a little underwhelmed, particularly because the person who took me kept telling me that it was the most beautiful trail in all the metro area. I’m sure that some people would agree with her, but I am partial to Spur Cross myself, if I were to point you towards my favorite trail. In any case, in the past few years, I have returned to the Go John Trail again and again, and I’ve really gained an appreciation for this trek. I think it’s a great way to experience the Sonoran Desert, whether it is your first time or your 100th.
There is really wonderful plant biodiversity on this trail, because you get some different microbiomes. You have the arid desert, and then some slightly lusher areas when you cross some washes. On wildflower years, I have seen all kinds of beautiful blooms here. And there are some extremely impressive saguaro along the trail as well. Likewise, there are tons of animals that you can view from the trail, although this takes much more practice, as many are experts at hiding.
Since 2020, there is also another reason why this trail is special to me- it is home to a large burn scar from the 2020 fire season. From this, you should be able to tell that “special” has an unorthodox connotation here. This isn’t something that makes me happy; in fact, the last time I walked through the scar, I cried. There are hundreds of saguaro that will likely die from the fire, invasive plants are already coming in, and its just a devastating landscape. But, I think it serves as an important look into what we risk by not addressing wildfire concerns here in Arizona and elsewhere.
OVER 80% OF WILDFIRES ARE CAUSED BY PEOPLE!
Which means we can prevent many of them, but we need for people to care.
The Go John Trail starts at the parking lot at the very end of the road in the recreation area. It is a loop hike that you can start heading north or east. The first section of the trail (if you head north on the Maricopa Trail) rises up over a saddle in the mountains. It’s not a particularly steep incline, but it was sustained enough to get my heart rate up. This is the hardest part of the trail, in my opinion, and after you make the top of this rise, Go John will take you down into a valley where you will first enter the burn scar.
Before you descend onto the main length of the trail, however, I would suggest pausing to enjoy the view. The saddle is a great place to snap some pictures of the valleys to either side, one with the heart of Phoenix and one still wild (for now). The rest of the trail is fairly low elevation, so there aren’t tons of other spots for pictures until the end. That being said, the mountains in Spur Cross will be at eye line for most of your trek, so the horizon-to-horizon beauty is there.
It’s also the perfect place to compare the healthy desert with the burnt desert. The difference is striking.
Once you hike down into the washes, you will have some wonderful opportunities to see Sonoran desert biodiversity, with a multitude of plants growing in this relatively lush part of the Phoenix valley. But the trail will continue in and out of the burn scar for miles after the saddle. Birds abound despite the damage, however, and if you know where to look (and how to be both safe and respectful of the animals) there is also some good herping here.
The way back towards the trailhead goes require you to gain some elevation again, but it is much more gradual than the first half of the trail. And once you round the mountains to the east, you will finally exit the burn area and start exploring the thriving desert again. The difference should be immensely apparent.
Despite what some uninformed people might proclaim, the desert is not empty. My home is full of life, it just so happens to look less lush than what most people are used to. In fact, Arizona is the third most biodiverse state in the United States.
The Go John Trail is 6 miles long, and believe it or not, people have died here before. Never take hiking lightly; be safe! You are your own responsibility and this guide is not a guarantee of your safety.
Do not hike when it is hot (be wary of 85 degrees and higher).
Bring 2-3 liters of water on your hike, as well as salty and sugary snacks.
Wear good hiking boots that will protect your feet and help prevent you from slipping on sandy rocks.
For more safety tips, please reference our other hiking guides.
Does Fire Belong in the Sonoran Desert?
Not in the way that we are seeing them now. Fires in the Sonoran Desert have not been as large, as hot, and as common as they are now. This change towards more fires that burn larger areas and are more destructive while burning is primarily due to various things that we are doing to the landscape. (1) We are lighting more fires. (2) Climate change is causing drought and higher temperatures which support fires. (3) Human-introduced, exotic grasses and competitive, fast-growing annuals are creating heavy fuel loads where there didn’t used to be any.
These more intense, more common wildfires are changing our landscape and the charismatic saguaro serves as a good example of why. These giant, loveable cacti are not adapted to fire and they are slow growing. So, when wildfires cross the landscape, they may initially survive but with more than 30% burns, even the oldest plants will die within 5 years. Young saguaro are even more vulnerable. Then, it is invasive grasses that emerge from the newly burnt soils. They compete for resources with the tiny, saguaro seedlings and if there are young saguaro that manage to grow after the fire, they are at risk for the next fire, which the invasive grasses will provide fuel loads for.
It IS Up to You To Prevent Wildfires
As Smokey Bear always says- it is up to us to prevent wildfires and that is true! There are several key things that you can do.
(1) Target shoot responsibly.
Many of our fires are started by target shooters, but this can be prevented. Pick places to shoot where there isn’t a heavy load of dry grasses and plants that can catch on fire easily from a spark. Choose areas with berms. Don’t shoot at metal targets which will spark, and don’t shoot at explosives of any kind.
(2) Check your tow chains.
If towing while on the road, insure that all of your safety chains are either outfiitted with anti-spark covers or adjusted so that they can’t drag on the group.
(3) Watch where you park.
Do not park your vehicle over dried grasses. Sparks from vehicles can and do cause fires.
(4) Do not throw cigarettes or leave camp fires unattended.
Tossing cigarettes on the ground and leaving campfires unattended and insufficiently doused can put entire landscapes at risk as well as the people in them. Put out your fires with water and stirred until they are completely out (no steam, no heat), and stamp out your cigarettes and pack them out with you.