The Cave on Cave Creek
By Kraig Nelson, Docent and Preserve Steward
The journey to the infamous and iconic “Cave” on Cave Creek is an intensely rewarding adventure and hike for those who appreciate the enchanting history and enigmatic geology, flora, and fauna of the Cave Creek area. Steven Jones, Desert Foothills Land Trust naturalist, has identified fifty-six types of plants one may observe on a Cave hike.
Located about a mile and a half from the heart of Cave Creek, the Cave is the namesake for the historic town of Cave Creek, Arizona. It is the presumed location of an 1873 Christmas-day battle between the Tonto Apaches and the U. S. Cavalry. The Cave, which is approximately sixty-feet wide and fifty-feet high and deep, is the only cave which could accommodate eleven wickiup huts described by the Cavalry. After an early morning battle, nine Apaches lay dead, tons of winter-sustaining food smoldered, and the Cavalry’s relentless enforcement of “surrender or starve” was accomplished.
In 1912, the band-shell-shaped Cave was the ignominious, final home for a multiple-claim-staking-miner and engaging raconteur, known locally as “Old Rackensack.” Old Rackensack, whose given name was Edward G. Cave, is sometimes credited with being the source of the name Cave Creek. However, the Army created maps in 1866 naming the life-sustaining creek “Cave Creek.” We know Edward G. Cave arrived in Tucson in 1870 and moved to Cave Creek later, thereby precluding that option.
Local historian and writer, Bob Mason, informs us the Cave and other caves along the stream are a result of wind and water erosion. Smoke-besmirched ceilings, graffiti, deeply worn floor mortars, and ancient rock-wall-art, including both petroglyphs (carvings in the rock walls) and pictographs (paintings on the rock walls), indicate the Cave has been a place of refuge and protection for many.
The permanent sign found just inside the Cave states: “…inhabited for 11,000 years, this cave has been home to Hohokam and Apache tribes, as well as other early settlers of the area. The paintings you see on the walls date back over 2,000 years and are remarkable in their continued color and symbolism…the cave remains an important and unusual piece of American and regional history.” Local archaeologist and historian, Grace Schoonover, verified the 11,000 years of habitation. This means the earliest residents, adept hunter and gatherers known as Paleo-Indians, used the element-protecting Cave, and it was their ancestors that entered America at the end of the last ice age – the Pleistocene!
Ice sheets never reached the Southwest; deserts and desert grasslands had not yet formed. Nurturing plant communities were complex and varied much more than today. The animals available for the early hunters to pursue included deer, rabbit and antelope. The life-sustaining hunt also included magnificent, big-game species now extinct: the American camel, Shasta ground sloth, the American lion (fifty percent larger than today’s lion), and the mammoth (two and a half times the weight of modern elephants).
Do we know if Cave Creek existed thousands of years ago? The answer is yes! Geologists, Peter L. Doorn and Troy L. Pewe in their comprehensive work called Geologic and Gravimetric Investigations of the Carefree Basin, state Cave Creek has flowed the same course for at least two and maybe three million years. About five million years ago, Cave Creek was 300 feet higher when it started “down-cutting,” creating four major terraces before establishing its current path.
In Prohibition times, the Cave was a “white-lighting” production site. Hippies have set up camp and church services have been held in our local time-capsule known as the “Cave.” Mountain lions are known to use it for food caching, and other wildlife also use it for shelter.
In 1996, 16 acres of land around the Cave, collectively known as The Preserve at the Cave, was permanently protected through a conservation easement donation to the Land Trust. An additional 11 acres, known as Yucca Crossing, was protected in 1999 through another conservation easement donation to the Land Trust.
Guided Cave tours and hikes along Cave Creek are available six times a year, facilitated by Desert Foothills Land Trust. The property is NOT open to the public, and we are grateful to the owners of this special place for allowing the Land Trust to lead guided hikes to the preserve. More information is available at www.dflt.org.