Canyoneering in southern Arizona? Well, maybe nothing like the deep, dark slots and long rappels of Zion and other areas on the Colorado Plateau but yes, there are many canyons scattered about that present challenging scrambling and sometimes require rope and rappels to successfully navigate.
The idea behind canyoneering is simple really; find an interesting canyon and explore the water course, most often heading downstream. Usually trail-less, these outings involve lots of boulder hopping and sometimes technical rope work. Given the arid climate in southern Arizona, canyons feel like very special places – rugged, cool, shady, big trees, quiet grottos, big drops, with the buzzing, busy, green backdrop of plant and animal life that inhabit these moist mountain corridors.
Boulder hopping in Willow Canyon
Most local canyons do not require rappelling and rope work to descend, but many enthusiasts are drawn to those that do. Admittedly, on some southern Arizona technical canyoneering routes you will ignore the fact that many drops can be bypassed by simply traversing out onto the steep, but walk-able canyon sides on either side as you launch off on a rappel, but what-the-heck, there’s a lot of technical fun to be had out there!
Descending the first cataract
The Seven Cataracts of Willow Canyon is one such technical canyoneering route, and it is surprisingly accessible — located just off the Mt Lemmon Highway in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. This adventure typically begins at Windy Point Vista with a scramble down a steep slope which deposits canyoneers in a lovely section of Willow Canyon that often shows water and is graced with impressively large Arizona Cyprus trees. The first cataract and rappels are not far downstream.
Above the 3rd rappel; Mt Lemmon Highway in the distance
On our trip down the Cataracts, we negotiated the next 4 drops using five rappels. (It usually makes sense to break the first drop into two rappels.) Our fifth rappel ended at a swimming hole that hikers access from the Seven Cataracts Vista (mile post 9.1) on the Mt Lemmon Highway.
Two more, but less impressive drops remain between the swimming hole and the confluence downstream with Bear Canyon, so we left Willow Canyon here using a faint hiker’s trail on the east side of the canyon. We followed the trail into Bear Canyon and then walked upstream to a second vehicle which had been left at the Green Slabs parking pullout (mile post 9.9) on the Mt Lemmon Highway. This section of Bear Canyon was delightfully beautiful. A few of the rappels in the Seven Cataracts are longer than 100 feet, so we brought two – 200 foot ropes and were glad we did.
The 5th rappel
Difficulty: It’s a little over 1.5 miles from Windy Point to Seven Cataracts Vista, and 2.1 miles from Windy Point to the Green Slabs pullout. None the less, allow plenty of additional time for the rappels.
This route involves technical rope work and conditions can vary tremendously depending especially upon how much water is flowing in Willow Canyon. Sometimes just a trickle moves down the Cataracts, but rain and melting snow can and do produce much greater flows of water. The more flow, the more treacherous conditions become. Don’t hesitate to abandon plans to descend the canyon if water flows seem unmanageable.
Approach this and other canyoneering routes with caution and respect — all the hazards of canyoneering can easily come into play, including the dangers associated with moving water, hypothermia, hyperthermia, wet slippery rock surfaces, unstable footing, and flash floods. A solid background in rappelling, anchor safety, rope handling, rescue technique, pack management, specific canyoneering skills, and hazard recognition is a must.