This is a great day hike for when you don't have time to get out of the Phoenix area! It starts out paralleling a picnic area and campgrounds running along Cave Creek. In about .5 miles, you pass a private ranch and then it gets much better. For the first mile or so this is a level hike following along the creek. This is a multi-use trail for horses and mountain bikes as well, but we never saw any. Lots of birds in this area, and although we didn't see much wild life, it's a perfect area for it.
After the first 1.5 miles, the trail turns away from the creek, just for a short time, and then drops into a canyon. There are lots of pools and rocks for the next 2 miles. It was hard to find a good lunch spot because this is the kind of trail you want to keep following to see what's next. Around mile 3 there is a terrific specimin of a crowned saguaro--easy to miss when your eyes are fixed on the stream bed and the water. At 3.6 miles you can continue following the Cave Creek Trail which runs about 6 miles further, you can go out the way you came, or you can take the Skunk Tank Trail to make a big loop. (The Cave Creek Trail is supposed to end at FR 48, just north of the town of Cave Creek)
Up to now, this trail is easy. The Skunk Tank portion makes this a whole lot tougher. Taking this trail, you get to go up for approximately 1000 feet in the next 1.5 miles. Even with lots of switchbacks, this is a big climb, with lots of little elevation changes and loose footing. On the bright side, there are some really great views looking back down the valley and north to the plateaus. Just prior to the summit, you will pass Skunk Tank, which was full of water on this trip, but really looks like a cattle pond. You pass through a gate here and continue up a little more.
At the summit, there is a sign pointing to either Quin Sabe/ Skull Mesa or to the Cottonwood Trail which drops down to the right as you face the sign. Take the Cottonwood Trail. At this point the trail follows an old mining road, and while wide, the footing is pretty loose. Between 7 and 8 miles in, you can see the remains of the mine off the hill to the left.
The Cave Creek portion of the trail is the easiest and most scenic, but for those of us who prefer loop trails, this was a great one. We saw 5 other groups of people, all near the creek around mile 2, but had the world to ourselves the rest of the time. (Although I am sure it gets much more crowded as the weather warms up.)
We found this trail in 100 Hikes in Arizona, which shows mileage as 8 roundtrip. The Skunk Tank turnoff is shown at 3 miles. On our GPS, it was just about 3.6. The sign at the trail head show that it is 5.5 miles back to the Cave Creek Trail head. This description is based on our GPS readings. Total hiking time was 4 hours, 50 minutes, not including lunch and creek exploring breaks.