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Backpacker Magazine – BACKPACKER.com Online Exclusive
Cool your feet and warm your brow in this Arizona desert wilderness.
Little-Known Fact: The Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, a desert environment, is home to more than 300 different species of animals ~ 200 of them birds.
Sloshing through knee-deep water, I carefully direct my steps against the force of a swift-flowing current. I finally make it to a clearing, where a sign beside a gate tells me I've arrived at Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, one of a precious handful of perennial desert rivers in the Southwest, a delicate ecosystem teeming with life.
Within a few hundred feet, I start to relax as the creek broadens and the waters recede to a gentle ankle-deep flow. Then, suddenly, a handful of birds are startled from a bush. I stop to listen and hear the low, deep growl of a large cat. I assure myself, among intermittent prayers, that mountain lions are more interested in fowl than human fare, and go on my way.
The sun occasionally pokes out from behind lazy, fluffy clouds, casting light across the clear creek waters. Hawks circle overhead, and the cries of canyon wrens bounce off the 1,000-foot-high ramparts deeper in the canyon. Swaying willows, sweet-smelling sycamores, and towering cottonwoods line the banks of the creek, while saguaro cacti march up the canyon slopes. As this parched panorama bakes in the desert heat (it can exceed 100 degrees F in summer), the cooler creek waters (generally 10 degrees cooler than air temperature) slice through the rocky landscape.
Within a couple of miles of the west entrance, the creek narrows and the canyon walls start to crowd in around me, forming a purple-red palisade. The stair-step vertical cliffs rise 50 to 100 feet, making an excellent home for peregrine falcons. Nearby, in an area known as The Box, the canyon narrows to about 30 feet. Four miles upstream, it widens about 100 yards and the softer layers of rock are covered with silt and sand. Here, the creek takes on a pastoral air, with more trees and slopes.
If you get bored with the wildlife, scenery, and exploring the nine side canyons (most are generally dry, but Horse Camp Canyon has several cascades), there's always the canyons' history to hold your interest. Apache Indians and a host of white settlers once claimed the watery oasis as home. The telltale signs of these former residents ~ cabin ruins and traces of Native Americans spanning a period of 11,000 years ~ are scattered throughout the canyon.
At day's end, as I negotiate the graded mountain road on the way back to the highway, a small herd of bighorn sheep gallop around a hairpin turn and head for my car. We both stop. As quickly as they appeared, the herd hightails up the side of a 50-foot vertical cliff. As I slowly go on my way, I look back and notice that one of the animals is peering at me from the rugged wall above. In such a magical place, where strange encounters with wildlife are the norm, a two-legged creature in a four-wheel contraption is the oddity.