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Watered and wild, a grand little canyon

The creek in Aravaipa Canyon is fed by an underground aquifer. (Hal Malde/The Nature Conservancy)


By Aubin Tyler

Globe Correspondent  / August 23, 2009

ARAVAIPA CANYON - Late July is monsoon season here. The sky is overcast and slanting gray rain obscures our destination: the Galiuro Mountains, where the clear, rushing waters of a perennially running creek have cut an 11-mile wilderness gorge known as Aravaipa Canyon.

It’s drizzling as we continue along a dirt road to the western entrance of the canyon. At the federal Bureau of Land Management’s Brandenburg Ranger Station, we meet ranger Pat O’Neill, who advises us to watch for worsening weather and muddy or rising water in the creek.

Sheltered by cottonwoods, willow, walnut, alder, and sycamore, this isolated riparian oasis in the southern Arizona desert is home to seven native fish species and more than 200 bird species, including the yellow-billed cuckoo, black and zone-tailed hawks, peregrine falcon, Bell’s vireo, and beardless tyrannulet, as well as bobcats, mountain lions, black bears, desert bighorn sheep, gray foxes, ringtail cats (more like large squirrels than cats), and roving troops of young coatimundi, a noisily chattering member of the raccoon family.

Ed Abbey, a Tucson author and eco-warrior who was a ranger here in the early 1970s, wrote: “It is among the few places in Arizona with a permanent stream of water and in popular estimation one of the most beautiful. I am giving away no secrets here: Aravaipa Canyon has long been well known to hikers, campers, horsemen, and hunters from the nearby cities.’’

An hour north of Tucson, the area is sometimes called “Little Grand Canyon’’ for its towering rock cliffs - as high as 1,200 feet at the center of the gorge - teeming improbably with spiky cholla, prickly pear, and many-armed saguaro, its red fruit ready to burst in the summer heat. There is a wildness about the place, which is untouched by the civilizing hand of man.

Designated a federal wilderness area in 1984, the canyon and its creek are rare in that they remain in their natural state. “Most streams in Arizona are altered in some way, through ground water pumping or development,’’ O’Neill says. “There aren’t many, if any, desert streams better preserved than this one.’’

“Aravaipa is a unique system,’’ says Mark Haberstich, preserve manager for the Nature Conservancy, which owns a mile of the canyon at the west entrance and six miles at the east entrance.

“Normally, a river system comes out of a mountain fed by snowmelt,’’ he says. “In Aravaipa, the water comes from an underground aquifer where the water table is exposed, so it flows regardless of snowmelt.’’

On this day, we’re the canyon’s sole hikers. We’re uneasy about entering in the rain, when the danger of flash flooding is highest. In summer 2006, the highest flood on record for the canyon ripped through a half dozen private homes along the creek, scoured its banks of vegetation, blew out the streambed and parts of the access road, and closed the western entrance to visitors for six months.

But our weather clears almost immediately. We spy two heavy-bodied blue herons flapping their wings overhead and a common black hawk, with a distinctive white band across its ebony tail-feathers. A migrant from Mexico, the reclusive raptor nests in the canyon in the spring and summer and represents the “signature species of this canyon,’’ O’Neill says. “There aren’t very many places in the United States to see them.’’

To protect the canyon’s delicate ecology and quiet beauty, visitors are limited to 50 a day and two nights of camping - by permit only. O’Neill estimates that there are over 3,000 visitors a year on the west side, and perhaps 2,000 on the east side.

“We fill up permits almost every day from late February to early June and then again from Labor Day weekend to Thanksgiving weekend,’’ O’Neill says. “In the spring and fall we’re maxed out.’’ Prime birding season is in March and early April. “Those are the months where you really have to be planning in advance - starting in December.’’ The BLM allows permit reservations starting 13 weeks ahead of travel dates.

It grows hot as we hike. Red rock walls get steeper and higher the farther into the canyon we go. We press on, despite an encounter with a rattlesnake in the tall grass, whose banded tail rattles a warning as we jump out of the way. On a shady stretch of beach, we tear into our stash of plums and apples.

I’m disoriented. Gone are the familiar camping spots and landmarks I’ve known since I was a student 30 years ago. But O’Neill sees the flood damage as part of the natural cycle of the canyon and he’s encouraged by its recovery. “Growth has been pretty spectacular. I’ve seen new-growth cottonwood and willow 15 and 20 feet tall.’’

Even before the flood, there wasn’t much of a trail; most of the time we’re wading through ankle-deep water. In the spring, I’ve seen sluggish rattlesnakes coiled and half submerged in the clay banks of the creek, but this time of year they’re seeking shade, like us. We clamber over a dam of flood debris - giant boulders and tree trunks - before jumping into a foaming, swirling pool of water that cools our burning skin.

Seven hours later, we hike out the way we came in, only now we’re hot, thirsty, tired, and hungry. We’ve hiked at least halfway through and back again, 10 miles or more.

But Abbey said it well: “We have earned enough memories, stored enough mental-emotional images in our heads, from one brief day in Aravaipa Canyon, to enrich the urban days to come.’’

© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.



If You Go

To enter the canyon at either the west or the east entrance, you must first reserve a permit ($5 per person per day) from the Bureau of Land Management www.blm.gov/az/aravaipa online or call the Safford Field Office at 928-348-4400.

West Entrance
70 miles from Tucson
120 miles from Phoenix
Three miles from the canyon entrance, the BLM’s Brandenburg Ranger Station campsite offers limited space with restrooms and trash cans for hikers who want to get an early start. A half-hour away, the town of Oracle has a grocery store, restaurants, and lodging.

East Entrance
Requires a three-hour car trip, including the last 30 miles on a dirt road to the ghost town of Klondyke; the closest restaurants and grocery stores are in Willcox (90 miles) or Safford (60). Tucson is 150 miles; Phoenix 190.
Four-mile Canyon Campground near Klondyke has 10 units with picnic tables, grills, and a flush toilet, $5 per night; Turkey Creek offers primitive camping and no facilities, but has no fee. The Nature Conservancy operates a guesthouse at the east entrance for $150 per night for two, but no meals are provided. Call 928-828-3443 or e-mail mhaberstich@tnc.org.

Where to stay
In Oracle Chalet Village Motel
1245 West American Ave.
Funky and in town. Doubles $60.

Cherry Valley Ranch B & B
2505 East Mount Lemmon Road
Charming rooms and gorgeous views. Doubles $85-$105 with breakfast.

Triangle L Ranch B & B
2805 North Triangle L Ranch Road
Historic ranch and art gallery. Doubles $95-$125 with breakfast.

Sonoran Bed & Breakfast
1215 West Oracle Ranch Road
Doubles starting at $225 with breakfast and dinner.

In Winkelman Aravaipa Farms Bed & Breakfast Country Inn 89395 East Aravaipa Road
Secluded, rustic luxury at the edge of Aravaipa Creek. Doubles $250 low season (June-September) or $345 high season (October-May) with three gourmet meals a day.