The hike so nice, I did it twice!
I secured a permit for three days in the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness for late April coming in from the west trailhead, and as the date neared, I became ever more excited. I had heard a lot about this area, and I was glad that the Grand Enchantment Trail (GET) gave me the excuse to finally get there. I liked it so much that after my first trip, I was back six weeks later to confirm my hunch that it would be a great summer backpacking destination.
There are only 50 people allowed in the 11 miles of creekbed and nine side canyons in the Aravaipa Wilderness per day- even dayhikers require a $5/day permit and the maximum stay is three days. On my first trip to Aravaipa in April, the trail was covered in blooming bright yellow brittlebush and other wildflowers. After only a quarter of a mile, the trail hits perennial Aravaipa Creek, which in this area is wide and lined with cottonwoods. Since there are no official trails in the wilderness, this hike requires crossing in and out of the creek, and sometimes walking straight up the flowing creek. The right footwear is imperative, so based on the accounts of others, I went and bought a pair of gym shoes that I didn’t mind getting ruined, and brought along a pair of gaiters to wear over my shoes to keep most of he gravel out. I was very pleased with this combination. The weather was perfect- highs in the mid 80’s.
The creekbed starts out wide and sandy, but as the walls of the canyon get higher, it pinches the creek into a smaller meandering path through the dark red porphyry.
The canyon just got more and more beautiful as I hiked eastward. The walls soared to tower a thousand feet above the canyon floor. I have heard Aravaipa called “The Grand Canyon of the Sonoran Desert” and it is an appropriate moniker.
I encountered several groups of dayhikers, April being one of the prime seasons for this canyon. Around each bend of the creek, beautiful new vistas unfolded. I saw a Great Blue Heron from a distance and slowly approached it to take a picture. The 4-foot tall heron seemed unfazed by my presence- it let me get within ten feet of it and posed for a few shots before flying away.
In addition to the 3 herons I saw, there were many colorful birds, turkey vultures, and hawks- the perennial creek makes Aravaipa a haven for all kinds of wildlife. I was about a week late for the peak brittlebush blooms, but many other wildflowers were still blooming.
I passed a beautiful campsite opposite Horse Camp Canyon- a location to remember for future trips. I wanted to camp somewhere around Mile 8 of the canyon so that I could set up a base camp for the next couple of days. After I passed Booger Canyon, the canyon bottom got wider and more gravelly. It was much easier to hike in than the previous part and was shaded on both sides with cottonwoods. I will have to come back here in the fall when the leaves turn golden- it must be quite a sight!
The soaring walls of the middle part of the canyon soon gave way to smaller, pockmarked walls that had a different character altogether. It was as if I had walked through three different canyons in one day. I reached the mouth of Deer Creek Canyon (also known as Hell Hole) and found a great campsite on a small spit of land next to the creek. It took me about 6 hours to hike the 8 miles to my campsite with many stops for ogling the scenery and taking pictures. There were several groups camped a short distance away, but the sound of the creek drowned out most of the noise, and they were around a bend of the creek, so my campsite still felt somewhat secluded. (one of the groups camped nearby had dragged a large, two-wheeled luggage cart full of stuff from the East trailhead to their campsite- so much for traveling light!)
I had a lovely evening, with an almost-full moon lighting up the sky. The next morning, I was in no hurry to get moving, so I lounged in camp reading Katie Lee’s Sandstone Seduction. I had read it last year, and remembered that it would be a great one to take on a backpacking trip. It is a fun read- there are stories about Tucson in the 1940’s and 50’s, Edward Abbey, and she even mentions Aravaipa and Hell’s Half Acre. Abbey was once a ranger here, and I passed his residence on the way in from the West trailhead. He once wrote a piece about Aravaipa, (read the essay here) and one sentence really touched me: “We have earned enough memories, stored enough mental emotional images in our heads, from one brief day in Aravaipa Canyon, to enrich the urban days to come.”
