View Full Version : Aravaipa Canyon trip report

2003-06-09, 17:43
In hopeful anticipation of this sopme day becoming an Arizona Trails folder and not just an AZT forum, I thought I'd post a trip report on last weekend's hike in Aravaipa Canyon.

I'd hiked Aravaipa a year before, but I had just latched onto another group who had planned it out. This time I took the lead in organizing two trips, one on 7-8 June 2003 (this past weekend), the other on 14-15 June 2003 (next weekend -- I'll post a follow-up report).

Background: Aravaipa Canyon is a wilderness area, which is jointly administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and The Nature Conservancy. What makes Aravaipa rare is that it is a perennial stream with a well-established riparian ecosystem, and it lies in the middle of a desert ecosystem. The end result is a cottonwood-lined creek running through rock walls and/or cactus and mesquite forests. In order to preserve the wilderness character of the canyon, the BLM has taken a few steps to limit impact. First, there are no marked trails -- at points it's easiest to just hike in the creek itself. Second, all hikers must have permits, which cost $5/person/day (reservations can be made up to 13 weeks in advance). Third, no fishing, hunting, vehicles, or domesticated animals (other than horses) are allowed.

The first time I hiked Aravaipa was in May 2002. This past weekend, I was pleasantly surprised to find that nothing had discernably changed after 13 months. Unlike my first visit (where we hiked ~ 20 miles along the creek and in side canyons), we had only hiked ~ 5.5 miles before one of our group started having bad back problems and we stopped early to camp. After setting up camp, a few of us hiked upstream ~ 2.5 more miles to Hell Hole Canyon and explored uop there a bit before returning to the campsite for dinner and wine (and more wine). No one fell in the creek, no one fell in the fire, and even though we had to cut the hike short, we all ended up having a blast.

"Trail": There is no marked trail in the canyon. There are several available paths at most points. Where the creek is wide and free of boulders and overhanging branches, the easiest route is in the water itself. At several points, the canyon walls narrow enough that hiking in the creek is your only option. In other areas, the creek is so wide and the banks are so built-up that you can hike for up to half a mile without seeing the creek. The canyon is roughly 12 miles from end to end, with only a 450' elevation gain from west to east, so it's easy going for the m\ost part, but there are several spots that require scrambling around rocks and such.

Footwear: This is a creek hike -- your feet will be not only wet but sumberged for a good part of the hike. Tevas are out of the question for the hike; they do not offer enough traction and ankle support when hiking over the slippery, mossy rocks in the creek. They also constantly fill up with rocks swept along by the current. Hiking boots give good support and keep most (not all) rocks out, but they end up weighing a ton because of all the water they soak up. I find that old running shoes are a compromise between the two -- more weight and traction than Tevas and less than boots; pick up fewer rocks than Tevas but more than boots; more ankle support and stability than Tevas and less than boots. Your mileage may vary.

Navigation: There are several prominent side canyons which branch off from Aravaipa Canyon, including Booger, Hell's Half Acre, Virgus, Horse Camp, and Hell Hole. The canyons make great landmarks to aid in navigation -- in fact, they are pretty much the only easily distinguishable landmarks in the canyon. As far as maps go, I recommend getting a custom map of the canyon; otherwise, to be able to hike the canyon and any of the side canyons, you will need four USGS 7.5" quad maps: Brandenberg Mountain (NW), Booger Canyon (NE), Holy Joe Peak (SW), and Oak Grove Canyon (SE). If you have a GPS, I recommend pre-plotting as many points as possible to avoid confusing the side canyons, and I definitely recommend you set a waypoint where the trail from the parking lot meets the creek -- there are signs, but it can be easy to miss (and it's really easy to feel you've already missed it!).

Camping: The canyon is ideal for hammock hikers. Except during the July-August monsoon season (don't laugh, we do have one), rainfall is pretty much not a problem. There are countless places for hammock users to string up and rack out. Tent sites are plentiful as well; there are great campsites available on the large sandy deposits immediately adjacent to the creek, and where the ground is high enough there are tree-shaded groves of level dirt and grass away from the creek. In my experience, the area around the mouth of Hell Hole Canyon (~ 8 miles from the west trailhead and ~ 4 miles from the east trailhead) is the best area to camp.

