Sunday, October 17, 2021

Off the Beaten Path: Seven Springs to Sheep Bridge

Sometime in the recent past, I think I mentioned that I was gathering together some photos for a "compilation" post about one of my favorite off-road drives here in Arizona. Denis and I have jumped into the Blazer or the Jeep and taken these trails more than once, and each time was an adventure.

The drive takes us past old mines, ancient Indian ruins, a favorite beat-the-heat spot for Phoenicians at the turn of the twentieth century, relics of the Civilian Conservation Corps, riparian areas tucked away into canyons, and a national monument-- just to hit some of the highlights.

There are two different directions you can take to get to Seven Springs and Sheep Bridge. Seven Springs was a popular spot for early Phoenicians to go to beat the summer heat. They'd load up their wagons for the two-day journey, and spend as long as they could in the shady green oasis at the cooler elevations. Seven Springs was such a popular spot that the Civilian Conservation Corps built a small campground among the huge sycamore trees in 1934. They did good work, because the stone buildings have survived many, many floods over the years.

Got your sunscreen, hat, and water? Good. Let's get started!

If you head north from Phoenix to get to Seven Springs, you drive through the swanky areas of Cave Creek and Carefree. The road (still paved) takes you past the old Cave Creek Mistress Mine up on the side of a mountain. It's an old gold mine, the remnants of which burned down in the 2005 Cave Creek Complex fire that burned over 250,000 acres. You see it here before the fire.

Just past the old gold mine, there's a turn-off to the Sears-Kay Ruins, the remnants of an ancient Hohokam hilltop fortress built circa 1050 AD.

There's a one-mile self-guided loop trail taking you through the ruins.

As the (now unpaved) road wound higher into the mountains and we got closer to Seven Springs, it was easy to tell that we were getting closer to water. In the desert, bright green means water.

And here we are at Seven Springs. As you can see, there was water running across the road, which is always a thrill to anyone who's lived in the desert for very long. After all, we're used to crossing bridges signed for waterless rivers.

I always feel like a child when fording any sort of stream. I want to make a big splash!

Denis and I never want to leave this gorgeous little spot. There are hiking trails, and those restrooms that the CCC built 'way back in 1934 can certainly come in handy!

Here am I, sitting in the Blazer in the middle of Tangle Creek. After Seven Springs, the dirt trail continues to wind higher into the mountains and cross through riparian areas. We picked up quite a bit of mud on this adventure.

Here I am, standing on a boulder above Roundtree Creek, a lovely riparian area in a small canyon filled with birds and other wildlife.

As always, I roamed the banks of Roundtree Creek searching for plants I'd never seen before, like this miner's lettuce. Miner's lettuce is packed with vitamins, and during the Gold Rush, miners ate it to prevent scurvy.

There were other plants to see, too. This is Golden Corydalis.

On this particular attempt to get to Sheep Bridge, we hadn't realized that this part of Arizona had gotten a lot more rain than Phoenix. The deep, slippery mud and huge, seemingly bottomless, "lakes" in the trail made us turn back.

This photo was taken shortly after Tangle Creek. When we'd given up on getting to Sheep Bridge, we turned around and headed back the way we came. Between the turn-off for the bridge and Roundtree Creek, there were some hair-raising, deep ruts in the mud that pulled the Blazer right into them no matter how Denis tried to avoid them. At one point, the Blazer was at such an angle, I wouldn't've had to stretch far to reach out and touch the ground! All we could do was keep moving, otherwise we'd been well and truly stuck and walking for miles. The fun side to this was getting back to swanky Cave Creek and Carefree. The Blazer was literally covered in mud. We looked like the hillbillies returning to Beverly Hills after a successful possum hunt. Mud would come off the Blazer in big squishy chunks and splat on the spotless SUVs that had never been used off-road. We saw some horrified looks from those drivers seeing mud touch their four-wheeled babies, and I have to admit that we laughed all the way back to Phoenix.

You can also get to Sheep Bridge by taking I-17 north from Phoenix to the Bloody Basin exit and heading east. We'd barely gotten off the interstate and onto the dirt road when a coachwhip snake crossed in front of us. I've never seen a snake move as fast as that one did. Just past the first snake encounter, we stopped so I could photograph one of an entire field of blooming desert mariposas.

Past the mariposas, we crossed the Agua Fria River. I know, it doesn't look like much, but during the 500-year flood of the late 1970s, this little nothing of a stream washed away a very large bridge in Sun City.

Another look at the Agua Fria.

Denis watching the minnows in the water.

Just past the bend in the road, you can look down at a very large ranch. Must be interesting living there during floods...

