Arizona - Three Winter Hikes

Choose Your Level Of Challenge: Easy, Moderate, Difficult


February 1, 2019

My granddaughter Trinity at the Wave Cave.

Jewel Of The Creek – Dragonfly Trail (Easy)

Jewel of the Creek is a 26.6-acre preserve that protects a beautiful riparian area - one of the last remaining perennial streams in Maricopa County. The Desert Foothills Land Trust bought the land in 2001. The Dragonfly Trail is simply a one-mile loop through the riparian area.

It is one of the prettiest desert hikes you will ever see, with towering trees, lush vegetation and flowers near the creek, and giant saguaros and other cacti a stone's throw away. It is open from sunrise to sunset, but there are no motorized vehicles, no dogs, and no horses allowed.

A Good, Stable Trail

The Dragonfly is a very easy hike. The first little bit, when you are descending into the creek channel, runs along the face of a rather steep drop-off, but it's a good, stable trail. As long as you are able to manage a slope and a few rocks, you'll be fine. You'll be coming back up this same stretch when you finish the hike.

Once you get down into the bottom, the trail crosses the creek fairly soon, then follows the creek channel. You can choose to turn left at the first intersection and loop back to the trailhead, or you can continue on along the trail. If you choose to keep going, you'll get to see a cave off to the right, and you'll get to pass through several "tunnels" formed by overhanging branches. It's a fantastic hike.

The day we were there we never saw another person. This was in October and it was still a bit warm, so there may be more hikers as the weather gets cooler. It seems like most of the hikers jet right past Jewel of the Creek and go to Spur Cross.

Be Aware Of Distance

It's easy to get off the trail and end up on the Maricopa trail, so be aware of how far you have come. You will need to re-cross the creek (dry except for small pools when we were there) to head back to the trailhead. As long as you are following the creek channel, you are still in Jewel of the Creek.

To make the shorter loop, which is considerably less than a mile, just make a left at the first opportunity. This will take you across the creek and back to the parking area. If you continue on, you'll follow the stream for about half a mile before making a sharp left that will take you across the creek again. Then it will take you back to the trailhead, which is about another half mile. It's a very nice little hike.

Teenagers Enjoyed

I took four teenagers on this hike. They loved it, but they were a bit bummed that the stream wasn't running. We plan to go back after it rains. We saw a lot of birds and cactus flowers, as well as some big spiders and large red bugs that we couldn't identify.

Teenagers are easier to keep happy if you allow them to bring a friend along. They just walk and talk and enjoy the outdoors. My teenaged granddaughters are very experienced hikers, so I feel confident even when they get out of my sight. Keep in mind that the desert does have snakes and other venomous creatures, so if your kids are younger, keep them close to you.

Getting There

To get to Jewel of the Creek, just head toward Spur Cross. From Carefree Highway and Cave Creek road, go north on Cave Creek for about 2-1/2 miles to Spur Cross Road. Turn north and drive about 4-1/2 miles toward Spur Cross. The last mile and a half is gravel road, but it's an easy drive even for a passenger car.

Just before you get to Spur Cross, start watching the left side of the road. The Jewel of the Creek entrance is sort of angled back to the left and can be easy to miss. We simply parked and walked through the gate. There was nothing there that indicated that there was a fee to get in, and the gate was unlocked. There was an artistically rusted sign, but that was it.

The trails are marked here and there, but you'll be better off if you take a map. You can print one here:

Superstition Mountains – Massacre Falls Trail (Moderate)

We just did this hike with our granddaughters and our seven-month-old French Brittany pup this month. The draw for this hike is the waterfall, but be warned - it may or may not be a waterfall when you are there. When we went, there was still snow on the Superstitions, and the waterfall was frozen - there was ice at the top and bottom, and just barely a trickle in between. But the snow on the mountains, the spring we found along the way, and the views of the other frozen water falls made it worth the effort.

Entire Trip Is Uphill

I'm calling this one moderate because the entire trip to the falls is uphill. Most of it isn't steep, but you certainly get a workout on that steady three-mile climb. I looked at several trail guides before we went, and got estimates of 2 – 2.5 miles to the falls. They lie. My GPS said we had gone 2.65 miles and we weren't even to the falls yet.

We were at Massacre Grounds, and we could see a big portion of Massacre Falls, but we weren't there yet by at least a half mile. The only way I knew that we were at Massacre Grounds was by my Topo Maps app, which shows me where I am in real time.

Views Of Weaver's And Little Weaver's Needles

Surprisingly, this trail had quite a bit of traffic on it, including lots of well-behaved dogs. The trail is also used by horses. The scenery is gorgeous, and you get views of Weaver's Needle and Little Weaver's Needle, sometimes simultaneously. We saw a glint of light off to the right on the way up, and found a beautiful little spring that sent a sheen of water over a boulder into a small pool that wasn't visible from the main trail. There was a faint side trail to it, but it was a bit brushy. Felt very adventurous.

