The Mountains of Arizona •
Elephant Mountain • New River Mountains Foothills
• Highpoint: Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area
• Highpoint: Town of Cave Creek
• Maricopa County

Elephant Mountain, Arizona
Elephant Mountain at dawn
Elephant Mountain, Arizona
Rounding a bend with lots of saguaro
Elephant Mountain, Arizona
This gives an idea how steep it got. The saguaro always are at true vertical
Elephant Mountain, Arizona
Now above the steepest slopes, on the upper gentler slopes, the summit sits about a half mile away
Elephant Mountain, Arizona
Approaching on the ridge
Elephant Mountain, Arizona
The last saddle below the top
Elephant Mountain, Arizona
Southwest view, summit cairn. Daisy Mountain in the distance, the ridge I climbed nearer in
Elephant Mountain, Arizona
East view, Skull Mesa
Elephant Mountain, Arizona
North view, the south tip of Black Mesa
Elephant Mountain, Arizona
Back on the trail. I ascended the slope on the left, then along the ridge in back, to the top at right

• • •

The Arizona
Mountains Gazetteer

Click to find out more!

Date: October 27, 2021 • Elevation: 3,926 feet • Prominence: 766 feet • Distance: 10.6 miles • Time: 5 hours, 20 minutes • Gain: 1,750 feet • Conditions: Sunny and gorgeous

ArizonaMainPBLoJCity HPs of Maricopa County

Elephant Mountain lies in the north part of Cave Creek, in the Spur Cross Regional Park, abutting the Tonto National Forest. Its name is appropriate because from some angles, it really does look like an elephant, with a dome-shaped head, cliffs that look like tusks, and a ridge that emulates its snout. It is famous for being a location of an ancient Native American stronghold, a small fortress built upon a subsummit of the mountain. The structure dates back about 800 years, and its walls still stand, suggesting it may have been a very effective redoubt for the Indians who took refuge in it.

I made an attempt to climb Elephant Mountain way back in December 2012. You can read about it here. Some of my images from that hike show off the elephant profile very nicely. To summarize, I followed the Elephant Mountain Trail up to the saddle below the summit (to the west) and the fortification (to the east). I then tried to climb to the summit from here, but came upon a rocky chute that was extremely loose, so I backed off. I did not think it would be nearly 9 years that I would retry this peak, but frankly, it fell off my radar after that attempt and I just never gave it much thought.

I started to rethink a hike to this peak a few days ago, studied the online maps, and read any trip reports I could find. Most were found at the HikeArizona site. Almost all of them went up the way I tried in 2012, with images. It looked nastier than I remembered. Some made it, some did not. I think most people go this way because the trail name makes one think it goes to the summit (more on this later), and it's a relatively short distance from the main trailhead.

Me, I knew I wanted no part of that east-side approach. Looking at the topographical maps, the southwestern slopes looked open and possibly a way to the summit. Only one person at the HikeArizona site went this way. It would mean a lot of extra hiking mileage, but could possibly be an easy ascent otherwise. In my link above, I mention that I probably wouldn't ever retry this peak. Well, here I am now. I was younger and more immature back then.

I was up well before dawn. That's not by design. It seems I'm waking at 3 or 4 a.m. daily whether I like it or not. So I got up. I had my maps printed and my hiking clothes ready. I spent an hour waking, then hit the road a little after 5:30 a.m.. The distance to the Spur Cross trailhead is about 40 miles. I had moderate traffic on the freeway, then very little traffic on the surface streets up to Cave Creek. I stopped for gas and didn't rush things. I rolled into the parking area at 6:30, the first car there. The sun was just rising by now.

Conditions were ideal. The air was cool, about 50°, and still, with no clouds, and a waning half-moon. I got properly packed and dressed, and started walking at 6:45 a.m.. I followed the old road down into an arroyo then to the entrance gate and the self-pay station (still $3, even 9 years later). I then walked up to the main "plaza", where the trails all junction and there are bathrooms, a seating area, trash cans, and so on. I studied the map and then resumed walking, following the Spur Cross Trail.

I walked the Spur Cross Trail for almost 3.8 miles, going by the mileages on the park's maps. The trail generally aims southwest, under the mass of Elephant Mountain, but is forced to weave into and out of the main ridges, adding distance. It is never pitched steeply, and often dropped a couple dozen feet at a time. Overall, I gained about 300 feet in those 3.8 miles. I was aiming for a saddle southwest of the summit, at the southern "foot" of the peak, about 0.3 mile past where the Elephant Mountain Trail and the Spur Cross Trail meet one another. It took about 90 minutes to hike to here. The sun was up and warming things, but it was still cool ... kind of. Today would be moderately warm (high 70s). For now, it was about 60°. I changed out of my shorts and into my cheap denim Wrangler jeans for the off-trail hike. I was about at 2,760 feet elevation.