If you see what looks to be a stick lying across the trail, don't run over it. Snakes like to sun themselves there. This is a gopher snake, also known as "the farmer's friend" because it will keep barns and outbuildings mouse- and rat-free.

One reason why I like a good zoom lens on my cameras. I stayed far enough away not to bother it, and it didn't bother me.

Particularly in spring, these trails can be awash in wildflowers like this Arizona Yellow-throat Gilia. Wildflowers can be so small that, if you never get out of your vehicle, you'll never know they're there.

These golden desert-trumpets formed carpets of yellow in meadows and along the hillsides.

Large clumps of Blackfoot daisies also dotted the landscape.

Getting closer to Sheep Bridge, the trail was extremely washboarded. Our kidneys took quite a lot of jostling, and even this saguaro looked like it was trying to escape.

Our first view of Sheep Bridge.

Side view of Sheep Bridge over the Verde River. The bridge was built in 1944 to allow sheep to be moved from one grazing range to another without fording the river. The sheep drives stopped in 1978, which just happens to coincide with major flooding-- like that bridge collapse over the Agua Fria I mentioned earlier.

Sheep Bridge. We found fresh cougar tracks in the sand on the other side.

View from the bridge.

The Verde River.
I also want to mention that, when you take the Bloody Basin Trail from I-17 to Sheep Bridge, you'll be passing through the Agua Fria National Monument, an area rich in wildlife as well as human history. The name Bloody Basin comes from some contentious meetings between white settlers and the Apache. You can find yourself high in the mountains on a rocky trail so narrow that you can look out your side window and see nothing but a sheer drop of hundreds of feet. You'll cross a "saddle" of solid rock on which nothing can grow, and you know that it will still be there long after humans have vanished from the face of the earth.

This is one of my favorite drives in the entire state, and I only wish a computer crash hadn't destroyed some of my photos so I could show you more. But all good things must come to an end. I hope you enjoyed the journey. Now it's time to wash off the trail dust, grab a cold one, and put your feet up!


  1. Thank you for taking us on a virtual vacation. The photos and the scenery are beautiful. I didn't know the CCC was involved in this project. As need a CCC again!

    1. One thing Denis and I have learned through all our off-road travels here in Arizona is that the CCC did a lot of work in little spots miles and miles and miles away from the nearest town.

  2. I can see why you love this drive so much, Cathy! It's gorgeous! And with so much beautiful and varied scenery. I especially like the way you find the beauty in small things, like the flowers and the snake. Anyone who says the desert is barren has never really looked at one, in my opinion.

    1. No, they have not. My grandparents couldn't see it. They were true farm folk, believing that, if you couldn't grow crops on it, it was a waste of land. And here I am, thinking that most land should be left alone! I'd say I was a changeling but for the fact that my mother felt the same way.

  3. Thanks for sharing, Cathy. I love wandering off the main roads but sometimes get myself into trouble exactly the way you guys came close to doing on this adventure. Just don't have the right vehicle to venture too often on unpaved roads these days. The pictures were great...what a perfect break from "reality" all of that must have been.

    1. It was wonderful, Sam. Denis and I have driven so many miles on these trails. I love them so and wish we could still get out there. Maybe I'll talk to Denis about some of the logistics...

      There is a trail that's listed as all right for normal cars that a lot of snowbirds take in the winter and spring. Denis and I have been stuck behind many a flatlander petrified of being on the narrow, unpaved Apache Trail with its blind curves and steep descents down the sides of mountains. It's funny yet frustrating all at the same time-- and I wonder how many have worn out the brake pads on their rental cars! LOL

  4. What a beautiful place! It must be so refreshing to come upon water in the desert. Seeing your Blazer covered in mud brought back memories. My husband used to have a Jeep and we got it covered in mud a time or two. Thanks for sharing!

    1. I can remember our first trip to Monument Valley and taking the one unpaved road that visitors are allowed to take without a Navajo guide. When we came back home, Denis started to give the Jeep a bath, and I told him not to because I wanted to enjoy the bright orange Monument Valley dirt for a while longer!

  5. What an amazing drive! And your photos are so beautiful. Thanks for sharing. :)

  6. Thank you for the tour! Though the terrain is entirely different, I've been behind enough frightened drivers in the WV mountains - on paved roads - to know how you and Denis have felt driving behind flatlanders on your route.

    And a special thanks for the laugh - I *loved* the story about the mud clumps coming off your car :)

    1. Ah, yes. It was a particularly good possum hunt. ;-)

  7. Arizona is just a treasure trove of natural riches.


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