Critters: Since it's a lush riparian environment in the middle of a desert mountain range, Aravaipa attracts critters, both good and bad. As for the bad critters, I was surprised at the lack of mosquitos, but the biting flies made up for the absence of mosquitos. One of our party saw a snake, although they suspected it was non-venemous. I almost got stung by a green scorpion that crawled onto my pack. As for the good critters, we saw plenty of birds and little lizards. We saw a couple of playful coatimundi on this trip (in May 2002 I saw roughly 15 coati along the creek). We also were lucky enough to spot a desert bighorn sheep on a low canyon slope.

Water: The water in the canyon is safe to drink if filtered or treated. I wouldn't recommend drinking it straight.

Traffic: Aravaipa is limited to 50 visitors a day: 30 from the west trailhead and 20 from the east. The west trailhead is located about 8 miles off the pavement and is a 1-hour drive from Tucson and about a 2-hour drive rom Phoenix. The east trailhead is definitely less visited than the west because of its location; it is located at the end of ~ 40 miles of dirt road, and the closest towns are Benson and Safford (which aren't really close to much of anything). I've only hiked overnight from and to the west trailhead, but I hear that some people day-hike from end to end by splitting their groups in half, parking on both sides of the canyon, and swapping keys inside the canyon. At any rate, on the weekend, you will probably see most if not all of the 50 alloted hikers during your hike. However, if you're lucky enough to be able to hike Aravaipa during the week, you might not even see ten other hikers. It's all in the timing, I guess.

Getting there: Parking is limited at both trailheads, so it's best to carpool. Each trailhead has a small campground, so it's possible to camp out near the car and get an early start, but they are first-come first-serve and fill up quickly. If you're traveling a long distance, easier to hit a hotel in Tucson (west gate) or Safford (east gate), get up early, and drive to the trail.

Overall: This is a beautiful three-season hike in a beautiful canyon that may be unlike any other hike in Arizona, if not the Southwest (or even the world). Hiking through the water might prove unsafe, or at least very uncomfortable, in winter. Temperatures in the canyon can exceed 95 degrees in the summer, but this fact is tempered by the fact that you're hiking in water and can easily dump your pack and cool off in a swimming hole at any given point.

For more information, see the links below.

BLM Aravaipa page: https://www.az.blm.gov/sfo/aravaipa/aravaipa.html

Reservations: https://www.az.blm.gov/fr_arolrs.htm

My Aravaipa photos: http://members.aol.com/jdeichert/canyons.html

2003-06-16, 19:18
A couple of notes to add to my report above.

- Side trails: I indicated above that this hike involves a lot of water. Well, it can or it can't. There are several stretches of the canyon where there are trails running parallel to the course of the creek, some of which run 1/4 to 1/2 mile or more. Doesn't sound like much, but these trails make hiking a lot faster and easier (and lessen the chance of injuries, such as twisting ankles on slippery rocks). Trouble is, these trails can be hard to spot. On the return hike this past weekend, I found three (count 'em, three) long stretches of trail that were probably over 2 miles combined. Oddly enough, I had no clue that these trails were there before we stumbled upon them, and this was my sixth time hiking through these stretches of the canyon (three trips x two hikes each, one upstream and one back down). So, when you go, watch for easy side trails. They don't offer much shelter (they're actually like hiking through normal desert, actuially), but they're fast.

- Hell Hole Canyon: This side canyon is about 8 miles from the west gate and 3-4 miles from the east gate. If you explore only one side canyon during your visit to Aravaipa, this should be it. The sides of the canyon are more or less vertical walls, which tower over 100' over the mostly dry course of Deer Creek. Between 1.5 and 2 miles up Hell Hole Canyon from its confluence with Aravaipa Cayon, you'll find Hell Hole, which is a natural arch in one of the canyon walls. As pretty as it is, though, the arch isn't the only reason to trek this side canyon. There are numerous dry falls on the sides of the canyon that are cool to poke around. There are also a lot of pools of water, and depending on how wet things are when you visit, you will probably see Deer Creek make a cameo appearance in some stretches of the canyon. There are a lot of trees and hanging gardens dotting the canyon, and the first time I visited (May 2002), we saw 2 or 3 coatimundi in Hell Hole (especially neat -- when you see coati in Aravaipa Canyon, they normally run away so fast you barely see them, but in Hell Hole Canyon they are far more constrained and are therefore easier to spot).