Part rustic western town, part quirky shopping and dining center, and part gorgeous desert enclave; the small city of Cave Creek offers a wonderful mash-up of some of the best of Arizona’s iconic scenes.
Located in the northeastern reaches of Phoenix’s sprawling Valley of the Sun, Cave Creek holds onto its mining and ranching roots, even as it shows a playful side with its prickly-pear-and-hot-sauce-focused dining and shopping. The Visit Arizona website describes Cave Creek as a place where “you’re likely to see a Tesla, a Harley, and a horse” parked side by side.
Over the years, I have visited Cave Creek many times and I have come to also appreciate the community’s stunning hiking trails in two of the Phoenix area’s most beautiful regional parks. Cave Creek highlights include eclectic shopping, which offers everything from colorful metal art to lavish Mexican pottery, and a food scene that serves up authentic Mexican cuisine, unique burgers, and cool prickly pear ice cream.
Here are nine reasons to add Cave Creek to your Phoenix itinerary.
1. Frontier Town
Billed as the “Nearly Famous Frontier Town,” the adorable little shopping area is located right along Cave Creek’s main street and has long been a natural stopping point for visitors arriving in town. Recalling the days of the late 1800s when gold was discovered in the region, the touristy Frontier Town features everything from a faux Boot Hill cemetery and gallows to teams of rusty-metal horses pulling wagons to weathered boardwalks and storefronts.
Frontier Town also has a range of cute shops that offer unique Western-themed wares like metal replicas of lizards and cacti, locally created habanero-chile salsas, and Native American dreamcatchers and silver jewelry. A few of my favorite places to stop for fun souvenirs include Ortega’s Native American Jewelry & Arts, Suzanne’s Hot Stuff, and Cave Creek Mercantile.
2. Cave Creek Museum
For a walk through the history and environment of the Cave Creek area — from the prehistoric time when Hohokam people occupied the high desert landscape to the 1800s “gold strike” in the Sonoran Desert vegetation — the excellent Cave Creek Museum makes for an informative and entertaining outing.
The museum’s Ansbaugh Auditorium serves as the gateway to the experience, featuring ever-changing exhibits highlighting Sonoran Desert life, history and prehistory, and works of local artists. Other exhibits are available in the museum’s Archaeology Wing, History Wing, and outdoor grounds that contain the historic Golden Reef Stamp Mill and a desert garden.
Pro Tip: The museum closes its doors during the hot summer months. A sign at the entrance states that the museum is open from October through May, from Wednesdays through Sundays.
3. Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area
After a wet winter or spring, there are few prettier places in the Phoenix area than the Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area — a 2,154-acre protected area that takes in rugged hills dotted with saguaro cacti, ancient petroglyphs, and green riparian areas along Cave Creek.
Spur Cross Ranch’s waterways are seasonal, but during wet seasons, they offer the amazing sight of water rushing through the desert. Also in the spring, Spur Cross is a great place to wander through the wildflowers and cactus flowers that brighten the desert landscape.
The conservation area features a number of scenic hiking trails that wind along the creek and through the surrounding hills and peaks. Two of my favorites are the Metate Trail Loop, a 2.5-mile moderately difficult trail that passes through the shady riparian area and crosses the creek bed; and the Dragonfly Loop, a 3.8-mile moderate trail that takes hikers through strands of giant saguaros.
4. Cave Creek Regional Park
Spectacular sunrises and sunsets await at the Cave Creek Regional Park, a 2,922-acre park that sits in the upper Sonoran Desert, ranging in elevation from 2,000 to 3,063 feet.
Along with its great trails, like the Go John Trail and the Overton Trail, the park highlights history from the 1870s when gold seekers staked claims in the rugged mountains.
The Go John Trail, a moderately difficult 6.1-mile loop, is popular with hikers, runners, horseback riders, and mountain bikers. It winds through beautiful desert terrain, passes by towering saguaros, traverses through washes filled with prickly vegetation, and takes you along ridgelines offering panoramic views of sunrises and sunsets. The Overton Trail is a 3.5-mile moderate loop that crosses the Go John Trail and offers sweeping desert and city views.
5. Quirky Shopping
One of the first things visitors are likely to notice when arriving at Cave Creek are the numerous shops offering metal art depicting an incredible array of desert shapes — from saguaros to lizards to sunflowers.
Among Cave Creek’s most eye-catching shops are Lulu’s Town Dump, which along with metal art features glass, pottery, and trellises; Coyote Creek Gift & Decor, with its garden décor and imaginative metal art; and Mexicana Rose, with its beautiful outdoor display of lavish Mexican-style pottery.
6. Authentic Mexican Cuisine And Barbecue
Dining options abound in Cave Creek, and visitors will find everything from upscale southwestern-style cuisine to authentic Mexican food to burgers in a refurbished old gas station setting.
For Mexican cuisine, I love the pretty El Encanto Cantina, a mission-style spot that has a lovely outdoor patio overlooking a small pond surrounded by palm trees. Along with the delicious house margaritas, Encanto’s specialties include the queso Guillermo, a cheese dip featuring hot bubbling cheese blended with yellow chiles, onion, and tomatoes; as well as the chile rellenos with grilled chicken.
For southwestern cuisine in a resort setting, head to the Tonto Bar & Grill at Rancho Manana, where the menu features a fusion of southwestern and Native American offerings. The special dishes here use unique ingredients like ocotillo flowers, cholla buds, jojoba beans, saguaro and prickly pear fruit, and palm dates.
Burgers with a range of unique toppings are the specialty of Big Earl’s Greasy Eats, a landmark eatery located in an old gas station. Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Earl’s is best known for its burgers that come in numerous variations — from a mushroom Swiss burger to a “blacken bleu” burger to the Cave Creek barbecue burger served with tangy barbecue sauce, onion rings, cheddar cheese, and bacon.
7. Prickly Pear Ice Cream
To beat the heat in Cave Creek, the quaint City Creamery offers a range of cool flavors, from traditional ones like butter pecan, mint chip, and chocolate to more unique flavors like huckleberry honey, lavender, and cowboy coffee.
For something refreshing and unique at the same time, I loved City Creamery’s prickly pear, which features the slightly tart flavor of the prickly pear cactus. Note that flavors change regularly and a new flavor is added every week.
Prickly Pear Inn
Next door to the City Creamery is the Prickly Pear Inn, a charming boutique hotel located right in the midst of historic Cave Creek; across the street from both Frontier Town and El Encanto.
8. Bartlett Lake
Although it is technically not located within the city of Cave Creek, picturesque Bartlett Lake is a 40-minute drive from town. It is definitely worth the trip, especially in the spring when wildflowers are blooming.
Bartlett Lake, a man-made reservoir in the Tonto National Forest, is known to be one of the best places in the Valley of the Sun to take in the golden poppies that sometimes carpet the desert terrain after a wet winter.
9. Carefree Desert Gardens
Just 2 miles from downtown Cave Creek in the neighboring community of Carefree, lovers of desert vegetation can take in the Carefree Desert Gardens, a 4-acre oasis where visitors can take a self-guided tour.
The Desert Gardens are located along downtown Carefree’s Easy Street and are free to the public. Amidst the gardens is the famous Carefree Sundial, a community landmark.
When To Visit Cave Creek
Like the rest of the Phoenix area, Cave Creek experiences sizzling-hot temperatures in the summer, with the months of June, July, and August all posting average highs of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But come late fall, the temperatures drop into the warm-and-sunny 70s and 80s, and the winter months bring the comfortable 60-degree range. March might be Cave Creek’s most beautiful month, featuring an average high of 75 degrees.