Down a wash at Spur Cross Ranch Conservation Area in Cave Creek, Arizona, ranger Jennifer Johnston picks cochineal scale off a cactus pad and squeezes the cottony insect to reveal a crimson substance, once used by Native Americans to dye fiber. Farther up the trail, she takes our group of hikers to an ancient Hohokam site, pointing out footings of houses and plazas ― and giving us time to absorb the vast views of saguaro-dense hills and mesas.
Frankly, I'd always thought of Cave Creek, just north of Phoenix, as a place to spend an hour or two browsing "junque" shops or savoring cowboy steaks. However, the opportunity to hike Spur Cross Ranch makes the town a great spot to spend a day in April, when wildflowers peak on surrounding hills and the weather's still cool enough to be outdoors.
Like that of the town, the history of Spur Cross Ranch includes cattle ranching and mining. In 2001, when the 2,100-acre site was slated to become the next guard-gated golf community, a grassroots effort saved the land for public use and created the conservation area.
You can visit Spur Cross Ranch on any of three hiking- and horseback-friendly trails; the main road connects to trails in adjacent Tonto National Forest. But a better bet is to join one of Johnston's guided hikes into the conservation area, which includes archaeological sites. Outings occur several times weekly and range from easy to advanced.
After hiking, take time to explore more of Cave Creek's past. Cave Creek Museum (Wed-Sun; $3; 6140 E. Skyline Dr.; 480/488-2764) traces history and features a 1920s cabin. Along Cave Creek Road ― roughly between School House and Spur Cross Roads ― look for shops offering antiques and home decor items.
End the day with mesquite-smoked ribs and a chili beer at Crazy Ed's Satisfied Frog ($$$; 6245 E. Cave Creek Rd.; 480/488-3317), an 1880s-style saloon and restaurant with honky-tonk piano tunes on weekends. Hiking boots are welcome.