Anyone living in Phoenix-metro area who loves hiking is really lucky, because there is a desert park for every week of the year in the city. One of my favorites in Cave Creek Regional Park, which is part of Maricopa County’s park network. There are loop trails for every hiking ability, as well as stellar views of the mountains north of the city. The park is also home to some very unique landmarks, like the Michelin Man, a quartz ridge, and historic mines. To top it all off, the county has put amenities here for everyone, from the nature center to a playground, and miles and miles of trails.
It’s a wonderful place to explore the Sonoran Desert for visitors, and a must-hike for local trail-lovers. This guide will walk you through why you might consider visiting, need to know information, and explore some of the best trails in the parks.
Top Reasons to Consider Visiting Cave Creek Regional Park
(1) Get a healthy dose of the Sonoran Desert.
If you are from out of town and are in the northern part of Phoenix, Cave Creek Regional Park has everything you will need. They’ve got saguaros, beautiful views, mining history, unique rock formations, and a nature center.
(2) See a new part of the many desert preserves in the Phoenix-metro area.
If you are from Phoenix, Cave Creek Regional Park is a really high-quality preserve that shouldn’t be missed. Whether you like hiking, mountain biking, horse-back riding, camping, or just picnicking with friends and family, there is something for everyone here.
(3) Support Maricopa County Regional Parks with your fees.
Maricopa County does a lot to increase access to nature for the county with a huge network of parks. They work with national and state agencies to protect land and connect people to it. They also have staff members working exclusively on conservation efforts. So, your fees make a huge difference when you visit their parks and enjoy the beautiful desert.
(4) Bring your family to a park with something for everyone.
Horses, playgrounds, desert tortoises and more – oh my! This regional park has a little something for a whole family so it is a great get-away for everyone. On a cooler day in the winter, you might consider staying for the day to hike, picnic, horseback ride and relaxation. Not every desert park has quite so many amenities for all tastes.
(5) Learn more about the ecology of the Sonoran Desert.
A great place to start is in the nature center, but the trails have much to teach as well. As I explore below, Cave Creek Regional Park had a wildfire burn across some of its most iconic trails in 2020. Now, you can observe the damage that these fires do the plants that aren’t adapted for those kinds of natural disasters. You can also see the healing of the desert as well.
Need to Know Information
Address: 37019 N. Lava Lane, Cave Creek, AZ 85331
Contact: (602) 506-2930 ext 8
Entry Fees: $7.00 per vehicle
*Reminder: This is a Maricopa County park, so national and state annual passes are not valid here. If you live in Maricopa and your hike a lot, you might consider purchasing the Maricopa annual pass which is $88.
The Nature Center at Cave Creek Regional Park is a really neat little stop, especially if you have kids. My favorite thing is that they have built a little pond area with all kinds of plants and itty-bitty wildlife, and they have a desert tortoise.
Besides that, the Nature Center is where you go to chat with the park staff, plan out your trip, and learn more about the ecosystem here.
There are also a variety of planned events that leave from the Nature Center – so be sure to check out their website. These include educational events and volunteer gatherings that give back to the park.
The Go John Trail
The Go John Trail is the main hiking attraction of Cave Creek Regional Park. I had a friend-of-a-friend say this was the most beautiful trail she’s ever done (debatable) and this trail shows up in several guide books. So, while I wouldn’t agree that it’s one of the most beautiful trails in Arizona (we’ve got way too many), it’s definitely exceptional. And I have an entire guide devoted to it.
If you are really interested in doing this trail, I would definitely suggest that you read through my more comprehensive guide. I wouldn’t say that this is a difficult trail, but it is on the longer side. And people have died trying to hike it in the summer.
It’s a nearly 6 mile loop with 1,260 feet elevation gain.
The Overton Trail
The Overton Trail is a great loop option for a variety of hikers. If you are interested in Go John, but it seems little too long for you, Overton is a great alternative. If you want to see more of Cave Creek Regional Park, and you’ve already done Go John, this trail is a very nice experience to round out your exploration of the park. And if you are a go-getter, and you are looking for something longer than Go John, you can link the two trails for a mega-loop.
