To date, John and I had never done any
extended backpacking trips. All of our excursions had always been
overnighters, which involved hiking in on day one, camping overnight, then
hiking out on day two. Of course, it is difficult to do extended trips when I
don't have the vacation time needed to take a three-day weekend, so we are
forced to wait until we have a holiday weekend in order for us to go on longer
After stating the need for us to do longer backpacking trips to prepare for
our honeymoon in Glacier National Park, John and I planned to do a three-day,
two-night backpacking trip during Memorial Day weekend (May 29 to May 31).
When presented with the question of where we should go, it was unanimous that
we hike into Aravaipa Canyon, which was supposed to be the mother lode of all
That meant that we had to plan the trip well in advance in order for us to get
the necessary backcountry permits. Aravaipa Canyon, a Bureau of Land
Management wilderness area, is an ecologically sensitive area. In order to
preserve its pristine beauty, only fifty people are allowed to enter the
canyon daily, and all visitors are required to obtain a permit from the BLM
thirteen weeks (at most) prior to their scheduled trip. The maximum length of
stay is three days (two nights), and there are also limits as to group size
and number of pack animals allowed in the area. In addition to that, visitors
are required to pay fees at the trailhead. It costs five dollars a day per
person to visit Aravaipa Canyon. That meant that our trip would cost us thirty
dollars, making it an expensive adventure...but it was worth every penny!
With our packs loaded and ready to go, John and I left at 5:00 Saturday
morning, May 29, to drive to the Western Entrance of the Aravaipa Wilderness.
Our drive took us just over two and a half hours, including a stop in Superior
to buy cheddar cheese (which we had forgotten to pack). To get there, we took
US 60 to SR 177, which passes through Kearny and Winkelman. In Winkelman, at
the Texaco Station, we turned right onto SR 77 (the route that becomes Oracle
Road in Tucson) and went south until we came to Aravaipa Road. Along Aravaipa
Road, which is paved for the first four miles, we passed by the Aravaipa
Campus of Central Arizona College -- I didn't even know that there was an
Aravaipa Campus! There are also many privately owned ranches along this road,
some of which are very pretty. One rancher, however, had publicly displayed
his anger towards the Bureau of Land Management by posting a sign about the
construction of condominiums over "nine acres of bulldozed wilderness lands"
(or something to that effect) -- he was obviously angry about the expansion of
the wilderness area.
The last eight miles of Aravaipa Road is on a graded dirt road that appears to
be well-maintained up to the last half mile, at which point the road becomes a
little rocky and rough -- nothing that the Oldsmobile couldn't handle, though!
At the end of the road, there is a large parking area for wilderness visitors,
as well as an outhouse and a kiosk where people can sign in and out and pay
their fees. After dropping our $30 fee into the slot, we put on our backpacks
and began our three-day trek into the wilderness.
At first, the trail is very rocky and rough as it goes downhill towards a gate
marked "Private Property". The sign indicates that the wilderness boundary is
one mile away and that hikers should respect the rancher's property while
passing through his land to get there. After passing through the gate, we came
to a bridge, where there was a BLM sign posted. According to this sign, there
are no established or maintained trails in the wilderness area and that wading
is necessary at times. We soon discovered that the sign was indeed true: once
we came to the water, we found that there were human-made trails on either
side of the creek that would disappear at natural obstacles, forcing us to
hike into the creek.
Upon reaching Aravaipa Creek, we broke through the trees and entered into a
place I would have to call paradis terrestre -- it is literally a paradise on
Earth! Neither words nor pictures can do this place justice. Aravaipa is a
place that must be experienced first-hand in order to see all of the vibrant
reds and browns of the canyon walls, the bright greens of the trees and the
grass, the shimmering white sunlight on the creek, the stunning colors of
desert and riparian flowers blooming in the springtime sun. You have to go
there to feel the refreshing creek water on your feet, to hear the rustling of
leaves as lizards scurry into hiding, to smell the fresh air. It is absolutely
amazing. I found myself in awe of the place.
About a mile from the gate, we came to the wilderness boundary, a barbed wire
fence, which separated the wilderness from private land. At this point, John
and I got lost because we couldn't find the gate through which we could enter
the wilderness area. There was a gate on the left shore, but it didn't go
anywhere, so I suggested that we cross the creek, and it was there that we
found a BLM sign, indicating the entrance to the Aravaipa Wilderness Area! As
we passed through the gate, we stopped to share a "new wilderness" kiss.
Soon after that, we passed into a part which I called "The Narrows", because
at this point, the canyon becomes narrow and requires us to walk through the
creek. This was my favorite passage because it was truly amazing to see the
various rock structures along the walls of the canyon, which towered hundreds
of feet above us. About halfway through, we came to a huge, twenty foot long
tree stump, which was leaning at a forty-five degree angle. The adventurous
spirit in John invited him to climb up it, so he did -- but he forgot to
remove his backpack first, so getting down again was a little difficult.
