Elephant Mountain Loop trail is another trail that made the 2021 #ILoveArizonaHikingChallenge and it has been one of my favorite day treks in the Phoenix-metro area for years. While the official maps say that this hike is 6.5 miles in length, I usually clock in at about 7 miles by the time I finish. Along the way, you will get to see Cave Creek (the actual creek), the majestic Elephant Mountain, and some of the most vibrant and biodiverse Sonoran Desert landscapes in the area. 7 miles is quite a challenge for anyone who doesn’t regularly do longer hikes, however, and the lack of shade will also add to the challenge of this trail. That being said, if you are ready for a long loop and the weather is good, this near-city trail is not to be missed.
- 1 You Will Love the Elephant Mountain Loop Trail if You Are Looking for a…
- 2 On the Trail
- 3 Need to Know Information
- 4 How to Get There
- 5 Staying Safe
- 6 Help Prevent Wildfires
- 7 Learn More About Phoenix-metro and Arizona
You Will Love the Elephant Mountain Loop Trail if You Are Looking for a…
(1) Beautiful and Challenging Trail
Due to its length, the need to navigate across several trails, and the elevation gain, the Elephant Mountain Loop Trail is a challenge. Further, this trail is very exposed, making it dangerous in the summer months. That being said, if you are physically fit, have the right gear, and the weather is good (not too hot and not too cold/rainy), this is a beautiful trek.
Your reward for all of your hard hiking will be amazing views of Spur Cross and Elephant Mountain. You will also see Cave Creek, and the Tonto National Forest beyond.
You will see some of the most amazing Sonoran Desert biodiversity on this trail. In the spring, in particular, you will get to marvel at the flowers of many different species of plants, including cacti and annuals. Among the plants, many different kinds of birds will play. Reptiles scitter underfoot. And once in a while, you will also catch a glimpse of a mammal here or there.
One way or another, keep your eyes peeled while hiking and consider taking notes on the plants and animals that you see along the way.
On the Trail
I always take this loop in a counterclockwise direction, so that’s how I will describe the trek.
When you get started on the Elephant Mountain loop trail, you will be on the Spur Cross trail, leaving from the main Spur Cross Ranch parking lot. (Please do not try to sneak into the park. I’ve seen people on AllTrails talking about that, and it’s not cool. Maricopa County Parks and Rec gets most of its funding for maintaining trails and keeping people safe from entrance fees. Do your part and pay to enter. It’s affordable, just bring some cash and small bills.)
The Spur Cross section will take you down towards the creek, and allow you to cross. My favorite time to visit is when there is a little bit of water flowing. This is also a really great place to enjoy the biodiversity of this area, as you will get to enjoy the habitat of the dry desert and the wet riparian area of the creak. As I always say, there is nothing more beautiful than water in the desert. After you cross, you will be hiking up into the foothills. Be prepared for some very open, arid lands at this point. Again, don’t do this trail in the heat, and DO wear sunscreen! And practice safety near the water for yourself and any kids in your party.
About 0.4 miles after you cross Cave creek, you will follow signage onto the Tortuga trail, which will continue to take you through the foothills.
Now, the transition from the Tortuga trail to the Elephant Mountain trail is a little confusing. So, be sure to keep your eyes peeled. (I’d also suggest bringing along some downloaded maps to track your progress). 0.7 miles from the Spur Cross junction, you will take the right-hand trail (heading north), and then there will be a small trail on the left hand about 0.2 miles further down. Most of the trails thus far have been wide, but Elephant Mountain is not maintained quite like Spur Cross or Tortuga. So, don’t expect the trail to be that wide. There is signage, however, so don’t be confused by spider trails.
Once you get onto the Elephant Mountain trail, the scenery will change a little bit as the soil becomes a little bit of a darker red, and you head down into a dry wash. This is a very interesting part of the trek, and really beautiful, if stark.
After you pass the junction with TR 252, you will start hiking upwards towards the pass in the mountain- between the head and body of the elephant. This is the most elevation gain at any one point on the trail. So, if you get winded, this will be the hardest part of the hike. (Although there are plenty of uphill climbs scattered throughout.)
When you reach the pass, stop to take pictures. This is the highest part of the trail; enjoy it. The views here are beautiful. This is also a great spot to stop for a snack and a bit of a rest.
From the pass, you will start hiking downwards onto a part of the trail that is surrounded by chollas and saguaros. As far as the saguaro go, they are massive and beautiful! If you are not used to cholla, however, exercise some extra caution. The pods from these cacti are covered in long and very sharp spines. If they stick you, you will need to use a stick (or bring a comb) to remove the pod. Once the pod is out, you can pull out the individual spines. These little pods lay around on the ground under the plants but you can also brush them off the plant if you run into them. So, just watch out for these guys. Don’t step on the pods or run into them! It’s easier than you might think.
