Milagrosa Canyon

Milagrosa Canyon was the first place I ever experienced the magic of monsoons: my brother and I hiked out there under a sky going indigo and saguaros shining electric on the ridge. The first wash crossing drenched us to our knees with warm summer rainwater. Looking at the first sunbathed red cliffs is a view that always comes to mind with the first summer storm: the crazy hypercolor desert, that static tension before the wind picks up. I don’t recommend standing out in the open desert like a lightning rod before a storm; but it’s a vivid memory that comes up every time I visit this canyon. Which I did recently, to show some friends the awesome pools at the top.

This time of year when I hike, all I want to see is water. We began walking down the road to the trailhead with temps in the mid-70s, which is plenty warm in the sun. The trail over the first hill was lined with wild purple dalea bushes in bloom, as if some suburban gardener had been out transplanting. We turned off the main trail (which I’ve actually never been on) to head into the wash, which at this spot marks the confluence of Milagrosa and Agua Caliente canyons. A monolith of red rock juts up from the Sonoran desert to separate the two. From here we head up Milagrosa, taking a climber’s spur up the right side of the canyon. Like most climber trails, it’s narrow, rocky, and a bit steep, and after a little while lands you right at the base of an enormous cliff band looking over the rocky canyon bed below. This cliff band is a climbing boon: cool, sometimes even chilly in the shade, and home to a collection of fun, challenging sport climbs on its bright orange rock. The easiest of these is Valentine Arete, nicknamed the Hardest Eight in the State, and gathered around it are 5.10s, .11s, and a handful of .12s. Just up the stream the creek bed rises to meet the bench we’ve been hiking along, and soon we’re at the first of three pools, like a king’s daughters, each more beautiful than the last.

The first pool is shallow at its edge and very deep where the water flows in, so deep that its clear-green hue goes dark and black. The first time my brother and I took our parents to this spot, he stripped naked without warning and ran shrieking into the freezing cold water. Even in the dead heat of summer, when the hike up here is a test of true desert residency, the water temperature is on a scale from uncomfortably-to-deliciously cold. This pool seems prize enough, until a scramble up the rock reveals a second pool above, shallower but equally amenable to hanging out, and a full-on hands and feet scramble above that, a third pool, my personal favorite. This last sits in a grotto, with high smooth granite walls. The water is crazy cold from being in the shade. And while I love being in the west for the sweeping scenery, the big rugged mountains, the views that stretch for miles, it’s small nooks like this that make me feel at home in this landscape.

Our party scrambled up above this pool and found a fourth, the smallest, which was in the sun. It didn’t make the water any warmer, but after splashing quickly in the cold, the rocks helped warm us all back up. We sat next to the water and snacked, and looked for canyon tree frogs in their perfect camouflage on the granite. And then we headed back down.

You can make this jaunt into a loop adventure by scrambling up and over into Agua Caliente canyon. From the bottom pool in Milagrosa, you can look across the canyon and see the steep bench and a faint path that will lead you over the ridge. My brother and I followed this idea one time out here, and were surprised upon dropping into Agua Caliente that the canyon walls were steep and rocky at the bottom, making it nearly impossible to parallel the wash on dry land. We ended up slogging through knee-high water and reeds as the sun went down breaking back out into the shallower confluence and back on the trail roughly half a mile later. A little more non-technical canyoneering than hiking, it’s a fun way to get wet. There’s an actual trail that loops around both canyons on high sunny ground, but this version, which includes a little bushwhacking, a lot of scrambling, and some careful stepping over slippery wet rocks, keeps you tight in the canyon bottoms (and a warning here: monsoons could mean nasty flooding) and is a more intimate trek with some beautiful water, worthy of exploration.

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