It’s monsoon season in Arizona and that time of year, time for backpacking and revisiting the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aravaipa_Canyon_Wilderness. Due to the fragile nature of this exceptional perennial creek, watershed, riparian zone and breathtaking oasis, nestled deep within a very arid, discrepant desert environment, monsoon season is possibly the best time of year to visit Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, and potentially the time of year these summer storms may add a bit of dramatic adventure to your life.
An Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness adventure begins with a click to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) site: http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/arolrsmain/aravaipa.html. Once there, maneuver your way to the permit page and decided which entrance, East or West, is more suitable to begin your expedition. I chose the West entrance due to its proximity to Tucson, an approximate 2.5 hour drive, https://www.google.com/maps/dir/Tucson,+AZ/Aravaipa+Canyon+Wilderness,+San+Manuel,+AZemail@example.com,-111.5041325,9z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m13!4m12!1m5!1m1!1s0x86d665410b2ced2b:0x73c32d384d16c715!2m2!1d-110.926479!2d32.2217429!1m5!1m1!1s0x8729d0ef15cc3141:0xa639361cb454315a!2m2!1d-110.487596!2d32.89701. Now that you’ve decided on an entrance and you have your date(s) of adventure in mind, you’re ready to pay for and print your permit directly from the website (you’ll also receive a copy via email). Upon arrival at the trailhead you’ll need to record your permit number on the register and post a copy (materials are provided for you at the trailhead) on your vehicle dashboard within plain sight and, you’re ready to begin your quest.
Aravaipa creek is just minutes from the trailhead, therefore there’s no need to carry water in providing you have purification equipment, and once you’re in the creek (for the most part the creek is your trail) and within tree canopy the temperature may easily drop by a refreshing 10 degrees, more if a monsoon is passing through.
Immediately, take notice of the carsonite trailhead sign at the junction of the creek and the trailhead, and it’s location. If you have a GPS system, use it, however it’s not absolutely necessary. Finding your way out of the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness may be a daunting task, especially if it’s raining, it’s dark, or you’re not exactly sure where the trailhead is. I can tell you that if you’re on your way out of the canyon, and you’re lost or it’s dark, you’ll eventually come across the parking lot lamppost that will appear directly in your field of vision, just above the creek. Once you see the lamppost, you’re just a couple on minutes from the trailhead.
Now that you’re in the canyon you may or may not be immediately in the creek, depending on conditions that may change on a constant basis due to weather, rainwater and watershed variables and channeling conditions as the water riffles wherever water wishes to go. I’ve been there twice and neither time was I beginning immediately in the creek, this second time in several inches of rich, silky mud (hiking poles can be useful for balance). Not only did this extraordinary earthy mud made life amusing but left indelible fauna tracks of all kinds to appreciate. Thank goodness the creek meandered just feet away. Initially you’ll begin passing through wilderness on your right and ranch land on your left. This area is where I saw the most beautiful dapple-colored bear I have ever seen, traversing the creek only 60 feet in front of me. Unfortunately, the bear was swifter than the time it took to wake my camera to snap a photo of this majestic creature. Before I knew it it was out of eyesight. Next time, my camera will remain on.
Initially, you’ll begin passing through wilderness on your right and ranch land on your left. This area is where I saw the most beautiful dapple-colored bear I have ever seen (not that I’ve ever seen a dapple-colored bear), traversing the creek only 60 feet in front of me. Unfortunately, the bear was swifter than the time it took for me to wake my camera to snap a photo of this majestic creature. Before I knew it it was unfortunately out of eyesight. Next time, I’ll be sure to maintain my camera or video camera in the “on” mode.
Before long, and you’ll be able to see them as soon as you enter the creek, you’ll begin passing through slot canyons the creek has, for millions of years, carved through volcanic and bed rock. The majority of the creek, however, is not slot canyon, with exception of a few side canyons that are almost entirely composed of slot canyon, and you may find trails that run in concert along side of the creek, intersecting the creek many times. Taking advantage of the trails is highly recommended in some of the rougher, turbid water, although, when the water is clear and rather docile, I prefer to traipse directly through the water even swimming in larger pools every chance possible, before continuing on my journey. The first time I visited the wilderness, July of 2013, I found the water level to average less than a foot in depth, and this second visit a foot to eighteen inches in depth, considerably higher this second visit. There were several fast-water flows that needed to be avoided for safety by going terra firma, making use of trails due to excessive turbidity and depths greater than waist high. In fact, the water saturation and turbidity this adventure was entirely opaque, making each step deliberate, slowing my pace and along with the abundance of silken mud along the embankment that extended upward approximately two to four feet above the current water table, led me to believe I missed a fantastic monsoon confluence that must have passed through only one day before. Two days later, on my way out of the wilderness, a considerable amount of this silty deposit had already baked in the hot Arizona sun forming the most beautiful mosaic of thick, rich, feathery terrain in which to travel.
I happened to be a lone soul, with the exception of an abundance of wildlife, in the canyon wilderness this sojourn and I thoroughly enjoyed every peaceful moment. I sauntered where I wished, climbed and negotiated and non-competitively contemplated what to do and when to do it. My only hinderance was the mandatory three-day limit bestowed upon me by the BLM, which I respectfully accepted given the grandiose beauty surrounding me. With a cheerful gleam I parted the water as I walked, soaked in the wonderful weather, photographed spectacular scenery, spoke to the wildlife, listened intently to the sounds of nature and relished my surroundings thinking, this is how life is meant to be lived. With pause, I quickly thought to myself, I’m home, before I shook myself back to reality knowing my primal stay here is unfortunately, limited. Incidentally, this canyon wilderness has been home for indigenous people and cultures for more time than we can possibly conceptualize, a way of life not too much different than the life I so desperately desire to ingress, if only for this very brief period of time.
Along on my journey, modern conveniences such as a waterproof backpack, sil-nylon tent and hammock, titanium stove and cookware, and a modern fire-starter had all added a bit of luxury to wilderness life, and a good old-fashioned beloved, non-fiction paperback book was pleasantly absorbed page after page while lying in my hammock, as if by osmosis, word after word, collectively ensnared each and every one of my senses, adding waves of confluence to the gentle warmth of my already immersed wilderness spirit. From the bear and I fortuitously crossing paths, and birds of amazing beauty and elegance sharing with me their exotic refuge, to the two young bucks that visited my campsite, all of us enjoying the surreal landscape, and rewarding me with their kind, unpretentious demeanor and trusting me to encroach their personal space to within a few feet. The gorgeous and wise old owl, wise enough to know I meant it no harm. The insects I intently observed doing their best, but to no avail, to construct a home for themselves in the finely-sifted dirt that kept falling back into their prospective home. The tiny native fish, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fish_species_of_Aravaipa_Canyon, inhabiting the creek whom were bold enough to nibble my fingertips as I lay naked, supinely in the shallow portion of the creek near my campsite as the gently flowing water brushed and soothed the entire breadth of my body. This is Aravaipa, an oasis in the desert!
Please do not disregard the permit system, it exists to encourage the long-term growth of the canyon flora and fauna and to prevent overuse and abuse. Once again, this is a very fragile ecosystem that needs care and consideration for it to thrive. There is a three day maximum limit or you may reserve for an overnight or a day hike. Please carry out all trash and dispose of properly after you’ve returned home and, kindly follow the Leave No Trace principles, https://lnt.org/learn/7-principles. Any further questions in regard to what you may need? You may possibly find your answer here: http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/info/regulations.html.
The Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness creek bed is evidently composed of small stones to large boulders. While the water in Aravaipa is constantly in motion, be prepared with footwear that best prevents these small stones from entering your shoes, otherwise you’ll have sore feet and an awful experience. I learned the hard way and limped away from my initial experience in Aravaipa with an abundance of foot sores almost too sore to walk on. This past week I wore a Vibram brand FiveFinger shoe that prevented quite a bit of material from entering my footwear but not all of it. I still had to stop once over a span of almost seven miles to empty unwanted debris from my shoes, but a far cry from last years choice of footwear, having to empty them several times every mile. My suggestion would be a low-cut shoe that contains a neoprene cuff such as the Vibram FiveFingers KSO model, however, this shoe has a smooth sole that may not be conducive to travel along the bottom of a slippery creek bed. I wore the Vibram FiveFingers Spyridon model that was adequate for the job. A taller water shoe with a lugged sole may work out if one exists, I’m not aware of one. During my first visit to Aravaipa I went along with a friend whom wore a regular runner-style shoe with gaiters. He seemed to be able to prevent most of the smaller debris from entering with this set-up.
Be safe!… Be aware that because this is an excitingly active ecosystem there may be rocks falling from cliffs or canyon walls on a regular basis. Do not linger directly below any cliff, especially during inclement weather and high winds. In addition, inclement weather including rainfall or monsoon may empty into the Aravaipa canyon watershed, suddenly and by surprise, even if there are no clouds within sight, causing a destructive wall of water rolling down the canyon. Stay alert, always scan the terrain for a way out or up if this happens and do your best not to linger long in any of the slot canyons where there may be no escape.
There is an abundance of wildlife in the canyon wilderness and because the wilderness is not much more than miles of riparian wetland you will encounter this wildlife. It is in my experience that this wildlife is conditioned to encountering humans and therefore skittish but not too vastly afraid and when startled or happened upon quietly may decide to protect itself. It is in your best interest to remain alert and make some kind of noise during travel to avoid a tragic encounter. In any case, you will encounter wildlife. For your benefit do not attempt to feed or follow. There have been numerous bear and cub sightings in the Aravaipa wilderness, your best defense against an attack is to prevent being caught between a mother and her cub, once again, make as much noise (talking, walking through the water, etc.) as possible and they will saunter off without incident. Observe from a distance only and give them their space.
Necessary and Precautionary Equipment and Awareness You May Find Useful…
• Appropriate footwear… Shoes that prevent the creek bed from entering is of utmost concern.
• Shelter… If staying overnight it would behoove you to pitch your shelter above possible watershed high water mark.
• Food containment system… A food containment system is essential equipment unless you want to lose your food and face the possibility of coming face to face with a bear or other uninvited guests late in the evening. I recommend the Ursack S29 AllWhite system http://wilddrake.com/2014/03/13/the-tied-and-true-bear-discouragement-food-containment-system-the-ursack-spectra-29-s29-allwhite-may-very-well-be-your-best-available-option-for-your-safety-food-containment-food-protection-and-food-s/, it has worked very well for me for several years with not a single animal incident, to date.
• Hiking poles… Not necessary and I’ve never used them yet may come in handy for a number of uses, especially if you’re comfortable with them, such as testing the depth of water, staying vertical, buoyant and above water, possibly preventing life-threatening falls in the water and slipping on mud.
• First-aid… Always carry a comprehensive first-aid kit (first-aid kits are always very personalized) including a whistle. Let friends and loved ones know where you are and when you’re expected to return home, and of course the BLM will investigate, providing you obtained the mandatory permit and you haven’t left the wilderness in a timely manner. Cell phones will not work in this canyon wilderness area.
• Sun protection… Although this is a riparian area with plenty of water and tree-cover, the desert is just feet away. A combination of direct sunlight and sun reflection off the water may warrant a need for sun protection.
• Be aware of your current location… Falling rocks from high cliffs is not unusual in Aravaipa Canyon. Do not linger directly below any cliff, especially during inclement weather and high winds.
• Bear deterrent… Although I have not ever had any issues with bears nor have I heard of anyone having issues with bears it’s always best to stay alert and carry bear spray, if that may make you feel more comfortable.
• Bug spray… Not absolutely necessary but, precautionary. Bees were not much of an issue but should always be taken seriously and precautionary measures followed.
Reach Your Summit, or in this case, Your Riparian Canyon Wilderness!