I’m Mitch Stevens, founder and lead guide for Southwest Discoveries, a hiking and adventure company based in Tucson. Born and raised in New York City, I came to discover the great outdoors and fell in love with Arizona’s special places. This is part two of a three part series about hiking in Phoenix.
Did you know there’s a Grand Canyon of the Sonoran Desert? It’s called Aravaipa Canyon.
Canyons are Arizona’s magnificent cathedrals, and Aravaipa is one of its greatest examples. Red rock walls are thrust upward in intricate patterns; they form ancient geologic sculptures which appear timeless. Open to the sky, the sheer cliffs are continuously altered by sun, rain, wind, and snow. Deep within the heart of these stony estates, calm and quiet reign. This is Aravaipa Canyon, a stunning 12-mile gorge located between Phoenix and Tucson.
Aravaipa is one of the finest places to hike and backpack in the Southwest. The BLM strictly regulates the number of hikers visiting the canyon. Aravaipa is a protected riparian area; it features a perennial stream, towering canyon walls, lush vegetation, and lots of wildlife. For much of its length, Aravaipa Creek wanders along the bottom of the canyon, flanked by multicolored cliffs, some of which tower 1,000 feet above the canyon floor.
What makes Aravaipa so unique are its beautiful wilderness characteristics, including the lack of any well-defined trails. Throughout the hike, the stream accompanies the hiker. The wilderness is a rare example of what happens when water flows through an arid environment. Besides stunning scenery, we travel there during the first week of December for fall color. Aravaipa in autumn is magical, and a trip there in autumn is a voyage into the essence of the season. Blazing cottonwoods, willows, ash and sycamore vie for one’s attention with the painted canyon walls.
As we hiked further the canyon walls rose higher and the stream crossings became more numerous. Aravaipa is just as much about the sound of water as it is the brilliant scenery. Part of the uniqueness of Aravaipa Canyon is hiking through shallow water ranging from ankle to knee deep. Five-Ten Canyoneering boots and neoprene socks make for perfect footwear for splashing your way through the creek: Aravaipa is an Apache name which means “laughing waters.” The stream is brisk and clear and cascades around boulders, gravel bars and plunges into pools.
The cavernous, buff colored walls you see as you walk through the east part of the canyon are Hell Hole Conglomerate, which extends quite a way downstream. Continuing west, the Galiuro Volcanic rise up and shape many of the side canyons. This mid-portion of Aravaipa Canyon displays impressive red, orange, and gray walls with columns towering over 1,000 feet. We enter a splendid side drainage; the name belies the nature of this winding tributary gorge. Cut from the buff colored rock, Hellhole Canyon is a wonder to behold. The view around each bend becomes increasingly superb; beautiful fall foliage is present throughout this glorious slot canyon.
We round yet another bend, past the gushing spring on the left. This side gorge, with its lush hanging gardens, springs and deciduous trees is a delightfully cool sylvan oasis in the midst of the Sonoran Desert. Hellhole’s ecosystem includes monkey flowers, maidenhair ferns, columbine, Arizona Walnut, Ash, and Sycamore; a wonderful riparian habitat.
Then we heard it, the granddaddy of all hanging gardens! On the right stood this weeping cascade pouring from the rock wall, resembling rainfall. The scene was more reminiscent of Costa Rica than the desert southwest. I threw down my day-pack and sat behind the waterfall, mesmerized. After more than a dozen trips to this canyon, I was delighted to still be discovering new sights of interest in this most hallowed of ground.
Edward Abbey, the famed western writer, summed it up elegantly:
“it seems to me that the world is not nearly big enough and any portion of its surface, left unpaved and alive, is infinitely rich in details and relationships, in wonder, beauty, mystery, comprehensible only in part. The very existence of existence is itself suggestive of the unknown – not a problem but a mytery. We will never get to the end of it, never plumb the bottom of it, never know the whole of even so small and trivial and useless and precious a place as Aravaipa. Therein lies our redemption.”