Pictured: Approaching the cave in Cave Creek during a guided hike on a 13-acre land preserve with the DFLT .

Photos courtesy of Tara Alatorre/Staff
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Finding the cave in Cave Creek with the Desert Foothills Land Trust


Tara Alatorre
CAVE CREEK –  Ever wonder what puts the cave in Cave Creek? Or who the ancient people were that once inhabited this harsh yet spectacular landscape, leaving their antique graffiti marks on the cliff walls? Also, who were those crazy people that volunteered to live here prior to air conditioning?

Well sign up for one of the hikes offered by the Desert Foothills Land Trust (DFLT) and indulge your curiosity while taking in some of the most pristine, exclusive desert landscapes in the entire Valley. The non-profit organization has conserved 750 acres on 25 preserves to date through the cooperation of public and private partnerships. 

DFLT is an accredited land trust and was formed in 1991.  It is led by an all-volunteer board conserving the most sensitive and important spaces in Anthem, Carefree, Cave Creek, Desert Hills, New River, North Phoenix and North Scottsdale, which is considered the desert foothills of Arizona.

“In 2016, the Land Trust was awarded renewed and accredited status at the highest level by the national Land Trust Accreditation Commission – a mark of distinction in the land trust community,” said DFLT Executive Director, Vicki Preston.

Ten of the preserves are open to the public for passive recreation, and the four preserves not open to the public allow for seldom guided hikes with small groups, which are free and normally offered October through April.

“Other than the cave, we offer occasional hikes to our H.B. Wallace Preserve at Lone Mountain, Cottonwood Canyon Preserve and Sierra Vista Sanctuary; all which are not preserves open to the public,” she said.

These private guided hikes are with trained stewards and docents that share their knowledge about the flora, fauna and history that make each place so unique and special.

The Foothills Focus joined DFLT on their “Preserve at the Cave Tour” on March 3, on a perfect desert spring day.  The cave preserve is on a private 15-acre conservation easement that was granted to the trust in 1996.  It sits adjacent to two other easements are about 13 acres in total, for a total of 30-acres of protected land surrounding the cave and the creek.

“We use the word cave pretty liberally, it is actually a 100-foot rock outcropping that was naturally carved into a cliff,” Preston said to the group of about 12 eager people at the DFLT office before the hike.

The cave hike is great for beginners, it is only about a mile and a half round trip. It basically begins off the driveway of a home with a decent right down to the Cave Creek wash, which is one of the last free flowing creeks in the county.

As soon as your boots hit the wash, a giant cottonwood tree towers over you. It almost serves as a reminder that despite the cacti and creosote surrounding the entire area, this is indeed a riparian eco system that is alive and thriving.

“Usually the creek is flowing this time of year, but with the horrible drought we are in right now it happens to be dry today,” said Preston as we set off to the cave.

The trail gently meanders on the flat, sandy areas of the wash and is surrounded by some of the biggest, healthiest saguaros I have ever seen – and I am second-generation Phoenician.

Although the hike is only a little over a mile it takes about three hours to complete because DFLT volunteers stop and take the time to explain the different species of cactus, birds, edible plants, geological formations and historical context of the area.

“The Gila woodpeckers love these berries,” Steve Jones, a geologist and botanist that volunteers for DFLT says to the hikers, while pointing out a desert mistletoe.  “If you are ever walking in the desert and smell a wonderful sweet and spicy smell it is probably this plant.”

Shortly after the hiking group literally stops to smell the flowers, we hear a rustling in the shrubs, someone spots deer only a few feet away from us; unphased they slowly move out of the area. 

Once we get into the cave the temperature immediately drops, it is about 60-feet wide, and 50-feet high and deep. Geologists say it was naturally carved from wind and the water-flow from Cave Creek, which is estimated to have flowed for millions of years.

This place is notable not only for it’s cave, but because of its historical significance as well as some ties to some of the quirky characters of Cave Creek.

The site was occupied for 11,000 years, first by Hohokam and in more recent history by the Tonto Apache tribe. There are several petroglyphs on the cave walls that date back over 2,000 years, worn floor mortars and a smoke-stained ceiling, all left behind from past residents.

It is also the presumed location of the Christmas Day Indian massacre that happened in 1873 after a battle ensued between the U.S. Calvary and small band of renegade Apaches living in the cave. 

“They refused to go to the reservations and in the winter, they would come here, and they would grind their corn and hunt deer, this was a primary location for them,” said Chuck Holt, one of our guides on the hike who is giving an oral history of the cave.

After they were discovered they army attacked, and nine Apaches were shot dead. The living tribe members watched the Calvary burn their food stored for the winter as part of the “surrender or starve” enforcement of the Indian Removal Act.

Then, in the early 1900’s the cave became the final home of a notorious local, Edward G. Cave, or “Old Rackensack,” a miner and raconteur. He was rumored to have given Cave Creek its name, but historians debunked the myth later.

Once he became older and could not live alone, he was placed in a home, but refused to stay there and demanded that they let him live in the cave by himself. 

“He lived there collecting $6 a month from the government until one day he disappeared, and no one saw him again,” said Holt.

Although Old Rackensack was probably the last permanent resident of the cave, he was definitely not the last visitor thanks to DFLT and its tireless, altruistic efforts to preserve the communities' special places.

Don’t miss your chance to visit the DFLT preserves. If you would like more information on DFLT, would like to register for a hike, or want to donate visit dflt.org or call 480-488-6131.