Once I got myself moving, the objective for the day was to hike to the east end of the canyon and check out a Salado cliff dwelling not far away in Turkey Creek. The east part of the canyon was much flatter and sandy rather than rocky. (I guess that’s how the guy was able to wheel his cart full of stuff) I stopped to check out a mini side canyon that was festooned with bouquets of yellow columbine and bright red Texas Betony.
The east part of Aravaipa has these great overhangs where the stream has cut into the rock. I saw several friendly groups of dayhikers, all surprised to see me out by myself. I wasn’t in a chatty mood this trip- I wanted to preserve the feeling of solitude that I get when hiking alone and be able to take in all the scenery without distractions. I reached the East trailhead at Turkey Creek, and was surprised to see that the parking area is right on the creek. Turkey Creek had a small flow in it and I followed the picturesque canyon south under a canopy of oak and juniper trees. There were many attractive car camping spots along the creek. The cliff dwelling was about 1.3 miles away from Aravaipa Creek, and was marked by a sign tucked back in the trees. I hiked up the hill to the ruin, which was very well preserved by the overhanging face of the rock.
I returned back to my camp for a siesta (or riposo, since I’m Italian) shaded by cottonwoods at my campsite. One of the best parts of Aravaipa is that the sound of rushing water is ever-present. There is no sweeter sound in the desert. In the afternoon, I set out for an exploration up Deer Creek Canyon, also known as Hell Hole. After a short walk north of Aravaipa Creek, the canyon slots up to only 20-30 feet wide and twists and turns with a small flow of water at the bottom. Such a different environment than the main canyon! I saw many footprints, but didn’t see anyone else in my exploration.
It was much quieter in the side canyon, and I passed the formation that gives Hell Hole it’s name.
As it got later in the afternoon, the canyon tree frogs began to sing. If you haven’t heard them before, play the video below. I think they sound like goats.
There was a beautiful spring surounded by columbines that gushed cool water out of an alcove. I walked a little while longer, then turned back. I will definitely come back to explore more here on another trip.
I had a pleasant evening, read more of my book, wrote in my journal and went to bed. I was using my inner mesh tent to keep away the bugs, and I was happy with my decision. When I went to put on my shoes the next morning I had to pick three spiders out of them before putting them on.
I begrudgingly started my hike back to the west trailhead- even if I had more time, the permit system only allows for a maximum of three days in the Aravaipa Wilderness. I usually don’t like to do out-and-back hikes, but in this case I welcomed the opportunity to see the canyon hiking in the other direction.
It was extremely windy on my hike out and I stayed in the creek rather than on the sandswept benches. At one point, I stopped to look back at the scenery and it was so beautiful, it made my heart ache to leave this beautiful place.
Last week, I had a couple of days available to go backpacking, so I decided to head back to Aravaipa. Six weeks after my first trip, it was now summer and the forecast was for highs of 100. My plan was to hike early, hike wet, use my umbrella, and camp at the site across from Horse Camp Canyon that I had admired last trip.
On this trip, I used the paths on the benches to speed my progress to my campsite and made it to Horse Camp in about three hours. Unlike my last trip, this time I was the only person around. In fact, for the second day I was there, mine was the only permit issued for the whole canyon! I lounged around in the shade of a giant cottonwood and splashed in the creek from time to time to cool off. The book for this trip was Sandstone Spine by David Roberts- a perfect backpacking read and worth every ounce.
The second day I was there, I explored Horse Camp Canyon- what a delight! Just a five-minute walk away from Aravaipa Creek is a beautiful waterfall with a deep plunge pool, perfect for the bright green inner tube that I’d packed in for just an occasion. I hiked out starting at 4:30 pm, and was shaded by the canyon walls for 75% of the time. I was supposed to hike out the next morning, but decided to cut my trip a little short to surprise my husband Brian. Besides, as pretty as the canyon was, I was tired of the biting gnats and mosquitoes. (I ended up with over 50 bites!) I snuck in the house and even though I scared the crap out of him, he was really happy to see me.
Here’s a video to hear what baby herons sound like when they’re hungry: