Off-Season in Aravaipa Canyon: Fall Colors & Solitude
I was trepidatious about a late November hike in Aravaipa Canyon because it requires crossing the creek many times or even hiking in it. Nice in summer or early fall but chilly later in the year.
Perhaps others agreed: we saw only a few people during our four day out-and-back hike in this popular canyon—though the reservation site showed almost all 50 “access permits” were filled!
The trip starting Nov. 29 was to celebrate David’s birthday Nov. 28. One reason for the off-season start was Bureau of Land Management limits on entry permits for both backpackers and day hikers. In spring, summer, and fall those permits are booked months ahead. When David looked into permits in September the first available were late November.
I don’t like being cold; one reason we leave our Idaho mountain residence in October to spend the winter in Tucson! David bought Sealskinz waterproof socks to wear with our Keene water sandals and Gore Tex gaiters.
Driving to West Trailhead (off Oracle Highway) past privately owned ranches, we noticed a bonus ahead: masses of golden cottonwood trees along the river. Two sport utility vehicles (SUVs) were parked at the trailhead. (Travel to west trailhead 70 miles from Tucson mostly on SR-77; a high-clearance vehicle was fine for last 12 miles of dirt road. The East trailhead north of Fort Grant and Wilcox—150 miles from Tucson—reputedly requires heavy duty off-road-vehicle.)
We wore 2 upper layers—turtleneck and a shirt—starting at cold, breezy trailhead overlooking the Aravaipa valley. We dropped into the canyon on steep eroded trail and donned water gear for the first crossing. It went fine. Wool socks and water-repellant Sealskinz socks kept our feet toasty and Gore-Tex gators kept mid-calf water from contact with legs and ankles.
With no wind in the canyon and warming sun we were soon down to cotton shirts; I rolled up sleeves to my elbows. Feet remained cozy despite many crossings; and the Sealskinz socks did not cause blisters. My fears of a cold wet trip appeared unfounded. However, I got to camp that night soaked and freezing!
Slosh Through Riparian Paradise Ends AbruptlyLate morning sun warmed the canyon and the hike up the creek was pleasant—although slow.
We crossed the creek many times; in narrow sections we sloshed down the channel with steep cliffs on either side. Hikers had forged “social trails” along sandbars and along benches although willows or other vegetation often blocked routes forcing reroutes and sometimes crawling over downed logs.
Glorious golden cottonwood, walnut, and ash trees graced the canyon; further up we saw more sycamore clothed in large lobed red-brown leaves (that look like large hand with rounded fingers).
We met a few backpackers—most wearing regular hiking boots with long pants rolled up. We passed two tents in a grassy area with backpacks and gear strewn around. Later we met the tent owners lounging in the sun, done hiking for the day.
We also stopped early—but not because we planned to.
We had taken a “social trail” up a side drainage paralleling the creek. It came to a large mud hole left from summer rains. David took a step and sinking shoes alerted him of possible quicksand. He carefully skirted the hole, thrashing through drooping willow limbs. I followed, but the springy branches knocked me right into the hole, burying my pack in mud with me attached!
David came rushing to the rescue and somehow pulled me out but broke one of my hiking poles in the process (In retrospect he said he should have surveyed situation, moved my hiking poles, taken a drama photo, and then rescued me; but he was worried about quicksand). He held up my muddy pack and I wriggled out. We clambered over a bank and through trees to the creek. I was muddy from head to toe, so I pretty much sat in the creek splashing water all over myself. I walked up the hillside and perched on a rock in the fading sunlight. David retrieved my backpack and brought it to me.
Fortunately, we enclose backpack contents in plastic bags in case of rain, so my evening wear of turtleneck, wool shirt, heavy wool socks, down booties, and stocking cap were dry despite the pack soaking. I slipped them on and added rain pants (as I had not brought a change of pants for the short trip). We unloaded my pack and David took it to the creek, with my muddy hiking clothes, for a good washing. After hanging up my wet clothes, he headed up the river bench into the leafless mesquite forest above green grass carpet to find a campsite.
