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Overview of Aravaipa Canyon

Welcome to the beauty of wilderness and serenity! Within the boundaries of Aravaipa Canyon, you will not find any designated trails, campsites, or facilities. This canyon is one of Arizona’s hidden gems, and it is not mentioned in many travel books or in international travel magazines – yet. The terrain is rugged so hikers should be in good condition to pass through dense, diverse vegetation of cacti, cottonwood, maples, reeds, sycamore and willow trees. From the west trailhead (2630′), hikers gain a gradual 430′ elevation over uneven, partly slippery terrain for about 11 miles to the east trailhead (3060′). Entering from the east end of the canyon is also possible, but high clearance four-wheel drive vehicles are required, and it is not as accessible of a trip. This would be an even more remote experience, one for the tougher and more adventurous visitor!

I visited Aravaipa Creek in November, when butterflies abound, and hikers can enjoy the dramatic kaleidoscope of brilliant golden and red leaves in the deciduous riparian forest. The canyon is a great destination year-round, thanks to its comfortable temperatures, the constant water flow, and many shaded areas along Aravaipa Creek. For a loose comparison, Aravaipa Canyon is a more remote and less developed version of the West Fork of Oak Creek, albeit with many more opportunities for side canyon exploring!

No matter whether you plan to visit Aravaipa Canyon on a day trip or whether you choose to have some extended fun on a weekend backpacking trip, you will need a permit (maximum 3 days/2 nights). You can buy one as early as 13 weeks in advance at www.recreation.gov. My advice: Get a permit as early as possible, especially for an overnighter on the weekends because the number of daily visitors is limited, and permits will be fully committed quickly, particularly in peak season (autumn).

Logistics

The 19,410-acre Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness is located about 120 miles southeast of Phoenix, in Pinal and Graham counties. Getting to Aravaipa Canyon takes about 2.5 hours from Phoenix. There is a rest area in Superior, and a convenient 24-hour gas station at Winkelman for buying some last-minute provisions and taking advantage of a restroom before you turn south onto State Route 77. Once you get close to Aravaipa, cell phone reception becomes spotty, and it is non-existent in the Canyon – the phone companies still have some work to do!

On the journey to the Canyon, you will experience the beautiful diversity of the Sonoran Desert, including Saguaro cacti, Staghorn and Jumping Cholla. The colorful mountains are stunning, with open pit mining views in this area of Arizona’s copper belt. You can stop at the Asarco Ray Mine 13 miles south of Superior and enjoy the view from their visitor platform, which is an interesting quick stop if you want a chance to peer into one of Arizona’s classic “Five C’s” of industry.

After you turn onto East Aravaipa Road, it is a 9 mile drive to the Brandenburg Ranger Station West and Campsite. After you get to the one-lane bridge, you’re only 2 miles from the trailhead. The pin on the below map marks the location of the trailhead parking area. Expect a 12-mile drive from highway 77 to the trailhead parking area, of which 8 miles is dirt road. This is no joke: I even saw a Harley Davidson on this road, but I really cannot recommend any motorcycles there. I am sure that most cars can make the drive, although a high clearance vehicle is recommended. A 4×4 is not necessary based on the conditions I experienced in November.

After about 10 minutes of hiking through some of the harsher elements of the desert from the trailhead, the tranquility of Aravaipa Creek and a canyon oasis will great you. You can walk in the stream or on the footpaths alongside of it, take breaks and setup camp as you find opportunity. The pathways along the stream are lined with reeds and tall trees, which makes this an idyllic experience. Don’t forget that these are not maintained trails – which makes everything just a bit more adventurous!

When traversing the canyon, you may notice that a diverse group of people use this almost sanctuary-like location, including day hikers, campers, people meditating with drums/chimes, fathers and sons camping out by the creek, and photographers capturing the beauty of the autumn foliage. There were even a couple of birdwatchers observing the menagerie in this Sonoran Desert jewel. I encountered some hikers that were bushwhacking just to get through (they clearly were not familiar with Leave No Trace). This is actually not necessary, and if you find yourself needing to, you haven’t been keeping your eyes open for the actual trails and paths of least resistance.

For a day trip, I recommend an 8-mile or so round trip without trying to explore any of the side canyons. If you have more time, especially if you want to spend a night or two in this serene nature, you can explore Virgin Canyon, or Horse Camp Canyon with its steep walls and little waterfall. Climbing up towards the spring requires some skill, but it’s doable (BE CAREFUL!!!). Beware of dead, dry plants and loose rocks, which may make you slip.

There are nine major side canyons, some of which are hard to find. They mark the course along Aravaipa with caves, chimneys, and rock windows that will entice you to visit and explore. Traversing from one end of Aravaipa Canyon to the other end takes about ten hours for the average hiker, without taking time to hike into side canyons. Photographers and nature watchers may take one or two overnights, and they still do not see it all. Therefore, you better plan your time and trip thoroughly (and take notes for what you want to do on your next trip here!).

Gear and Gadgets

You should wear sturdy footwear suitable for hiking in sand, gravel and cobble, considering the numerous stream crossings in water up knee deep in normal conditions. If you must wear sandals during the summer, choose the water ones for hiking with toe cover and excellent grip. Make sure you bring plenty of water, at least 2-3 liters for the 8-mile hike. Bring your swimsuit for a nice dip in the refreshing creek during the warmer months. Check out the Day Trip Gear Guide for more information on what you might want to bring along with you for a day trip.

On this unforgettable hike in Aravaipa Canyon, I used my camera to catch countless moments of this fascinating landscape, flora and fauna. If you need tips on a great camera, you can check out my guide on Photography Gear & Gadgets.

Further Reading

Day Trip Gear Guide

Leave No Trace Principles

Photography Gear & Gadgets

Outdoors and Wilderness First Aid

Map of the Canyon from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)

Hike Arizona Website

 

 

About The Author

Jeremy Meek is a native Arizonan with a passion for adventure and discovery of unique experiences. Whether exploring Arizona or setting out on an adventure abroad, Jeremy is constantly scouting truly great adventures and experiences.

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