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.
Bureau of Land Management
711 14th Ave.
Safford, AZ 85546
Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness is located in southeastern Arizona, about 120 miles east of Phoenix and 70 miles north of Tucson.
The towns nearest to the west trailhead are Mammoth (20 miles south) and Winkelman (23 miles northwest). Nearest the east trailhead is Safford (60 miles east) and Wilcox (75 miles southeast).
From Phoenix (120 miles), Take US 60 east to Superior. Then go south on AZ 177 to Winkelman. Then take AZ 77 south for 11 miles to Aravaipa Road. Turn east and travel 9 miles on a paved and graded road to a temporary trailhead 3 miles from the traditional trailhead.
From Tucson (70 miles), take US 89 to Oracle Junction, then take AZ 77 to Aravaipa Road. Turn right and go 12 miles.
From Phoenix (190 miles), take US 60 east to Globe, then US 70 east to Klondyke Road, which heads west about 8 miles past Fort Thomas. Follow dirt-covered Klondyke Road 45 miles to the east trailhead. There are several stream crossings, so a high-clearance vehicle is recommended.
From Tucson (150 miles), take I-10 east to Wilcox. Take exit 340 (Ft. Grant Road, a graded dirt road) and go north to Bonita. Turn left at Bonita and go 40 miles to the east trailhead. Expect stream crossings.
Check on trailhead access before your departure, since flooding is a frequent problem. The county access roads to both the east and west entrances of Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness were significantly damaged by flooding in January 1993. It will be quite some time before all repairs are complete, so check with the office for information about roads, parking areas, and trailhead facilities.
April, May, October and November are the best months to hike, although weather is suitable for year-round visitation.
Summer temperatures can reach well over 100 degrees F but average in the 90s during the day and in the 60s at night.
July and August can bring summer monsoons and short, intense storms.
Winter temperatures are in the 60s during the day and 30s at night.
In general, the west end is 10 degrees F warmer then the east, and the stream temperature is 8-10 degrees F cooler than the air.
The Aravaipa is a colorful and dramatic aviary ~ more than 200 species of birds have been spotted here. It’s also hunting ground for mountain lions, coyotes, black bears, and bobcats and a playground for deer, desert bighorn sheep, and peccaries. Several species of fish, toads, and frogs inhabit the creek. Nearly 100 different species of reptiles (including rattlesnakes) and mammals make their home here. Bring patience and a pair of binoculars and you’ll be busy for hours.
Be sure to get hold of the brochure “Vertebrates of Aravaipa Canyon: A Checklist” from the BLM before you set out. It’s a handy backcountry trivia game that tests not only the sharpness of your vision but also your knowledge of native wildlife.
Contact the BLM for more information.
Willow, sycamore, and cottonwood follow the creek, while saguaro cacti are found on the canyon slopes.
Because a designated wilderness area is affected primarily by the forces of nature, you can expect to find the following conditions within Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness:
- No trails.
- No restrooms, picnic tables, or grills. Small, dirt parking lots are located at each trailhead with primitive toilets, trash cans, a visitor registration box, information board, and a self-service fee station.
- No navigational signs, so note the nine side canyons as you progress to keep track of your approximate location.
- Primitive camping is allowed within the wilderness and some more developed sites on the borders of the area.
- On the west side of the canyon, Brandenburg Campsite is identified by a sign along Aravaipa Road. There are no facilities, but fires are allowed.
- On the east side, two camping areas are available. Fourmile Canyon Campground, located about 1 mile southwest of the Klondyke Store, has 10 units with picnic tables and grills. A flush toilet restroom is available. This campground is 10 miles from the trailhead.
- At the east trailhead, a primitive road curves to the left and follows Turkey Creek. Camping and fires are permitted in Turkey Creek, but there are no facilities.
Contact park office for information.
A permit is required, and park use is limited to 50 people total per day ~ 30 from the west trailhead and 20 from the east. Permits are limited. Reservations can be made up to three months in advance.
BLM will issue permits up to 13 weeks prior to your planned entry date (if space is available); they recommend calling instead of writing. Know your entry date (and have alternate dates in mind since most weekends and spring and fall days are booked well in advance), exact party size (cannot exceed 10), and the number of days you wish to spend in the canyon (the maximum length of stay is three days, two nights). Make checks payable to the Department of the Interior – BLM.
You are required to sign in at the registration box and pay $1.50 per person per day.
- Camping is limited to three days, two nights.
- Maximum of 10 people per site.
- Campfires are permitted in some areas (check regulations), but they are strongly discouraged.
- Both trailhead parking lots are available for camping, but fires are not permitted there.
- Pets are not allowed.
- Bow hunting is allowed in season with a permit.
- Pack animals are allowed (up to five) but are not allowed in the canyon overnight.
- Flash flooding occurs in the summer and winter. Check weather conditions on nightly Phoenix and Tucson television news stations for the surrounding areas because heavy rains miles away can affect conditions in Aravaipa Creek.
- Carry at least 1 gallon of water per person per day or treat water from Aravaipa Creek.
- Expect numerous stream crossings and heavy riparian brush.
Leave No Trace:
- Select an already-established campsite.
- No pets permitted in canyon.
- Bury your waste 6 to 8 inches deep and pack out toilet paper.
- Campfires are permitted unless otherwise posted, but management recommends a backpacking stove.
USGS Booger Canyon (East Aravaipa Canyon) and Brandenburg Mountain (West Aravaipa Canyon) 7.5-minute topographic maps cover the area and are available through the USGS in Denver.
Other Trip Options:
To the south is Coronado State Forest with the Galiuro Wilderness.