Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness: an Arizona classic

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Trivial things we knew about Aravaipa Canyon upon a first thought:
  • according to Google, it’s four, maybe five hours away from either Tucson or Phoenix
  • Kevin once saw a centipede of monstrous, prehistoric proportions there
  • from when I was in Boy Scouts, I remember doing the entire hike in the stream bed, in sometimes waist-deep water (and sometimes falling into said water, and floating around)
  • that was also when we discovered that jumping cholla needles are incredibly flammable


Then we actually went. And it was awesome.

First off, only the east side of the canyon and its requisite trailhead is four hours away from the metropolises. Metropolii? Anyway, the west end of the canyon is a much, much more reasonable two hours from Phoenix, and slightly less than that from Tucson, south and northeast of the two cities, respectively. The roads there can actually be really scenic, though the one from Phoenix was a bit depressingly marred by large strip mines, alas.


The other thing about either road: they both end in several miles of bumpity, hairpin dirt roads on which you would do well to have a truck or SUV. That said, our little Civic seemed to navigate them just fine, if while having us a little worried along the way. At the trailhead there’s a little outhouse and forms to write down your permit number – oh yeah, permits are $5 a person, and go quickly, so reserve yours in advance with the BLM!



The first part of the hike, which is actually through private land, mimics the dirt road leading to the trailhead: it’s dusty, rocky, and obstacle-strewn. Luckily, however, it’s a pretty short stretch, and we quickly got on to the main theme of Aravaipa Canyon: a thoroughfare-like stream with a trail that meanders back and forth across it like a…well, stream.

I’m not sure what time of year I had previously done the hike, but in January the water was almost uniformly of a gentle depth, never more than up to our knees. There is evidence of it going right up to the canyon’s rocky sides, but we must have arrived at a low ebb. All that said, the temperature of the water was – at least initially – anything but gentle. That is, it was so icy cold that it was actively painful to move through, and even more so when we’d exit the water and our blood vessels would attempt to keep adapting.


That got hugely and quickly better as the day went on, though, and by the time we were returning to the cars in the afternoon, the water was downright pleasant to hike through. In fact, during some stretches we’d forgo the trails on the banks entirely in favor of sloshing directly down the middle.

It must be noted, though, that the trick with hiking in the stream is that (except for rare instances of sticky, gloopy mud) it’s all gravel or coarse sand…ie, the bane of the soles of our feet when the grains and pebbles would get stuck in our footwear. I’m not sure of the others’ sneakers and boots, but Bonnie and I were actually quite satisfied in the end with our Tevas; because they were open but for the straps, with some practice we could use the stream’s current to wash out most of what got stuck in them.


So many interesting things!

Strange white pods on the canyon walls! What were they? We still have no idea. Could we have eaten those plump, yellow berries on the dried out little grey plants? Not even Google can tell us, and all my field guides are packed away in boxes. What was that mysterious four-legged being we saw very far away on a ridge? A sheep? A coyote? A centaur? Alas, our binoculars: also packed away.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Kevin was able to help us out with one thing, though: in one spot it looked like someone had carried motor oil all the way in to the canyon and dumped it. We were initially indignant, but Kevin pointed out it looked more like a sign of bog ore – the beginnings of iron being concentrated from decaying plants.

Out of wildlife we did recognize, there was a graceful heron that flew above us from a short cliff, almost indifferent to our presence. It was also huge. A family of quails let me walk right near them, and Bonnie and I got delightful glimpses of roadrunners, those tiny dinosaurs of the desert.

What has to be said, though, is that Aravaipa Canyon is just an amazing place to inhabit even for the short while that we did. Around every bend is another view of sheer cliffs and ridges verdant with Sonoran plants, even in January, and the constantly changing play of shadows and sun perfectly complements the ever-changing, ever-burbling nature of the stream that is the canyon’s heart. It’s a beautiful place, and well worth the drive to get there.