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Cave Creek Regional Park
Maricopa County, Arizona

The Go John Trail at Cave Creek Recreation Area offers almost 9+ km of hiking through a magnificent saguaro forest and Upland Sonoran Desert habitat. There are five other trails through the park totaling another 10 km in length. Besides hiking, the park offers equestrian and mountain bike trails, picnicking, camping and some organized activities. Even though the trail is quite popular, its length ensures the hiker reasonable desert solitude even on weekend days with perfect weather.

Access to the park is via 32nd Street. Traveling north from Phoenix, exit I-17 at Carefree Highway, drive east 7 miles to 32nd street, turn north about 1½ miles to entrance. Entrance fee is $6.00 (may change) and overnight camping $25.00. The trail loops up and around a low mountain, returning to the trailhead. The trail itself is moderately steep and rocky in spots, but for the most part is an easy hike. More Park Info.

View Cave Creek Recreation Area in a larger map


Field Trip: June 11, 2011

Today I started from the Overton Trail Head (view larger map for detail) which is just west of the Go John T. H. and returned via the Go John Trail. Distance traveled was a comfortable 5½ km and comfortably cool by finishing before 10am. As expected only a few plants with open flowers were seen (see list below). Foothills Palo Verde were loaded with nearly ripe beans; they will be ready for dispersal as the summer monsoon season begins next month. Seeds of Twinberry and Trixis were already in dispersal mode. Many saguaro cactus are still opening blooms and many others have no flowers or fruit. Ironwood trees also still have open flowers.

A sound of stones slipping down a hillside drew my attention to three Mule Deer, one a yearling and another apparently gravid with a fawn that may be born come August. Later a hefty rock squirrel was on a lookout atop a boulder. Funnel Spiders' webs were conspicuous and numerous along several stretches of trail. Black-throated Sparrows were actively foraging for food and I was surprised to see them extracting seeds from the burrs of Triangle Leaf Bursage. A canyon towhee was pecking hard into a green saguaro fruit. Two pairs of ash-throated flycatchers were tending nests in saguaro nest-holes.

The trails were in good repair and easy to walk along. The park staff should be commended for work well done: (37019 N. Lava Lane, Phoenix, AZ 85027-8862; Phone: 623 465-0431).

Field Trip: Nov. 25, 2000

Go John Trail, loops 9.3 km from the trail head. Clear, sunny and pleasant temperatures resulted in overflow parking at the trailhead. None of the squirrel species were out and about although their tunneling beneath shrubs was evident. Side-blotched Lizards seen sunning themselves on dark boulders were the only reptile. The geology along this trail is almost entirely of ancient, heavily layered and eroded schist and gneiss. It is strongly layered and has been upended so that the layers are nearly vertical throughout, testimony to past tectonic activity. The weathered ends of these upended blocks are shattering into flaky gravel and the exposed ends offer good moisture penetration and host abundant selaginela, mosses, lichens and soil crust organisms.

A fresh carpet of annuals had taken root, mostly growing close to the ground. They will hold out until the danger of severe frost has passed, and, hopefully, more winter rains have fallen. Bluedicks, a lovely species of desert lily, have shot their reddish green leaves up to catch sunlight; they were abundant everywhere I walked. Mosses, lichens and living soil crusts were growing fairly well although the three weeks of dry weather has dried out the Selaginela (desert spike moss).

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ripening seeds of Foothill Palo Verde, Parkinsonia microphylla, © by Michael Plagens

Nearly mature seed pods of Foothill Palo Verde observed at Cave Creek Park n. of Phoenix, Arizona, USA. 11 June 2011


Generally, in order of Abundance:
Seasonal occurrence: (S)ummer, (F)all, (W)inter, (Sp)ring

