Allow me to preface this by noting my inspiration to hike this creek: November 2007 Arizona Highways Hike of the Month. Those authors really do know how to make hikes sound good.
Cottonwood Creek is a normally dry creek that serves as a drainage for the Hieroglyphic Mountains. Although it is so close to the extremely popular Lake Pleasant, it feels very remote, sees few hikers, and is home to mountain lions, deer, rattlesnakes and wild burros. The hike begins on Castle Hot Springs Road on a large pull off on the west side of the road about 5 miles from the Carefree Highway. The trail starts on the northwest corner of the parking lot just past a low, negotiable barbed-wire fence.
Follow the footpath west from the parking area, which parallels the creek for about a quarter of a mile until it drops down to the dry creek bed. Unless you are hiking in the rainy season, you are immediately greeted by the largest pool of water you will likely encounter for the entire trip. This area is rather lush with cottonwood, willow and mesquite trees, but don't let it fool you; the majority of the hike will be in a sun-exposed, arid wash. Turn left into the creek and from this point on, there is no trail except the occasional game trail to surpass an impassible boulder. In about a half a mile, keep your eye out for petroglyphs on a large east-facing boulder sitting towards the left side of the creek.
The terrain is typical of a dry desert creek bed with some mild bouldering, but nothing to worry about. There are also a few sparsely scattered, thickly vegetated riparian areas that will stretch for 100 feet or so and then quickly retreat back to desert landscape. A couple of these instances strongly resemble springs with small seeps that carve tiny paths through sandy banks before before reaching pools shaded by cottonwood trees. According to my USGS topo of the area, however, there are no springs along cottonwood creek. At about 1 mile, the creek forks and both forks seem equally as likely to be the main arm of the creek; take the right (north) fork. There are several dry waterfalls in this stretch that lead to pools of stagnant water that I imagine provide for a very pleasant hike after rain. The creek soon takes a sharp turn west again when it runs into an unnamed peak.
At mile 2.5 it passes a jeep road and the wilderness boundary. Coincidentally, the scenery improves at this point. Views of the jagged peaks and deep canyons open up ahead and offer stark contrast to the rounded hills behind you. In another mile or so the creek passes the base of a huge, awe-inspiring amphitheater on the left. Scramble and bushwhack up a steep wash to this shady, cool amphitheater for a great lunch spot. The shade from the huge, sheer walls and pools of water cool the air several degrees. There are numerous caves and alcoves scattered up the walls and many of them are within feasible climbing distance. On my hike I decided this would be a good turn-around spot. While hiking back, my hypnotic speed-walking was interrupted by a loud snort. On the hill above me were 6 burros, eying me painfully suspiciously. The male warned me with two other loud grunts before I reached a distance that was comfortable with him. By the time I reached the path back to the car I was more than ready to ditch the loose rocks and finally walk on something solid. Soon I started hearing traffic, and then my car appeared, a welcome sight to my extremely sore feet.
I thoroughly enjoyed this hike, but I enjoy almost every hike I do, simply because I get excited to explore new areas. It didn't offer too much spectacular scenery, but it did offer solitude and wild burros, and to me, that makes it worth while. Note that the road on USGS topo Governors Peak that looks like it should be Castle Hot Springs is NOT Castle Hot Springs Rd. This really screwed me up when hiking because I thought I dropped into the creek in a completely different spot than I really did. - Oct 22 2007 azpride