Devil's Tale


Backpacking Aravaipa Canyon

By Adam Wallin  

Every few miles, as we drove deeper into the unknown, it felt as though another gate were slamming shut behind us.


Aravaipa Canyon opens your eyes to natural beauty all over again. Walking through cold water, having no path to follow, seeing wildlife you’ve only read about—it is a pleasant shock to your system. It’s easy to call yourself an outdoors person when you have a trail and an itinerary. It’s harder when you don’t.

I wanted to share Aravaipa Canyon with three friends who aren’t outdoors people. We hastily planned a weekend trip and left on a Friday evening.

I’d been there once before, but our route this time was far different, and I timed things poorly. From Tucson to the west entrance takes about two hours, which is what I promised my friends. Driving from Phoenix to the east entrance takes more like four. We tried to pass the time with chit chat, car games, and looking out the window (which was useless since it was dark by the time we left town). We listened to the presidential debate on the radio, which cut out as it ended and we left civilization behind. The underpasses disappeared, the fields grew larger and darker, and the road began to wind.

Courtesy of Adam Wallin Aravaipa Canyon boasts high rock walls, a rolling river, and lush greenery.

About halfway to Aravaipa Canyon, we realized we’d forgotten a few things and stopped at a roadside supermarket, which was strangely big in the middle of nowhere. It was like finding a forgotten town still full of goods, not on any map. When we asked where we were, the checkout girl snickered, “San Carlos.” She asked if we’d come for the big game, of which there was no evidence.

Shopping provided a glimpse of how each of us approached the trip. Although we’d stopped for a cooking pan and a can opener, my roommate Chris wanted to buy a wedge of fancy cheese to make gourmet sandwiches. He kept looking wistfully at the snacks and making ridiculous suggestions: “Let’s get another can of beans.” “More hot chocolate.” “Let’s get a huge fruit salad.” His girlfriend, Courtney, told him we were about to hike in cold water up to our knees in the dark, and we didn’t want more weight.

Next stop: Another world
We left the supermarket behind, a dog’s melancholy bark sending us on our way. I imagined the town, as we drove on, to be a sort of invisible city on the way to the canyon, marking our passage from the real to the not quite real. It fit my idea of the canyon itself, a secret location beyond a veil of time and place, open to those with good heart and a password.

The road took a profound turn as we went from pavement to an unkempt, miles-long dirt-and-gravel track best traveled by anything heavier than my four-door Corolla. Occasionally the road would get worse—more potholes, more ridges to make the car judder and slow down. Every few miles, as we drove deeper into the unknown, it felt as though another gate were slamming shut behind us.

The last few miles of the canyon’s east entrance are crisscrossed with fast, cold-running water, deep enough at a few points to swamp a car. The first creek bed we crossed was dry, and I thought we were in luck. A few minutes later it was obvious we’d have to navigate the river, and my friends were getting restless. I stopped the car, and Chris and I found the big flashlight.

Chris walked across the cold, muddy flow, going in and out of focus in the headlights to survey the road ahead. We figured it would be easy as long as I kept the car moving; for this first obstacle, it was. I felt such an auspicious start made anything possible. Soon the wall of shadows gave way to tall desert trees, cold air and the sounds of nature, all setting a pleasantly eerie scene.

Courtesy of Adam Wallin Adam Wallin and Chris Hassler take a walk in the river rollin’ through Aravaipa Canyon.
The river wild
We drove on, fighting the increasingly difficult river crossings, until, inevitably, I met my match.

It was running faster and deeper, with heavy rocks on both sides. My girlfriend, Stephanie, wasn’t sure going ahead was a good idea and said so. Chris was excited and happy, as he is when things are difficult. I put the car in gear and drove fast across the whole mess, bottoming out as I hit the other side at full tilt. The passengers said they could feel the rocks hit them through the car. Stephanie was getting colder and said she wanted to kill me.

We parked before the last crossing, up on a small hill where another car sat before a barbed-wire fence. Although the Nature Conservancy owns most of the land surrounding Aravaipa Canyon, private ranches take up the rest, and trespassing is strictly frowned upon.

We packed everything and set off.

A horizonless night
Immediately the cold water stung our feet. In the canyon you walk upstream or downstream, depending on where you begin, but you always do it in the water. The canyon narrows to nothing but river in several parts, and the dry land is covered top to bottom with large plants, hard-slog mud and large rocks. Everyone trudged forward, looking at the stars and the river in equal amazement, occasionally turning our lights out to enjoy the chill solitude, looking around at the shadowy cliffs climbing out of nowhere around us, boxing us in.