Our plans of hiking another two miles to Deer Creek—a popular campsite—were thwarted. But the mesquite grove with big-limb trees to hang my pack, clothes, and “bear” bag was fine place for leaving camp as base for next day out-and-back.
My feet stayed warm in the Sealskinz all day. But I neglected to warm them up again before pulling on wool socks and down booties. During dinner preparation, eating and cleanup, my feet were chilled. I learned that down booties do little good at all unless you start out with warm feet!
Day hike up canyon: easier hiking, marauding bear reportsUpper canyon section was broader and easier to hike with good social trails. We passed two camps in lush green grass in the Deer Creek area: four people sat around looking cold; a quarter mile later three guys with small fire on far side of the creek. A couple day-hiking sloshed across the creek to us. At Turkey Creek , (a 1.5-mile jeep road drive from East Trailhead) we saw a few vehicles. We hiked Turkey Creek Road to advertised cliff dwellings, sometimes hopping rocks where the intermittent creek ran across the road.
Turkey Creek cliff dwelling was underwhelming compared to our backcountry expectations (see our visit to Grand Gulch WSA in Utah) but nicely marked and protected by the BLM; it made a good 3-mile loop.
Back at the Turkey Creek parking, the campers with a fire we saw at Deer Creek were back from an overnight; they said a bear had harassed their camp and they kept driving it away. We also met the day hikers returning; one lives on Aravaipa Road and hikes the canyon regularly.
The other Deer Creek campers had a base camp for side canyon visits. One saw 12 coatimundi that day above Hell Hole Canyon. Other unwelcome wildlife visited: the day before a bear had raided their camp, “tore up my tent and stole my camp shoes,” one of the women said.
Just after the Deer Camp we noticed a big hole in the rock wall like an arch before a canyon bend. Taking a slightly different route, we found two side canyons with running creeks.
Almost back to camp we met a man with a big tripod over his shoulder, wearing waders. He wondered how far back to Turkey Creek parking. Maybe 2-3 hours! It was almost sunset, and we did not envy him sloshing along the creek in the dark.
Our camp, off the creek in the mesquite, was undisturbed when we got back. Perhaps my mud hole disaster was fortuitous—the bear knew about the popular Deer Creek camp but not ours.
This time I kept my Sealzskin socks on for camp and feet remained warm!
Our hike out was uneventful. We met a few day hikers. We found better routes on the way back, moved a bit faster and crossed another side canyon with running water. The spring we had noted on the way in was warm! David, moving ahead, saw three deer that I missed.
We both saw the young Hereford heifer lying on the bank, just after last creek crossing. She did not look very well. (I reported her to the BLM range conservationist). Not the wildlife sighting you want in a wilderness but a reminder of Aravaipa’s very recent history.
Aravaipa Human HistoryAravaipa is thought to be an Apache word meaning “laughing waters.” Archelogy history showed the Hohokam, Mogollon, and Salado Indians lived there, hunting game and growing a variety of crops until they mysteriously left their cliff dwellings in the 14th century. About that time Apache Indians migrated to Arizona from the north and by 1700s had settled in mountains of Southeast Arizona. One band lived near Aravaipa creek.
The Apaches sparred with Spanish explorers and other Indians in the area. In 1854, after the U.S. “bought” southern Arizona and part of New Mexico from Mexico in the Gadsden Purchase, miners and settlers poured into the area. Raids and skirmishes ensued between the people already living on the lands and the so-called “new” landowners.
The commander of Fort Grant near the canyon created a refuge for nearly 500 Apache Indians along Aravaipa Creek about five miles east of the fort. They began cutting hay for camp horses and harvesting barley from nearby farms.
A group of Tucson residents blamed all settlers’ Indian problems on the Fort Grant Apaches. In 1871, white vigilantes assisted by Tohono O’odham Indians and Mexicans attacked the camp while most men were away hunting. They killed 144 people, mostly women and children, and 29 children were sold into slavery in Mexico.
