The Perfect Seven Springs Day Hike
The Seven Springs trails are a great place to spend the day, or a weekend for both Phoenix locals and visitors to Arizona. It’s slightly cooler than the city due to its higher elevation (and distance from the city “heat island effect”). And there are some beautiful oases among the mountains where the spring runs.
For locals, Seven Springs is relatively close; from central Phoenix, it’s about an 1 to 1.5 hours away. However, its proximity to the city doesn’t mean that it isn’t a refreshing break from the urban landscape. As you follow the dirt road back into the Cave Creek mountains, you will find yourself heading deeper and deeper into a more grassy and green dryland than can be found anywhere else in the Phoenix-area. When you are close to the spring, you will also be delighted by the splash of green trees that have grown up surrounding the water source. While it isn’t a particularly cool place in the summer, during the spring and fall it is a great escape from the heat for hikers, campers, and picnickers alike.
For travelers visiting Arizona, the Seven Springs trails represent some very unique vistas and great hiking experiences. Whether you are just visiting Phoenix for a few days, or exploring Arizona more thoroughly, this area will give you the chance to see the impact of water on the desert, shaping the mountains and growing vibrant, green forests so striking you won’t believe your eyes.
Why You Might Love It Here
- Short drive from the city for a beautiful escape; you won’t even remember that Phoenix is right around the corner!
- Views of a unique desert landscape that lives between the drier Valley of the Sun and the higher forests and scrublands of northern AZ.
- A peaceful place to picnic and explore a spring in the desert.
- Plenty of trail options for people wanting to hike short and long, and all kinds of different vistas along the way.
- Camp grounds on-hand and nearby to lots of good restaurants in the Cave Creek area so you can make a day of it.
The 4 (Cave Creek Trail) and 246 (Skunk Creek Trail) Loop
While there are many options among the Seven Springs trails, my favorite loop is a mix of Trail 4 and Trail 246. This loop feels very long, so it isn’t necessarily an easy hike. But it does bring together many of the best views of the area, and lets you both explore the spring and head up into the grassy hills and mountains. It’s also fairly easy to navigate (but for a few parts which I will explain below). If you are looking for a day hike, this is definitely a great option, and if you’d like a shorter hike, I would suggest starting on Trail 4 and just turning around when you start to get tired.
Length: ~10 miles; our GPS’ could not agree on the exact length but it felt like 11-12 miles.
Difficulty: Difficult. This loop is long and has sections with considerable elevation gain. Walking short sections of Trail 4 would be relatively easy, however, for anyone looking for an alternative option.
Cumulative Elevation Gain: 1,722 ft
Cost: Free (as long as you park at the Cave Creek trailhead parking area); elsewhere you will need a Tonto Pass, which is $8 and can be purchased in town (see locations to buy these here). For camping it will be $75 dollars, and you will need to either call 1-877-444-6777 or go to recreation.gov to get a permit. See more information here.
Parking at the trailhead? Yes
Toilets at the trailhead? Yes; check Forest Service website for information on the bathroom’s status.
What to Bring
You will need to develop your packing list based on what you plan to do while you are on the Seven Spring Trails. But here is my list of essentials.
(1) Safety gear and first aid kit appropriate for the amount of time you will spend in the wild and the number of people in your group.
(2) Food and water. Even though it is slightly cooler up here, you will still want to keep hydrated. This is an essential safety and hiking equipment for hiking in the desert (or anywhere). You’ll also want to bring plenty of snacks! If camping, plan your meals.
(3) Good, broken-in hiking boots, and if you plan on walking through the spring, hiking sandals.
(4) Maps of the area (you can find a basic one from Hike Arizona, here.
(5) Clothing layers for a cool morning and hotter afternoons.
Getting There and Where to Park
In order to get to the Seven Springs Recreation Area, you will need to drive to north Phoenix, and up through or past Carefree. There are several roads that will take you up in the right direction, depending on where you are coming from. Most likely, you will need to take the 101 north and then get off on Pima, Scottsdale, or Cave Creek. Then you will head north until you hit Cave Creek Road or until Cave Creek turns east.