If you are interested in seeing the recovering burn area for yourself, Overton will also take you through a small section of it, up in the mountain pass. This is also the loop that is closest to the off-shoot trail that features the historic mine.
Needless to say, this is a must-see trail for the park.
On the Trail
It is a 3.5 mile loop with only about 524 ft elevation gain.
You can start the hike from the nature center or the Go John Trailhead. From the nature center, going clockwise, you will have a more gradual climb, although the elevation gain is near the beginning. If you’d like more of a warm-up, consider parking at the nature center and then going counter-clockwise, as this will have you walking on relatively flat ground for a while, before you make the steeper climb to the mountain pass. The opposite is true if you park at Go John.
While on this trail, you will round the smaller of the two mountains in the heart of the park. You also maintain a higher elevation for longer than the Go John trail, so the views of the surrounding desert are impressive for much of the trek.
The Quartz Trail
The Quartz trail is the easier of the three listed here. It is relatively flat, and not quite as long as Overton or Go John. However, it does offer lots of route options as it is connected to several other trails. Furthermore, it offers some really unique attractions from among the Cave Creek Regional Trails and Phoenix Trails in general.
First, this loop works well if you want to visit the “Michelin Man.” This is a saguaro that has taken on a very rare appearance. It has become big and puffy, making it look like its namesake. It’s a bit of a strange thing to see, but since you will get to acquaint yourself with regular saguaros while visiting (if you aren’t already). It’s cool to see something so unique.
Second, as its name suggestions, Quartz trail abuts a ridge of massive quartz boulders. There are a couple other places to see this in the city, but it really isn’t all that common. I can also say that no matter how many times I see these giant, white formations, I never get bored of them. There is just something magical about giant quartz rocks (not giant crystals, sorry).
If you want to do this whole loop, it is about 3.5 miles.
Other Interesting Tidbits
If you don’t feel like hiking, and/or you really love horseback riding, there are horseback riding tours provided in this park!
Cave Creek Regional Park is also home to several mines. One is featured on a trail, so you can take a peek. Be aware that the mine is barred off for safety. So, you will literally be taking a peek, not going in. Mines are a part of Phoenix’s history, from actual miners to people looking to bring investors to the area pre-A/C. But they are dangerous. Look but don’t touch, my friends.
Besides its historic significance, this county park is also the site of an extensive wildfire that happened in 2020. If you are interested in seeing what the desert looks like as it recovers from fires that it isn’t adapted for, hike Go John clockwise to see the landscape just over the mountain pass. There is also science being carried out on this park on the impact of fires on saguaros.
Did you know that saguaros (the iconic cactus that you see in cartoon form everywhere) are highly threatened by fire? They aren’t adapted for it and will die if they are burnt by only 30%. But it can take years for them to die, so many people don’t realize the harm the fire does to these sacred plants.
In speaking to the rangers at this park, I have learned that yes, sadly, people have died hiking here at Cave Creek Regional Park. They were unprepared for the heat and the rugged terrain. What is so tragic, besides that this was preventable, is that they were within eyesight of the parking lot when one of them passed.
So, please, do not underestimate the Sonoran Desert – even in the winter. People joke that it is a dry heat, but friends, this heat kills many people every year. The ground can get up to 150 degrees F.
What can you do to safely visit? First, DO NOT hike in the middle of the day on days when it will be more than 95 degrees. Second, bring more than the amount of water that you think you will need. 1 liter per hour is the common suggestion; so those little 8 oz. water bottles won’t cut it. It is also good to bring a salty snack for electrolytes and something sugary for energy.
See the above graphic for some more tips. But remember that your safety is always your responsibility on the trail. Protect yourself and do not hike if there is anything making it dangerous for you.
More About Phoenix-Metro
Whether you are visiting Phoenix-metro or live in-town, there is probably tons more to explore. I know, I’ve lived here my whole life (30+ years) and I am still discovering more and more in the city.
So, after you visit Cave Creek Regional Park, consider what your next adventure in Phoenix is going to be. I have a whole guide on the city and I am adding more information regularly.
And if you are just looking for more hikes after some of these, consider Pinnacle Peak.
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