Summer can be a dark time in Arizona. Actually, that’s false: summer is an oppressively bright time in Arizona. The sun cooks everything with amazing power, your skin burns instantly, evening lows often never dip below 90 degrees in the city, and the sun dumps so much energy into the upper atmosphere that the desert is pounded with afternoon thunderstorms of impossible scale. People can say what they want about the “wet” vs. “dry” heat, but the heat kills people at a higher rater here than anywhere else in the country. Good to know we lead the country in something.
Now, as I’ve covered before, because of the ridiculous difference elevation between the lowland deserts and the mountain forests comfortable temperatures are never more than a couple of hours away from anywhere in Arizona. You could easily fill an entire summer hiking in the mountains (I’ve even made a list of just such places HERE), and then return to the deserts to enjoy your perfect winter. But, if you are a certified desert rat like me, this can start to feel claustrophobic. After too much time in the pines, I start missing the big, wide open views of the desert. I love the mountains, but the desert is my home.
I also love being alive, and since my desire to stay alive is in direct opposition to the effects of hiking in the afternoon heat, summer in the desert doesn’t offer a lot of choices. There is one option though, and it may be the best secret place in Arizona: Aravaipa Canyon.
My love of Aravaipa Canyon is well documented. To the rest of the country however, Aravaipa Canyon is almost completely unknown. Backpacker has only ever written one ridiculously short (but glowing) article on it. Even among the local crowd of hikers and backpackers I run with most people have heard of the place but they have never visited. While I am happy to have the it to myself, the fact such an amazing place exists and people don’t know about it is an absolute shame. There are more than 200 bird species in the Canyon. Deer are everywhere, Javelina abound, and it is not uncommon to see bears or mountain lions. The wilderness follows a single shin deep stream, meaning that you can have the “out there” sensation of being in a trailess wilderness while also knowing that you simply cannot get lost. Though it is a little more than 10 miles end to end, the main stream has less than 500 ft of elevation change, meaning that literally anyone with legs can do it. If you want something harder, there are endless side canyons to explore, some of which require pretty excellent bouldering skills.
Downsides? I guess there are a few. For one, permits are required and can be hard to get during peak season (spring and fall). Second, you walking will be in the water for most of the hike, which can make boots uncomfortable (I use these water shoes, and wear gaiters to keep the gravel out of my shoes). Summer will be hot and winter will be cold. Last, and most importantly, flash floods are common, so rain should be avoided at all costs.
Which brings us back to the hike. Wanting to stay in the desert, but also not die in a flood following an afternoon thunderstorm, Golab and I bought our permits and made sure to hit the trail head just before dawn. A quick jaunt from the parking lot put us in the stream bottom, which at this point is wide, slow moving, and shaded by giant cottonwoods. Unfortunately for you and me, there still wasn’t enough light for me to get a reasonable picture around here.
Quickly though, the canyon will starts to tighten around you. First, with some imposing 50 foot cliffs.
After this first set of narrows, the stream takes a hard turn to the East, and the fun really begins. Immediately the walls of the outer canyon shoot up hundreds of feet.
As we moved further and further up stream the canyon grew higher and higher. The sun finally broke over the canyon walls near a side canyon called Hell’s Half Acre.
We got lucky though, given the heat of the day, and soon a couple of helpful clouds kept the sun from roasting us.
At the very midpoint of the canyon system lies Horse Camp Canyon. Coming into the Horse Camp area, the main stem opens up just wide enough to support several excellent camping sites in a row.
This canyon (which, if climbed, offers phenomenal opportunities for photography), unfortunately marked our turn around point for the day. We had been walking for 3.5 hours, the sun was out in full force, and, since we wanted to be back at the car around noon, we had to turn back. The sun baked us on the return trip, but we managed to work pretty well from shady spot to shady spot.
By 11am we were back in the last set of narrows, sad it see the canyon go, but ready to get out of the already over 100 degree heat.
There isn’t an easy way to sum up a post on Aravaipa Canyon. Little traveled, little known, breathtakingly beautiful, and absolutely abound with wildlife, Aravaipa is everything you want in an outdoors experience. If that isn’t enough, I don’t know what is.
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions. Don’t forget you can follow Lesser Places by clicking on the menu box on the top of the page.