After passing through "The Narrows", hiking becomes difficult as it requires a
lot of bushwhacking, boulder hopping, route finding, and wading through swift
currents, over slippery rocks. All of that work slowed our pace, forcing us to
hike much slower than our normal rate of two miles an hour. On top of that,
John and I chose not to wear our good hiking boots because we knew that we
would be in the water quite a bit. Unfortunately, my old hiking boots are
uncomfortable. My toe began to throb with pain, and once the boots became
laden with water, they were so heavy that I was hiking very slowly. John, who
was hoping to see the whole canyon in one day, was mad at me at first, but
when I explained to him what the problem was, he became more understanding and
suggested that we set up camp earlier than planned. There, I could change into
a comfortable pair of shoes -- my camp shoes, which I wore hiking all weekend
-- and both of us could rest before continuing on.
Around noon, we found the mother lode of all campsites, set in a cave (so it
was well sheltered and very secluded), about fifty feet off of the trail and
about a hundred feet from the creek. The ground was covered with soft sand,
and there were logs set up as seats around a fire ring. Once I saw the site, I
said, "I'll take it!" John suggested that we stay there both nights, instead
of packing up the next morning and looking for another site, because we didn't
know if we would find anything better further down the trail -- that, and he
really liked the site we had picked.
Having set up camp, we decided to take a break from hiking for a while. We had
lunch. Then, we went skinny dipping in the creek. The water was cold at first,
but we quickly got used to it because it was such a hot day. While splashing
around in the water, we were suddenly aware that there were people approaching
on the trail! We hid behind boulders and watched as a whole group of
backpackers passed us by -- there were seven of them, one of which was an
elderly woman. Not all of them saw us, but the ones who did -- including the
elderly woman -- only smiled and waved. We did the same, because what else are
you going to do in such a situation?
Instead of getting out of the water and putting our clothes back on, John and
I stayed where we were and continued to skinny dip -- and "play naked". AGAIN
we were caught as the last of the backpackers passed us by. They only whistled
at us then continued down the trail.
Refreshed by our swim, we were ready to continue hiking down the trail to see
how far we could get. Donning our daypacks, John and I hiked through Aravaipa
Canyon until we reached Booger Canyon. Then we turned back and returned to
camp. Along the way, John studied the topographical map of the area and tried
to determine just where we were camped and where we could find the side
canyons. He was convinced that we were camped next to the entrance of an
unnamed canyon that was about a half a mile from Virgus Canyon. I took his
word for it because I knew that John was a very good map reader.
Upon our return to camp, we were utterly exhausted, and the sun's heat was
draining us, so we decided to take a nap before dinner. After dinner, we sat
around the campfire, drank scotch, and enjoyed the warm evening until about
10:00 p.m., at which time we crawled into our tent and passed out.
The next morning, I woke up at six o'clock, feeling like death warmed over --
it must have been the scotch, because I had one hell of a hangover! Not even
the scorpion in our campsite could sober me up. I felt so lousy that I crawled
back into my sleeping bag and slept for another hour while John went on a
morning hike. It wasn't until sometime after eight that morning that I was
ready to go hiking, and that was when John presented me with the challenge for
the day. We would spend the morning exploring the unnamed canyon. Then, in the
afternoon, we would go to Virgus Canyon.
The unnamed canyon proved to be very beautiful. There, the creek was lined
with sycamore and walnut trees as well as huge crawling ivy plants. After a
quarter of a mile, the canyon forked. We took the right fork and agreed to
explore the left one when we returned. From that point, the canyon began to
get wider and wider. According to the map, as we progressed in that side
canyon, the walls of the canyon would become less steep. Eventually, we would
pass out of the canyon entirely and end up at a tank. As the canyon widened,
it seemed as though the walls were indeed becoming less steep.
We were not destined, however, to make it that far, for we soon came to a road
block that forced us to turn around and hightail it back to camp. About an
hour and a half into the canyon, we came upon a rattlesnake, all coiled up in
the middle of the trail. John, who had been hiking about ten feet in front of
me, stopped in his tracks and said, "Oh, shit, rattlesnake!" before running
back to me. With that, the snake began to rattle its tail and hiss -- he was
obviously very pissed off that we had disturbed him. It was at that moment
that we decided not to hike any further along that trail: we were going to
head back to camp. But first, John wanted a photo of the snake, which had
finally stopped rattling. He took the camera and approached the snake...and
just as he did so, it began to rattle and hiss again! Scared, John ran back to
me and said, "Forget it! That snake is pissed! He's telling me, hey you stupid
human! Didn't I warn you the first time? Go away!"
On the way back to camp, we passed by the left fork of the side canyon, but we
decided not to explore it. Next to the entrance to that side canyon, there was
a rock shelf, on which one of our fellow backpackers was sitting, washing her
hands and enjoying the morning. We warned her about the rattlesnake and wished
her a good day as we passed by her.
