This week one of many flights that H5 Charter took was with a group to Aravaipa Canyon, Arizona. Water flows. Trees take root along the canyon floor. Everywhere you look, things grow along Aravaipa Creek: willows and cottonwoods, tall sycamores and gnarly mesquites. Cholla and saguaro cactus. It’s as if someone has torn a gash in the desert and keeps filling it with water.
Combine water and sunlight and you get plant life. Grow enough plants and you attract birds and animals. Throw in cliff walls and you have a place where it is easy to create the illusion of isolation, or solitude. The streambed is a tangle of plants, a riot of birdsong, a flash of a whitetail deer ahead. This is the chaos of nature. Roots and rocks. Water flowing between stone walls and the life it enables.
Aravaipa Canyon is not so much a place as a presence. Situated about 120 miles southeast of central Phoenix, it has one of the few perennial streams in the area. Follow the path and it leads to the stream. Cross the stream and follow the next path, until it leads to a cliff wall or a tangle of driftwood and deadfall. Cross again. Cross often.
Some inner child within awakes as you splash along, running your fingers along stone walls. At times, you’re under a canopy of trees, and you can’t even tell there’s a desert out there, if there’s anything at all.
Walls close in, tall and cracked, a passage to whatever lies ahead. An epiphany, perhaps, but more than likely just another bend in the stream. Sometimes all you need to recharge your batteries is to hear the sound of water. The song of a canyon wren, the blathering of a raven.
You find a small patch of ground, lay your hat down and watch the cottonwood seeds scatter. This is home. Perhaps you will not move for the rest of the trip. It has been known to happen. You make camp, darkness comes, the Big Dipper wheels above the northern cliffs until the first light of dawn shines on a distant wall.
Perhaps that morning you walk. Walls open up and trees part, revealing red-rock cliffs, caves and broken spires. A side canyon of polished granite opens just a crack, and you get sidetracked for an hour.
Aravaipa Canyon is not unseen wilderness; people have been living around and walking through it for centuries. But it’s not as widely known as some other Arizona canyons. Mention Aravaipa in a group of avid hikers and eyes will light up, heads will nod. Mention it to more casual types and they might ask: Where’s that?
The canyon has sheltered Hohokam, Mogollon and Salado peoples. It offered protection to Apaches until White settlers arrived and homesteaded both sides of the canyon.
Aravaipa is too narrow to accommodate much of a crop, so farms were abandoned. The area is too rugged and costly to pave, so travel between early settlements was difficult. There wasn’t much copper, or gold, or silver, so early prospectors took what they could and moved on. Moonshiners used the canyon until their day passed.
Congress added the canyon to a collection of places it deemed worthy of preservation when it passed the Arizona Wilderness Act of 1984. The Bureau of Land Management limits use to 50 hikers a day.
The creek flows from east to west and you can hike in from either end. In 2005, a local dispute led a property owner on the east end to build a gate across the road to the trailhead. A judge ruled in late 2007 that the gate be reopened. In the meantime, the nearest business, a small store, closed. All that remains is Klondyke Horsehead Lodge, the only lodging available for miles.
The west end, a shorter drive from Phoenix, is where most hikers enter. Aravaipa Farms bed-and-breakfast attracts hikers and birders.
The region has about 600 species of plants and is home to mountain lions, coatimundis, ringtail cats, black hawks, kingfishers, black bears and desert bighorns. The BLM estimates that about 235 species of birds live here.
It makes no difference which end you go in. It makes no difference how many miles you walk, whether you have an epiphany or your head simply empties. Cottonwood seeds fall, a cloud of mayflies hovers, a raven squawks, the water rushes — these make up the canyon’s song.
Aravaipa Creek Wilderness Area
Where: The west trailhead is about 128 miles southeast of central Phoenix. Take U.S. 60 east to Superior, then turn southeast on Arizona 177 and go about 32 miles to Winkelman. Bear south on Arizona 77 and go about 11 miles. Turn east on Aravaipa Canyon Road, between mile markers 124 and 125, and go about 12 miles to the trailhead. The final 8 miles are unpaved but generally in good condition. The east entrance is about 177 miles from central Phoenix. Take U.S. 60 east about 137 miles to Klondyke Road and turn west. (Klondyke Road is about 8 miles east of Fort Thomas.) Continue 24 miles to a “T” intersection, bear north and go an additional 16 miles to the trailhead. Klondyke Road is unpaved but generally in good condition. Or if you want an easier life, simply give H5 Charter a call and we will gladly fly you right to the Canyon.