You can tell you’re deep in a canyon even in the dead of night: there’s no horizon. Instead of dull urban heat, there’s the feel of rocks under your boots, river running over them, and life breathing all around. We scraped past overhanging branches, climbed over felled trees, slogged our way through the slick track of river, and found a flat spot to rest. No markings, no signpost; just a smooth, abandoned road leading off to nowhere.

Chris and I set up the four-person tent (a monstrous ordeal), while Stephanie and Courtney found wood, made a fire circle and decided what to cook. Soon we all sat around the heat of a dead tree’s-worth of fuel, eating a small dinner and talking about whether the way in had been fun. I apologized for the road, which everyone commended as a worthwhile adventure.

Chris stayed outside as the rest of us crawled into bed. He said a skunk was wandering through the camp. We decided it was too ridiculous to be a lie, believed him, and went to sleep.

Trail tidbits

Thinking about taking a trip to the Aravaipa wilderness? Here are some need-to-know tidbits that will prepare you for your adventure.

• You can only stay up to three days (two nights) in the wilderness.

• There can be no more than 10 people in your group.

• Only 50 people are allowed in the canyon per day, so make reservations ahead of time. The Arizona Bureau of Land Management limits the number so visitors can experience the solitude and vastness of the canyon without being disturbed by other people. Also, the BLM seeks to preserve the wildlife with as few disturbances as possible.

• You can buy permits up to 13 weeks in advance. Look up dates on a viewable calendar.

• No pets are allowed except seeing-eye dogs.

• There are no man-made trails in the canyon because the government seeks to keep the wilderness area just that—a wilderness, rugged and secluded.

The canyon life
Animals in the canyon don’t have much fear of humans, and it’s easy to see three or four species in one trip. The next day, as we hiked downriver and back up, I watched a large heron gliding above the water, alighting on this or that outcropping, taking its time in the cool sun of midday. There are more than 200 species of birds in the canyon, which is only 11 miles long; the river has seven species of native fish. People often see bighorn sheep on the slopes.

It’s a real riparian area, full of life and wild enough to keep tourists at bay. Some days you won’t see anyone, even though the booking schedule can fill up months in advance. The soughing of secluded ash trees; the tinkle of thousands of flat, silver-dollar leaves in the wind; the beautiful red-and-brown eddies as the water swirls about the living detritus of the canyon floor—these are intoxicating, and they are what keep the dedicated few coming again and again.

On our way out, Stephanie called it “the best time I’ve ever had on an outdoor adventure.” I think it’s because Aravaipa makes you talk this way. If you allow it to, it makes you feel like a child. It’s a dot on the map where most people will never go, where the cold dead of night is inviting, where damp and impassible routes are encouraging, where everything begs you to go farther and deeper.

You can never quite summarize the time you spend there; it has to be seen and felt. Once you leave the car behind and see the river ahead, bubbling off into the canyon, you start to feel you’ve crossed through the veil of time and place. For however long you like, you can stay on the other side.



Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness

Getting there
The east trailhead is about 190 miles from Phoenix. Take U.S. 60 east to Globe, then continue east on U.S. 70 to the Klondyke Road (eight miles past Fort Thomas). Turn right, drive 24 miles to the “Y” intersection, turn right and continue 16 miles to the trailhead. From the trailhead parking and kiosk, it’s a 1.5-mile hike through Nature Conservancy land to the east wilderness boundary.

Best time to go
If you’re looking for solitude, braving the November chill is your best option, but for the best weather, go between April and September. The canyon is cool but can heat up in summer. Many people know this, so spring can be awfully crowded.

What to bring
The Arizona Bureau of Land Management recommends bringing “a safety kit, water, hat, sunscreen, map, hygiene kit (trowel, toilet paper, sealable sandwich bag for used toilet paper), sunglasses, and a light jacket.” The BLM also warns you to bring at least one gallon of water per day because dehydration is a potential threat. The creek's water is not safe to drink unless treated first.

Making reservations online at the Bureau of Land Management site is the smart thing to do. You’ll need a pass ($5 per person per day). Throwing things together at the last minute, as we did, works only in the off-season. No pets are allowed.

Arizona Bureau of Land Management, 711 14th Avenue, Safford, Arizona 85546, 928.348.4400.


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