As I said, the trail is uphill all the way to the falls, and there are only a couple of slippery rocky parts. Coming down is easier on your lungs, but it can be a bit hard on the knees. Even our college girls were tired at the end of this hike. It took us almost five hours to go six miles, and with an hour drive to get there and another hour home, that made for a full day.

Bring Lots Of Water And Snacks

Be sure to bring lots of water and something to eat along the trail. We forgot food and we were starved when we got back to the car. A hiking stick like my trusty TrekPod will be helpful on the steep bits, and help you keep your balance on the rocky parts.

To get there, take the Apache Trail to the First Water Trailhead and drive down the dirt road about half a mile to a second trailhead. There is a fence with go-throughs. A second trail leads off to the right - you want the left-hand one.

Superstitions - Wave Cave (Difficult)

When we saw photos of people at the Wave Cave, my granddaughters could hardly wait to go there and get some great Instagram pics for themselves. I researched this trail on many different sites, and I think that a lot of the information out there is either old, misleading, or both.

This Is Not Easy

The Wave Cave, despite what you may read, is not an easy hike. It starts out easy, with a gentle uphill walk up an old road, but before long, it begins to climb in earnest, and the last bit is very difficult - even my teenaged granddaughters were obliged to use all fours to get up it.

Also, there is a spot along the way where you have to get over a huge boulder. I dropped my water bottle from the top of it, and if a nice hiker hadn't tossed it to me, I swear I would have left it rather than go back and have to climb the boulder again. You absolutely need good hiking shoes with lots of grip.

I also read many descriptions of the trail that said it was hard to find. When we went in January of 2018, that wasn't true. I could see that many branch trails had been closed off by rocks, logs, or berms, so now the trail is heavily trafficked and very easy to follow. But, easy to follow doesn't mean easy to hike.

Serious Uphill Climbing

As I said, we went in January and we were sweating like mad by the time we reached the end. It is some serious uphill climbing. The trail was also pretty crowded - entire families, lots of couples, a hiking club, and several dozen good-looking firemen were also using the trail that day.

In fact, one family let their kids bring a big remote-controlled car which they drove around and around inside the cave. Not exactly a nature moment, but they seemed to be having fun.

The Draw Is The 'Wave'

The draw of this hike is the "Wave", which is a huge rock at the entrance of the cave that looks like big curled wave. Stand on this and have someone take your photo while you are silhouetted against the desert and skyline and you have Instagram gold. This is the whole reason we went there, after all.

We all carried water - the girls had their 44-ounce Hydro Flask bottles and I carried my hiking pack with the usual first aid, tons of water, etc. We all ran out before we got back to the car, and this was in January. I strenuously advise against doing this hike in the summer unless you are in really good shape, carry lots of water, and go at dawn.

Probably Not For Dogs, Young Kids lists this hike with "dogs on leash" "scramble" "no shade" and "rocky", all of which are true, but I still wouldn't take a dog. Getting over that boulder is killer, and unless your dog is used to off-roading, those rocks can tear the skin right off their paw pads. It also calls this trail "kid friendly", but I'd add that this means older kids. It's not a good trail for toddlers unless you're going to carry them quite a bit.

That said, the girls and my husband and I agreed that this trail was totally worth it, just for the views from the cave and the photos they got from inside. Once you get there, reward yourself by relaxing in the shade of the cave, and rejoice in the knowledge that the way back is almost all downhill.

Some Details

Parking is very limited - there are just a couple of bare spots on the side of the road, so get there early. To get there, take U.S. 60 from Phoenix east to Gold Canyon and turn left on East Peralta Road. Follow E Peralta for around six miles, and watch for the pullouts on the left side of the road. This hikeis on State Trust Land and requires a permit, which you can get online from the State of AZ. A personal permit is $15, and a family permit is $20, good for two adults and two people under 18. Pay for and print your permit online.

Bottom Line

So there you have it - my picks for an easy, a moderate, and a difficult cool-weather hike. Have fun, but print out a map ahead of time, or download a trail app that will keep you in line. Don't forget water and food, sturdy hiking shoes, and a stick - and enjoy!

Picture Notes

The Wave Cave Trail gets steeper as you go, and there is quite a bit of "scrambling" over boulders. Near the end, even my granddaughters were going on all fours.

My granddaughter Trinity at the Wave Cave.

The Dragonfly Trail offers lots of shade and a beautiful riparian area.

These are the shots that make the Wave Cave worth the effort. This wasn't even our dog, but he took a shine to my granddaughter Emily.

This frozen stream of water off to the right of Massacre Falls was actually prettier than the Falls themselves when we went there.

This frozen stream of water off to the right of Massacre Falls was actually prettier than the Falls themselves when we went there.

When we went in January, Massacre Falls was frozen and barely a trickle was running. Sometimes it is completely dry.

The views from Massacre Falls Trail are gorgeous.

If you're lucky, and it has rained recently, you'll find water in Cave Creek along the Dragonfly Trail.

The Dragonfly Trail has a small cave that kids love to investigate.

The Dragonfly Trail offers lots of shade and a beautiful riparian area.


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