A Long(ish) Walk in Southern Arizona

Great long distance backpacking in southern Arizona? Have to admit I used to think not, but that was simply due to my weak imagination. It was the Arizona Trail that first opened my mind to the enormous possibilities Arizona holds for stitching together long distance backpacking trips.

Our route -; about 95 miles of walking

The AZT changed another preconception of mine – that somehow it wasn’t really hiking if you were walking a 2-track jeep trail instead of a traditional hiking path or bushwhack. The AZT quickly drives home the lesson what a valuable resource the vast network of 2-track trails are to long distance walkers in Arizona. Further enlightenment about distance walks in southern Arizona came from the Sky Islands Traverse web page where the folks who brought us the Grand Enchantment Trail show off a beautiful long distance route in southeastern Arizona.

Turkey Creek alcove

With all this in mind, friend Dave and I decided to cook up a long walk from the headwaters of Aravaipa Canyon down to our homes near Tucson. Wanting to learn more about the Galiuro Mountains we picked out a route that headed almost due south from the east end of Aravaipa Canyon, taking in three magnificent Galiuro drainages: Turkey Creek, Rattlesnake Canyon, and Redfield Canyon.

Bypassing a wading pool

Our route then turned westwards across the San Pedro River to the base of the Rincon Mountains and the seldom visited upper reaches of Espiritu Canyon which drains the northeast side of that range. From the head of Espiritu we followed cowboy trails towards the Rincon high country and finally bushwhacked to the magnificent trail network that surrounds Manning Camp. Here we picked up the Arizona Trail and followed it down past Hope Camp and finally met a ride home near Old Spanish Trail.

Trail-side agave

About 95 miles long, the route was a fine mix of trail, 2 track roads, and many miles of off-trail walking as well. A few times we were happily surprised to stumble upon unexpected paths and fence line trails when the map showed nothing but bushwhacking ahead. I must add that in several locations the off-trail terrain was very rugged and at times hazardous as well.

Whackin’ manzanita

I for one love off-trail travel and found many of these sections some of the very best of the trip, especially wild and rugged parts of Turkey Creek and Redfield Canyon. However, the bit between the northeast boundary of Saguaro National Park and the Rincon Mt trail network was choked with manzanita and scrub oak, drawing blood and eliciting plenty of grunting and some cursing.

Abandoned mining equipment in upper Rattlesnake Canyon

Nine and a half days were spent on the walk, many covering eight to ten miles, picking up more miles on days when there was plenty of trail or 2-track walking. We lingered a bit in the Powers Garden – Powers Mine area, devoting extra time to explore old cabins, mine sites, and work areas that tell a mute but very compelling story of the extraordinary human effort and toil that was expended extracting a living from these remote mountain hideaways so many years ago.

Redfield Canyon

With a start at the beginning of March, 2012 we hoped that we would find plenty of water along the way and avoid late season winter storms. Indeed, we found collectable water each and every day of the walk. Major drainages all showed water, though intermittently, and many (though not all) spring sites indicated on the map were wet too. None-the-less, with a healthy respect for potential heat and thirst, we always packed plenty of water just in case – usually starting each day with 4 or more liters even though the map might show springs and big drainages ahead.

Matate in Pipestem Canyon

Fortunately, no winter storms occurred during the walk. Given our water concerns, we tried to lighten up other parts of the pack and decided to carry summer weight sleeping bags as one way to drop some weight out. While planning the trip we saw that most of our camps would be below 6,000′, so we figured our 35 degree bags would work fine. And mostly they did work well, though we had a few nights where temps fell into the mid 20’s, and one night the thermometer hit 16 degrees before climbing higher as the sun rose. By wearing everything we had to bed and wrapping chilly feet in empty stuff sacks, we managed to get some sleep.

Redfield Canyon wall

A stand-out part of the trip? That’s a hard call, with each and every day of the walk presenting splendid backcountry surprises. But I have to say I was especially moved by a fantastic section of Redfield Canyon downstream from the Jackson Cabin trail. The canyon here narrows dramatically, pressed in by soaring and colorful rhyolite cliffs. Immense boulders have calved from the cliffs and piled into the narrow gorge below, seemingly ending hope for any forward progress, and it is tough going indeed. Flowing water and a riot of riparian vegetation, dominated by stately cottonwood and white barked sycamores, contribute to a profound feeling of wonder and remoteness. The leafy canopy makes it difficult to see the tops of the cliffs above, but deep, somber shadows cast on the jumble of titanic boulders give the impression of being in the bottom of something very deep indeed. No place to be during flood!

Well, back home and back to the drawing board – a perfect time to start sniffing out another long walk for next spring.

Rincon high country

One Comment Add yours

  1. Cindy Coffer Chojnacky says:

    Hey Dave.
    Nice to read about hiking in Galiuros. Such an incredible range and such a great trail system now slowly being lost…(!) We were in Jan 2015 right after Oak Fire. Access now closed to Powers Road by a rancher so came in via Deer Creek TH, went down to Powers Garden, past the Powers Mine. How was Redfield Canyon? We found trail pretty obscure after the old damsite. Upper Rattlesnake was pretty good, Corral Canyon was a moonscape but quite hikeable.

    Just last week, we revisited area (actually trying to redo a hike we did with the UA Ramblers in 1975.) Went up High Creek, took day hike to Bassett Peak, dropped down Upper Rattlesnake, back via Corral Canyon, Kennedy & the ridge/ divide trail. We have been on a mission to revisit wilderness in SW we hiked in 1970s to observe the changes and possibly develop a "Return to the Wilderness" book or series at some point.

    This time post-fire & wet spring/summer/ winter really took their toll. A lot of downed pinyon & oak in High, Rattlesnake, Corral canyons; even Powers Road had lots of blockages. In burn area the grasses& post fire invasives have made it slow going and the blowouts in Corral took out big sections of trail. We had some great data– GPS showed us hiking 4 hours,"stopped" 3 hours which was time spent crawling around stuff, moving trees/etc during the hike through burn area.

    Do you know how Galiuros got such a great trail system? The Forest Service history site talks a lot about the area's mining history/ shootouts / manhunts etc but not sure who developed those wonderful winding ridge trails and slowly descending canyon trails obviously designed for stock. Not sure it was the early miners, CCC project in the 1930s or the Forest Service in its glory days in 1970s when agency actually built new trails and maintained some of what it had. Sad to see it eroding away. A Western legacy being lost…

    Anyway, thanks for writing about hiking. Appreciate what you started with Summit Hut; it's still great place to not only get quality gear but talk with knowledgeable people that are passionate about the outdoors and "get out" regularly.

    Also would love to pick your brain sometime about trends you see in outdoor sports and particulary in hiking. Seems like much of outdoors interest has moved into more technology-oriented thrill sports (climbing/mountain biking/ hang gliding/ backcountry telemark skiing, mud running) and the % that backpacks mostly does thru hikes (like yours). Maybe people seek more of a goal/mission/purpose these days, not so much just being there? (Being a purpose driven type I am ok with that). Anyway, thanks for writing about, supporting and continuing to do hiking.


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