The military and Eastern press decried the massacre; President Grant threatened the state of Arizona with martial law unless a trial was held. A Tucson grand jury indicted 100 of the assailants on 108 counts of murder but found them not guilty. As pioneer families settled the area, Apaches never regained much of their ancestral lands.
In the 1870s, settlers from Mexico and Anglo-American farmers, ranchers and miners began to settle in the area. According to a 1991 ethnoecological survey during the early 20th century almost 1,000 people were scattered throughout the area, supporting farm villages on each end of the canyon, five mining camps, large ranches, irrigated farmland, homesteads, Angora goat camps, and mining prospects. The survey, developed for the administering Bureau of Land Management (BLM) describes ecological impacts from 80 years of settlement. Most mining ended by the 1950s. Abandoned corrals, mining prospects, and old roads/trails remain. (Google for “BLM 1991 ethnoecological survey for Aravaipa Canyon” if interested in 450-page report.)
Early ranchers knew little of desert grazing practices and brought in large livestock herds to serve the military, overgrazing the land. This reduced native grasses and increased non-native species and bare ground. Damage from more than 50,000 cattle was described as early as 1901.
Aravaipa protection and resourcesThe Taylor Grazing Act of 1934 replaced open grazing with more fencing, rest-rotation of pastures and some attempts to match cattle numbers to land capacity. As human settlement in Aravaipa declined, a growing urban population in Arizona lobbied for more protection. Aravaipa was made a primitive area in 1969 by Secretary of Interior, wilderness in 1984 with additional acreage added in 1990, all administered by the Bureau of Management (BLM). The Nature Conservancy (TNC) bought a ranch outside Aravaipa in 1971 and now has two preserves on east and west end of canyon encompassing 9000 acres.
BLM, TNC, and other partners have worked on restoration. BLM removed all cattle from canyon bottoms, although it allows some grazing on tablelands above. Removing cattle and reducing human use has allowed natural revegetation; prescribed burns on tablelands have assisted return of native grasses. Invasive salt cedar is sometimes removed by hand.
Arizona Game and Fish has reintroduced bighorn sheep with a current herd of about 160. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is working on plans for a fish barrier on private land at the San Pedro end of the creek, to help exclude non-native fish from entering the canyon waters.
Aravaipa has a high level of water quality and supports a large native desert population including the federally protected spike dace and loach minnow. Hundreds of bird species and 44 mammals are seen in the canyon. We had hoped to see the coatimundi—a raccoon relative with long snout and long, slender tail—but only heard about sightings from other backpackers. We saw only deer, squirrels, frogs, and birds.
Management Suggestions for Resource Protection & Visitor EnjoymentWe have noticed that natural resources agencies seem to operate from assumption that “wilderness” means no management activity, but some light work in the wilderness would better protect the resources and enhance public “use and enjoyment,” which according to the Wilderness Act of 1964, is the main purpose for establishing wilderness.
The BLM has apparently done some work to restore and improve natural resources in Aravaipa but does little for visitor management which indirectly would reduce trammeling and help protect wilderness. Instead of just limiting visitor numbers, the BLM could expand the hiking options by providing some loops. Google Earth imagery indicates it might be plausible to connect some old abandoned upland roads with side canyon routes.
Camp overcrowding could be reduced by shoveling and clipping out a few more campsites. Adding bear boxes in popular areas could help as tree limbs for hanging bear bags are limited. (We camped in an obscure area with a good limb for hanging food and were not bothered by bears. But at least two camps we hiked through in a popular camp area had bear issues.)
Finally adding cairns and some light tree/brush cutting for best route in main canyon seems a must to channel hikers onto one path and prevent further resource destruction from multiple routes. The cows and cow paths are gone, but no need to replace them with hiker spaghetti trails.
(Click upper-right box above map to “view larger map” and see legend including NAVIGATION INSTRUCTIONS; expand/contract legend by clicking right arrow down/up.)