Eventually, you will run back into the Spur Cross Trail, and you will take the trail to the left (heading east). This is a pretty long stretch through the desert. You will follow the hills, walk up and down them, and following the contours of the land. You will know when you are getting close to the trailhead when you see the creek again. (Before that, you will see both junctions with Tortuga). Once you cross the stream, you will head back up one final hill, pass the entry booth, and be back at the parking lot.
Pat yourself on the back and consider a rehydrating treat.
Need to Know Information
Trail difficulty: Difficult
Trail length: 7 miles
Elevation gain: 1,335 ft
Entrance fee: $3.00 per person
Toilets at the trailhead: Yes, porta-potties
How to Get There
Spur Cross Ranch, where the Elephant Mountain Loop trail is located, is in northern Phoenix-metro. You will need to get to Cave Creek Road, and then take Spur Cross road north. Spur Cross Road will end at the parking lot for Spur Cross Ranch. The final stretch of the road is a well-maintained dirt road that you can easily navigate with a car. I am unaware of public transportation that will get you all the way to the park.
Remember, when you are on the trail, you are responsible for your own safety. This guide is not a guarantee of your safety; you must determine what you are physically prepared to do, insure the weather is safe, and bring needed supplies.
Chillin’ with Cholla
For the Elephant Mountain Loop trail, one particular safety issue that you might not be super familiar with if you aren’t from Arizona is safety around chollas! Chollas are very common on sections of this trail, so if you’ve never dealt with these plants before, give this a read.
Chollas are a kind of cactus that can be found throughout Central Arizona, and among locals, they are known for their painful, sharp, and very “sticky” pods of spines. These pods can grow into their own cactus plant, and sometimes get nutrients for themselves by killing small mammals that get stuck with a pod. If that’s not enough to tell you to be wary of these plants… I don’t know what will.
For the rest of us, the best thing that you can do is WATCH WHERE YOU STEP. Chollas drop their pods all over and these can roll down hill and gather along and in the trail. Also, keep a respectable distance from the cholla plants themselves. Attached pieces of the cacti can come off if you rub up against them on accident.
If you do get a pod stuck in your clothes, shoes, or skin, don’t panic and DON’T grab them with your fingers. I always bring a comb on the trail with me as a tool to remove pods, but if you don’t have one handy, you can use a rock or stick to pull off the pod. Then you can pull out the spines individually.
That all being said, chollas spines have a painful chemical on them and tiny backwards facing spines that make them hard to remove from your skin. If you have a really bad run in with a cholla, you may consider checking in with your doctor or going to urgent care.
Please, the best thing to do is avoid getting these in your skin!
Help Prevent Wildfires
Wildfires are becoming more and more common in the arid desert that makes Elephant Mountain loop trail so spectacular. And while you might think fires are common in the desert, this isn’t the case for the Sonoran Desert. In fact, our plants (like the charismatic saguaro) aren’t adapted to fire. When they burn, they die, and their seedlings don’t resprout easy afterwards especially not when boxed out from exotic grasses. We lose saguaros, agaves, cacti, and more to fire. When the Sonoran Desert burns, it turns into grasslands. We lose our beautiful desert.
Many wildfires are started by people, and that means that we can play a role in preventing them and protecting the desert and its communities.
Tips for Doing Your Part
Camping and shooting in Spur Cross Ranch are not allowed, so I am not going to cover those here, but in terms of what you might do here- here are some things you might not be aware of.
For instance, parking your vehicle over or near dried grasses can start a fire. Any small spark can lite grasses and then those fires can rapidly grow. Only park in designated, graveled areas. Spur Cross has plenty of space and if it is full, check out some other areas. Cave Creek has a ton to offer!
If you are towing, please also check your chains. Dragging chains spark off of the ground and cause fires. In one case, a guy driving down one of our highways with a dragging chain caused 30 fires! Either make sure the chain is too short to drag and/or you can purchase a cover to prevent sparks.
Learn More About Phoenix-metro and Arizona
If you are looking for other hiking options in the Phoenix-metro area, check out our post on short by beautiful hikes in near Phoenix. Or for an alternative, challenging trail, give Bear Mountain near Sedona a look.
For information on other attractions, food, and events in the Phoenix-metro area, give our Guide to Phoenix a look. And for more information on our home state, see our Guide to Arizona.
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