  1. Black-throated Sparrow -- Amphispiza bilineata -- S,F,W,Sp -- Lovely birds with a jet-black throat and bib contrasted by bright white eye brows. Beautiful singers. A very nice description of the black-throated sparrow can be found at Twentynine Palms Cyberzine (California).
  2. Rock Wren -- Salpinctes obsoletus -- S,F,W,Sp -- Very common little birds which frequently give spirited high pitched trills while perched atop boulders especially near the summit itself. Their drab gray and brown color blends perfectly with the desert colors.
  3. Verdin -- Auriparus flaviceps -- S,F,W,Sp -- Tiny birds, barely larger than a hummingbird. Drab gray brown with a majestic yellow head.
  4. Ruby-crowned Kinglet -- Regulus calendula -- F,W --
  5. House Finch -- Carpodacus mexicanus -- S,F,W,Sp --
  6. Cactus Wren -- Campylorhynchus brunneicapillus -- S,F,W,Sp --
  7. Gambel's Quail -- Callipepla gambelii -- S,F,W,Sp --
  8. Gila Woodpecker -- Melanerpes uropygialis -- S,F,W,Sp --
  9. Black-tailed Gnatcatcher -- Polioptila melanura -- S,F,W,Sp --
  10. Gilded Flicker -- Colaptes chrysoides -- S,F,W,Sp --
  11. Curve-billed Thrasher -- Toxostoma curvirostre -- S,F,W,Sp --
  12. Common Raven -- Corvus corax
  13. Ash-throated Flycatcher -- Myiarchus cinerascens -- Sp,S --
  14. White-winged Dove -- Zenaida asiatica -- Sp,S --
  15. Phainopepla -- Phainopepla nitens -- F,W,Sp --
  16. American Kestrel -- Falco sparverius -- S,F,W,Sp
  17. Common Raven -- Corvus corax -- W,Sp -- Conspicuous, large, jet black birds that soar above looking for food.
  18. Greater Roadrunner -- Geococcyx californianus -- S,F,W,Sp
  19. Canyon Towhee -- Pipilo fuscus -- S,F,W,Sp --
  20. Ladder-backed Woodpecker -- S,F,W,Sp --
  21. Phainopepla -- Phainopepla nitens -- F,W,Sp -- moves to higher elevations during hottest months
  22. Canyon Wren -- S,F,W,Sp --
  23. Common Bushtit -- W -- Vagrant from higher mountain areas to the north
Photo by Mike Plagens

The Canyon Towhee is a rather secretive bird. Early in the morning they might be seen and heard singing from the top of a saguaro. The rest of the day they hide among shrubs and rocks searching especially for seeds to eat. Notice the thick, seed-cracking beak.


In general order of Abundance:

  1. Round-tail Ground Squirrel -- Citellus tereticaudus -- Common squirrels - frequent burrows around bases of desert shrubs mostly on level ground between mountains.
  2. Harris's Antelope Squirrel -- Ammospermophilus harrisii -- more likely on rocky slopes
  3. Audubon's Cottontail -- Sylvilagus audubonii -- Common.
  4. Coyote -- Canis latrans -- These animals often forage for rodents, rabbits, stray cats and fruit in the surrounding neighborhoods.
  5. Whitethroat Woodrat -- Neotoma albigula -- Near the pass on the west side of the hill there is a cliff overhang next to the Go John Trail. Under this overhang are hundreds of cholla joints and other prickly items gathered by these pack rats. It seems they offer a modicum of protection for the rodents living within.
  6. Rock Squirrel -- Spermophilus variegatus
  7. Desert Mule Deer -- Odocoileus hemionus

Round-tail Ground Squirrel prefers flat sandy-silty areas where it digs extensive burrows, especially beneath creosote bush.



In order of Abundance:
  1. Teddy Bear Cholla;Jumping Cholla -- Cylindropuntia bigelovii -- several extensive groves upon the hillsides
  2. Saguaro Cactus -- Carnegiea gigantea -- Superb forests of good-sized saguaros especially on south-facing slopes
  3. Buckhorn Cholla -- Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa --
  4. Compass Barrel;California Barrel -- Ferocactus cylindraceus -- Spines tinged with red and yellow.
  5. Engelmann Hedgehog Cactus -- Echinocereus engelmannii --
  6. Prickly Pear -- Opuntia engelmannii --
  7. Desert Christmas Cactus -- Cylindropuntia leptocaulis -- these will become easier to find as the thimble sized fruits change to bright red through January and February
  8. Graham's Pincushion Cactus -- Mammillaria grahamii --
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flowers of saguaro cactus

Shrubs and Trees

More common species listed first.

