This is the type of dayhike that defines the phrase "pack a lunch". It is doable as a dayhike at the right time of year, but can also be done a bit easier as an overnighter backpack. There are several areas on top of Skull Mesa and further down on the east side of it to set up camp.
Start off at the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area north of the Town of Cave Creek. Parking is free at the parking lot, but the envelopes to deposit a fee in are a few hundred feet down the road at the entrance to the county park. A little further past that, you will see your first trail junction. Take the right trail, which is the Spur Cross Trail. This is also a section of the newly constructed Maricopa Trail that will form a huge loop around Maricopa County when completed.
The first crossing of Cave Creek occurs about one mile in, at the north border of the county maintained park. From here, the trail officially enters the Tonto NF and becomes FR48. This will cross Cave Creek three more times before entering the Cave Creek Trail system "maintained" by the Tonto NF. At this point, there is a huge NF sign indicating the actual trailhead for this trail system. The real hike begins here, 2 miles in.
Take the trail up the hill to the east. A few hundred feet in, you will see a junction of the Cave Creek Trail #4 and the Cottonwood Trail 247. Go to your right and take the Cottonwood Trail. From here you will begin to gain a few hundred feet of elevation through some switchbacks, only to lose it again. After the initial drop, the trail goes up and down through a few more washes until it climbs up a ridge to the junction with the Skull Mesa Trail. The trail in most of this area consists of loose rock, which isn't the easiest to walk on in spots. It actually is much harder to negotiate on your way back when you're on you're 15th mile walking downhill. At the last wash crossing, there is a concrete trough. During our hike in April 2010, this trough was full and there was a slight flow of water coming from the spring there.
As you ascend the ridge to the Skull Mesa Trail junction, there are some very nice views of Skull Mesa, which are also a little daunting because you can see how far you still have to go. At one point along this ridge is a very nice camping spot, where we noticed a fire ring and some recent disturbance. Also along this ridge to your left is a cliff face of brownish-reddish rock. This appears in some spots to have the markings of waterfalls in wetter weather.
At the Skull Mesa Trail junction, there is a fence and gate. The gate has an automatic closer that's been built into it with a string anchored into the ground and some weights, which appear to be backhoe teeth. The signs labeling each trail are well marked and appear pretty new.
The Skull Mesa Trail has the typical switchbacks to be expected for this climb. The trail starts off not too steep but gets steeper soon enough. The rock isn't quite as loose as the Cottonwood Trail. To your right you will see one of the patches of white tuft rock visible from below. This can be used as a gauge for your ascent. As you ascend through the switchbacks, your views will alternate from this rock and the view east down the Cottonwood Trail to Camelback Mt., Piestewa Peak, Elephant Mt., etc. Superstition Mt., the Flatiron and Weaver's Needle become more and more visible during this climb. Once you get above the white tuft patches, you're really not too far from the top and the trail seems to become less steep. When this hike was done in April 2010, there were many patches of very abundant wildflowers all along this trail, as well as a big patch of high grass. I was glad to have my snake gaiters on for this portion of the trail. Ants also seemed to be extremely abundant along this trail, making it a dicey proposition to stop and rest for too long. It's also during this trail that the saguaros disappear due to the elevation gain.
On top of Skull Mesa, the trail becomes much more faint and harder to follow. Cairns mark the way well enough for the most part, but it's definitely a good idea to have a GPS with a route for this hike downloaded. The trail is also very rocky up here, but instead of the loose rock, it's the half buried rocks that don't give. It's almost like walking on river rock if the conditions are dry. Many footprints a foot or more deep were also observed from recent wet weather and this area is known to get very muddy and hard to negotiate in wetter weather. The trail descends on the east side of Skull Mesa down to a lower mesa and to the junction with the Quien Sabe Trail. The Quien Sabe Trail will be visible up ahead and to the left before you even descend from Skull Mesa. During the descent, the trail again consists of very loose rip rap and is pretty steep in parts. There are also a few downed trees that have to be walked around and/or through. After the junction with the Quien Sabe Trail, the Skull Mesa Trail ascends and then descends a small hill, levels out for a little bit, and then begins its final descent off the lower mesa back down to the Cottonwood Trail. During the ascent of the small hill, the trail again becomes faint and hard to follow. Our GPS's were put to good use during this part. Just before the big descent is a rancher gate made of sticks and wire. Some views of the city and the streets are visible from this spot. As the trail descends to the Cottonwood Trail, the loose rip rap isn't quite as abundant and the vegetation seems to become thicker. The steep sections are broken up by a few level sections narrowly cut into the hillside. Cottonwood Creek is visible below, as well as views up and down that canyon. Some very nice views of Skull Mesa and the lower mesa are also visible. At some point along the trail here the saguaros make their reappearance as you have descended.
The Skull Mesa Trail junctions with the Cottonwood Trail again on a ridge a few hundred feet and north of Cottonwood Creek. There are two sets of signs about 50 feet apart labeling all the trails here. The first set says it's 2 miles back up to the Quien Sabe Trail. The second set 50 feet away says it's 2.5 miles back to Quien Sabe. Thank you, Tonto NF.
The Cottonwood Trail stays high on the ridge above Cottowood Creek for a little less than a mile before it descends into the creek. To the west, Elephant Mt. is visible once again. Just before the descent, off to your left is a nice view down the hillside covered with saguaros and at some small waterfalls if the creek is flowing. During our April 2010 hike, the creek had some moderate flows in this area, but was dry by the time it reached the Spur Cross area. The trail follows the creek beds for a mile or so, weaving in and out. All the areas where the trail leaves the creek bed have been very adequately cairned, or are very obvious.
Soon after the trail leaves Cottonwood Creek for good, Cottonwood Spring is encountered. At this point is also the junction with the unofficial Trail 247A. This is at a very wooded, densely vegetated area (because of the spring). There is a brown plastic trail marker saying 247 and a rusty paint (?) can hanging from a tree marking this spot. From here, you can walk uphill for a half mile back to the original Skull Mesa Trail junction, or take 247A back to the trailhead. Remaining on the Cottonwood Trail, it's a bit of a climb back up to the Skull Mesa Trail as Cottonwood Spring seems to be the low point on this section of 247.
Once you get back to the Skull Mesa Trail junction, it's back the way you came along 247 to FR48 and back to the trailhead. The loose rip rap along this trail becomes more difficult as noted earlier and the descents seem probably steeper than they really are due to the fatigue that will inevitably set in at this point. During the final descent to Cave Creek, the creek is visible and a welcome sight. Walking through the creek (if you have waterproof boots) is recommended to cool off your barking dogs at this point.
During this section of the final descent on Cottonwood Trail 247 (or ascent on the way out), there is a section of the trail that seems to have been re-routed. As you descend, you will see a junction. Go left (straight), and it's shorter by a few hundred feet, although much steeper and on loose rock. Go right, and you go through switchbacks shaped like an upside down U (or almost even an M shape). Either way in either direction takes you to the same spot eventually. My previously purchased GPS mapping shows the shorter way as the official route, but the official HAZ route shows the U/M shape in this spot.
The hike back down FS48 and the Spur Cross/Maricopa Trail becomes a bit of a slog even though it's level and wide. You will definitely be spent by the end of this hike and ready for some rest and a good meal. Make sure to pack some extra water for this one, as well as a decent lunch and some snacks for energy along the way.
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