Then you will just keep following Cave Creek as it winds back north, past the road leading to Lake Bartlett. Cave Creek Road will eventually turn into Seven Springs Rd, and the pavement will run out. The following dirt road feels fairly long for people driving cars, but it is do-able. I have driven that road with my little cars over the past decade pretty regularly. Just take your time and you will be fine. If you are in a vehicle with higher clearance, this will be no problem. That being said, there is flooding sometimes on the road, and the creek passes directly over it at a few points. So, no matter what you are driving, obey signs warning of dangerous conditions, and avoid crossing the water if it is too high.
While there are plenty of options among the Seven Springs trails, I will be covering the 4/426 Skunk and Cave Creek loop here. Being as it is a loop, you can take it clockwise or counterclockwise. Either is fine, but I personally like the counterclockwise direction the most. This allows you to amble along the stream and really enjoy this part of the trail before hiking up into the mountains. However, you will need to be well aware of your hiking ability on this route, as it might be easy to feel like you can keep going while the trail is relatively flat and then get tired on the second half. If you go clockwise, you will do the hard part first, but when you get back to the stream, you will be pretty tired and you really won’t appreciate the slight uphill climb back to your car.
Up From the Parking Lot
There’s a bit of a trek from the parking lot to the rest of the trail system in the area, but it quite a lovely stretch. Before you leave, make sure to snap a picture of the map at the trailhead for further reference. Then you will walk up a steep stretch of the trail where you will catch some great views of campground and forest. While short, this part of the journey gives you a little taste of the alpine, with some evergreen trees and higher elevation scrub trees. Luckily, particularly for your way back, it’s pretty flat for here as well but for the initial elevation gain and the walk back down to the road at the end.
Walking Along the Creek
Once you hike down from the higher parts of the trail, you will cross the road and then follow Trail 4 as it follows the creek. As you get to the bottom of the hill, follow the trail as it turned to the right, and cross over the cattle fence into the forest. You will then keep to the right and follow the trail through the forest of riparian trees that grow along the watered soils of the creek. This is a beautiful place to stop for a picnic. Shady places with flowing water are rare in central Arizona, and its always worth enjoying them when you have the opportunity to see one.
As the trail continues on, the relatively flat bottom of the stream bed will narrow, and you will find yourself following the track along rocky cliff sides overlooking the creek. The forest will fall behind you and you will find yourself heading back down into the Sonoran Desert landscape. Saguaros are perched on the trailside, and while the water maintains a vibrant plant array, the trees will become more scarce.
Eventually, the trail will take you right down to the stream, where you will have to cross over the water to continue on. While less shaded than the forest, this is another good place to stop for a snack and rest before continuing on through the desert.
Up, Up, Up and Into the Mountains
Just when you are wondering just how far it must be to the junction for 426, you will find a wooden sign pointing you up into the grass-covered mountains to your left. From here, you will follow the trail as it climbs its up and up… and up. While this is the most strenuous section of the trail, you will be afforded with exceptional views of the surrounding landscape, and if you look carefully into the stoney nooks to your right, you might catch water a glimpse of water flowing down the mountain side. These are places that remain dry for much of the year, but when there is snow melt or rain, they offer a special glimpse at the rate beauty of desert waterfalls.
When you reach a saddle in the rolling mountains, you will pass the little grassy area that gives this section of the trail it’s name. Skunk Tank. Here, the stones of the mountain catch water and provide the plants and animals with water in an otherwise dry section of the mountains.
From there, you will continue upwards for a time, crossing back into the land of puffy, short trees. The trail will widen at this stage, turning into something of a narrow dirt road, and this will take you back down towards the creek. The trail does get a little lost and hard to navigate once you need to cross the creek bed, so keep your eyes peeled for cairns and the familiar sights of Trail 4. Eventually, you should get back to the road, which you will cross again and then hit the first section of the trail back towards your car.
(1) Always remember that your safety on the trail is your responsibility. Be prepared and be cautious. Bring food, water, sturdy shoes, and first aid equipment.
(2) Always let someone know where you will be hiking and when you expect to get back.
(3) Exercise caution as crossing the stream bed, the round rocks, particularly in the water, can be unstable and hard to walk across.
(4) There are some large carnivores that live in this area, so be aware. You may wish to carry bear spray if you are worried, but also researching what to do if you run into any large predators can also be helpful. The odds are slim that you will see them, but it’s something to be aware of.