  1. Triangle-leaf Bursage -- Ambrosia deltoidea -- The most common plant in this desert preserve. Often leafless after periods of drought or hard frost.
  2. Foothills Palo Verde; Yellow Palo Verde -- Parkinsonia microphylla --
  3. Brittle Bush (Encelia farinosa) -- Leafless after drought or frost. Leaves are silvery green and flowers are bright yellow. When dormant the numerous, dried and straw-colored flower stems are conspicuous.
  4. Jojoba -- Simmondsia chinensis -- large shrubs with leathery, dark olive green leaves
  5. Anderson Thornbush;Wolfberry -- Lycium andersonii --
  6. Canotia -- Canotia holacantha -- Also know as Crucifixion Thorn. Large tree-sized shrubs with long sharp thorns. Found only on the north facing slope.
  7. White Ratany -- Krameria grayi -- purplish cast to woody stems
  8. Fairy Duster -- Calliandra eriophylla --
  9. Bigelow's Four O'Clock (Mirabilis bigelovii) --
  10. Mormon Tea (Ephedra aspera) --
  11. Canyon Ragweed -- Ambrosia ambrosioides - mostly along the washes
  12. Desert Mistletoe (Phoradendron californicum) - Parasitic shrub growing upon various desert trees including Palo Verde and Ironwood.
  13. Desert Rock Pea (Lotus rigidus) -- growing among rocks or boulders.
  14. Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) - peach colored blooms after periods of rain otherwise it is difficult to find
  15. Velvet Mesquite -- Prosopis velutina - mostly along the washes
  16. Cat Claw Acacia(Acacia greggiii) - also mostly along the washes
  17. Desert Trumpet -- Eriogonum inflatum
  18. Twinberry -- Menodora scabra
  19. Janusia (Janusia gracilis) - a twisty, viney plant
  20. Shrubby Bedstraw -- Galium stellatum
  21. Flat-topped Buckwheat -- Eriogonum fasciculatum --
  22. Wright's Buckwheat -- Eriogonum wrightii --
  23. Broom Snakeweed -- Gutierrezia sarothrae
  24. Trixis -- Trixis californica --
  25. Desert Straw;Wire Lettuce -- Stephanomeria pauciflora --
  26. Lance-leaf Ditaxis -- Argythamnia lanceolata
  27. Brownfoot -- Acourtia wrightii
  28. San Felipe Marigold -- Adenophyllum porophylloides
  29. Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) --
  30. Oreganillo -- Aloysia wrightiii --
  31. Desert Hackberry -- Celtis pallida - in deeper ravines
  32. Ironwood (Olneya tesota) -- common on the south side of the slope ... absent on the north
  33. Goldeneye -- Viguiera deltoidea -- fairly common along the trail
  34. Sweet Bush -- Bebbia juncea
  35. Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata) -- dark evergreen shrub with shiny, resinous leaves and dark wirey twigs.
  36. Turpentine Bush -- Ericameria laricifolia
  37. Four-winged Saltbush -- Atriplex canescens
  38. Graythorn -- Ziziphus obtusifolia
  39. Desert Lavender -- Hyptis emoryi
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mature fruit of Simmondsia chinensis conaining one seed; photo © Mike Plagens

Mature fruit of jojoba was found along Camp Creek, Maricopa Co., Arizona in August 2008.

mature seed pods of Acacia greggii; photo © Mike Plagens

Mature seed pods of Cat-claw Acacia, Acacia greggii, are curled and twisted.


March Wildflowers (obs. 8 March 2001 by Steve Jones)

Yellow Flowers

  1. Brittlebush -- Encelia farinosa
  2. Desert Marigold -- Baileya multiradiata
  3. Whispering Bells -- Emmenanthe penduliflora
  4. Eriophyllum pringlei (Woolly daisy)
  5. Lesquerella gordoni (bladderpod mustard)
  6. Camissonia micrantha (Sundrops)
  7. Silver Puffs -- Microseris linearifolius
  8. California Goldfields -- Lasthenia californica

White Flowers

  1. Silene antirrhina (Catchfly) - abundant in places
  2. Desert Chicory -- Rafinesquia neomexicana
  3. Mojave Desert Star -- Monoptilon bellioides
  4. Esteve's Pincushion -- Chaenactis stevioides

Purple/Blue Flowers

  1. Lupine -- Lupinus sparsiflorus
  2. Notch-leaved Phacelia -- Phacelia crenulata
  3. Chia -- Salvia columbariae
  4. Blue Dicks -- Dichelostemma capitatum

Pink/Lavender Flowers

  1. Owl's Clover -- Castilleja exserta -- (including one white specimen)
  2. Bigelow's Four O'Clock -- Mirabilis laevis
Purple Owl's Clover

Orange Flowers

  1. California Poppy -- Eschscholzia californica
  2. Orange Fiddleneck -- Amsinckia intermedia
Orange Fiddleneck

Green Flowers

  1. Indianwheat; Woolly Plantain -- Plantago ovata
  2. Brittle Spine Flower -- Chorizanthe brevicornu

June Wildflowers (obs. 11 June 2011)

Desert Trumpet

Desert Trumpet

Skeleton Weed

Skeleton Weed

Wire Lettuce

Desert Straw;Wire Lettuce

San Felipe Marigold

San Felipe Marigold

Saguaro Cactus

Saguaro Cactus

Desert Ironwood

Desert Ironwood

November Wildflowers (obs. 23 November 2008)



Lacy Tansy Aster

Bigelow's Tansy Aster


Desert Lavender

Desert Lavender

Flat-topped Buckwheat


Lance-leaf Ditaxis

Wire Lettuce

Desert Straw;Wire Lettuce

Parry Dalea

Sonoran Desert Field Guide
Sonoran Desert Places
Sonoran Desert Naturalist Home Page


Copyright Michael J. Plagens, Page created 11 July 2011,
updated 29 Nov. 2016.