It was lunchtime by the time we arrived at camp, so we stopped to take a break
and eat something before we began our next adventure of the day. Upon our
return, John went to retrieve our food, which he had successfully bear-bagged
in the tallest tree he could find. That was when he found the shredded bag of
raisins and peanuts in my backpack, which had been hanging on a hook in the
same tree. Some animal -- probably a squirrel or a deer -- had gotten into my
backpack and eaten through the Ziploc bag to get to my trail mix! (Of course,
I thought that I had put the trail mix in the food bag, so I didn't know that
it was in there! Imagine my surprise!) I learned a good lesson that weekend:
do not feed the animals! Put your food away. Fortunately, there wasn't much
damage done to my backpack. The animal had chewed a half-inch hole in the top
of my pack, where the pack cinches closed, and it had chewed through the
string that cinches the bag shut.
While sitting at camp, enjoying lunch, another group of backpackers passed by
us and stopped to ask us if we were planning to stay at our campsite.
Apparently, one of them had camped there before and loved the site, so now she
wanted to show it off to her friends. Just like a real estate agent, she took
her friends into our campsite and showed off its amenities!
That afternoon, we embarked on our next mission: to explore Virgus Canyon.
Following the map, we hiked to the point where we thought Virgus Canyon
began...but we couldn't find it! After searching for a while, we suddenly
realized that we were in the right place, but the canyon was almost completely
inaccessible. It was blocked by huge boulders, over which we would have to
climb in order for us to access the canyon. After about two hundred yards, we
suddenly realized that it was just too much work, so we turned back.
It was still early in the day, so John suggested that we do some more
exploring in Aravaipa Canyon. That was when we made a shocking discovery: the
"unnamed" side canyon we had explored that morning WAS Aravaipa Canyon! And
the left fork of the side canyon (which, we discovered, was also inaccessible)
was Horse Camp Canyon! We had passed the unnamed canyon (which was on the map)
prior to finding our campsite. Ironically, we had already explored that part
of the canyon the day before, too, but we didn't recognize it when we passed
through there again that morning. Instead of exploring it a third time, and
risking another close encounter with the pissed-off rattlesnake, John said,
"Screw it; let's go back to camp and go swimming."
We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming naked in the creek and taking naps
at our campsite. Then John announced that he wanted to do a little rock
climbing. I told him to have fun without me because I was very content sitting
at camp. He wasn't gone very long; and when he returned, the first thing he
asked me was, "Where's the first aid kit?" He had tripped and fallen in a pile
of rocks, and in doing so, he scraped his wrist up and hit his head.
Fortunately, there wasn't any serious damage.
That evening, we retired early, after John finished off the rest of the
scotch. As a result, we were up at 5:30 the next morning and unable to go back
to sleep, so John got up and dressed, stating that he wanted to go on a
morning hike. I stayed behind to get a little more sleep, but instead, I, too,
got up and ate breakfast, filtered water, and cleaned up camp.
John didn't return until almost seven o'clock, and the first thing he said
was, "You missed it!" He had found my "GORP thief" -- a cute, little ringtail
cat! The cat posed for three pictures before running off into the wild. He
also said that he had seen all sorts of birds: yellow and black birds, red
robins, blue jays, etc. I could tell that, despite our map-reading problems,
he was having a great time being in Aravaipa Canyon.
We took our times packing up camp that morning. Then, at 8:30 a.m., we slowly
began to hike out of the canyon, taking our time so that we could enjoy the
scenery one last time. Along the way, we discussed returning to Aravaipa
during Labor Day weekend and calculated that we would have to call Friday,
June 4, to obtain our backcountry permits. He also suggested that we take his
parents with us because his mother had always wanted to hike Aravaipa. It
would be our treat as sort of a thank you for all of their help with our
wedding. I agreed, stating that it would be fun.
At noon, we reached the trailhead, just in time for lunch. Happy to see that
the car was still there and that all four tires were "roundish", we drove
away, snacking on cheddar cheese and summer sausage -- something to hold us
until we reached Winkelman, where we planned to eat a REAL lunch. We stopped
at the A&W in Winkelman, where we ordered greasy cheeseburgers and fries,
which always taste good after hiking.
Of course, our adventure wasn't over yet; John and I were curious to drive
through Kearney on the way home because it seemed like such a clean little
community -- that, and I used to live there, when I was two (my brother,
Clyde, was born there). We were certainly in for a surprise when we found just
how immaculate it really was! Its residents lived in middle classes houses,
with two cars in every driveway and nicely trimmed lawns. Having driven
through small mining towns like Kearney before, we were expecting to find a
lot of boarded up homes, broken down cars, and businesses long gone. However,
we later learned that most of the residents of Kearney work for the Ray Open
Pit Mines, which is doing very well. The residents were relocated to this town
in the 1960's when the Ray Mines completely engulfed the town of Sonora,
Arizona, which explains why the houses were so immaculate. We discovered all
of this information when we stopped at the visitor center for the Ray Mines.
We finally arrived home around 5:00 that evening, and we celebrated a
successful trip by cooking fajitas and drinking a nice bottle of wine. Another
beautiful weekend was over.