Ahead of me was a broad slope covered in rocks, grasses, small cactus and other succulents, and a veritable forest of saguaro. I would climb this slope, then get onto the main summit ridge, then to the summit. Now I was off trail, and moving slowly at first to, as usual, keep an eye open for snakes. Fortunately, the grass was usually low and somewhat sparse, about ankle-high. There were open lanes of rock, and moderate brush. The initial 200 vertical feet was pitched leniently, and I was able to weave through openings, follow lanes, and hop from rock to rock easily.

Next was the crux, a four-hundred foot grind up the steepest slopes of the day. The slopes were rocky and brushy, and I moved slowly upward. One section was a steep talus band; the rocks moved and one came loose from underfoot and barreled down about 50 feet. Eventually, I was above this steepest portion, now essentially on the mountain's upper plateau. The gradient was much more lenient now. However, it was grassier up here, plus the usual hidden small cactus such as cholla, prickly pear and staghorn. I still moved slowly, being mindful of snakes.

In time, I was on the main ridge crest, about a half-mile west of the summit. From here, the top was a simple conical mound of rocks and brush, and it looked very inviting. I stayed atop the ridge, which gained to a local highpoint before dropping about 40 feet to bottom out at the last saddle below the top. From here, I hiked up, having more lanes to follow since the grass wasn't as abundant here. There were a lot of ornate spider webs, and I tried not to walk through them if I saw them in time. I didn't want to destroy some innocent spider's livelihood. And suddenly, I was on top.

The summit is small, but features a substantial cairn about 4 feet tall. I searched for a register but could not find one. The views from up here were outstanding. I had ideal lighting for photographs, including Skull Mesa to the east, and the many other peaks to the north that I have yet to climb. It was cool and a little breezy up here, but comfortable. I sat for about 5 minutes to rest and drink. I looked again for a register. Then I started down.

I essentially retraced my route going down, moving as slow as I did going up. I still had to watch for loose rocks, cactus and possible critters. The steepest portion went slowly, and I had to be doubly careful about loose rocks. A few slid from under me, but nothing too bad. I was soon back on the Spur Cross Trail. I walked back the 0.3 mile to the junction with the Elephant Mountain Trail, where there's a bench. I sat here for a break and to change out of my jeans and back into my shorts. I heard voices, and two women were hiking down the Elephant Mountain Trail, so they stopped and we had a short chat.

They asked me where I had come from, and I mentioned the summit. I kind of waved with my hiking pole where I had been. I think there was some minor confusion because they were on the Elephant Mountain Trail but had not seen me. I mentioned that that trail only goes to a saddle below the summit and near the fortification. So I again pointed to the summit, and one said "you mean you went to the very top?". I explained that there is no formal trail to the summit, and that it is possible to scramble up from that eastern pass they were just on, but that I had taken an entirely different route (which I again waved at with my pole). I don't think they were necessarily intending to go to the highpoint, although they probably would have had the trail actually gone there. They were very nice and kind and we had an enjoyable chat, a good chance to rest a little as well. I sensed they may have ventured onto the Elephant Mountain Trail assuming it goes to the top.

After parting ways, I hiked out the 3.8 miles back to my car. By now, there were more people on the route. I saw about a half-dozen people, and back at the parking lot, there were about twenty cars parked. It was 12:15 p.m., I had been on the trails for 5 hours and 20 minutes. The net elevation gain was about 1,500 feet, but I include a handful of short drops along the way for my figure above. I changed into dry clothes and drove home, stopping for an hour at the Subaru dealership in north Scottsdale to have a low-pressure tire looked at, seeing if it needed a patch.

While hiking out, but still closer to the peak than the parking lot, a helicopter started buzzing the mountain. At one point, it was hovering right over the summit. I could only make out general details, but the helicopter did not have the normal DPS or County Sheriff coloring. It looked to be a private helicopter. Why it was buzzing the summit, I don't know. It appeared to be doing one of those "half skids" touches, not a landing, but where the skids touch the rocks but the rotors still whirl for a quick liftoff. Had I stuck around an extra hour, I may have got a free ride down. Or got my hair messed up.

I was very pleased to be successful on this hike and peak, and a little amazed how easy it went. I am surprised more people don't come this way. What few people who get it into their heads likely default to the east-side route and just deal with the crappy climbing up high. If you don't mind about an extra 4 miles of hiking, a southwestern route like I followed is easy and scenic. I probably should have waited another month for cooler temperatures.

(c) 2021 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.