Hiking the Dark Rocks

An Oasis in the Desert - Explore a Canyon Just Two Hours from the Valley

You’ve heard of the majesty of our state’s Grand Canyon, but did you know there is another captivating canyon just a couple of hours from the Valley?

Aravaipa Canyon came onto my radar thanks to an adventurous friend who frequently climbs throughout Arizona. He told me that Aravaipa had all the best parts of the Grand Canyon except without the steep trek. I was sold, and started looking for permits immediately.

To keep it pristine, a total of only 50 people are allowed in the permitted part of the wilderness per day, 20 from the East Trailhead and 30 from the West Trailhead. These permits open up 13 weeks in advance, but I decided to check every day for the chance of a possible cancellation.

When three days in mid-February opened up, my partner and I snatched them quickly. I hadn’t backpacked since a 2018 trip to the stunning waterfalls at the Havasupai Indian Reservation, so we got prepared fast with only a few weeks to get lots of gear.

Luckily, the Valley has several great outdoor shops with rentals and knowledgeable employees ready to share important tips.

Gear Up

I think anyone that has the ability needs to experience backpacking at least once in their life.

However, the gear required can get expensive fast — and that’s why we decided to rent some items to test them out first and save some cash.

The Arizona Hiking Shack in Phoenix is a great resource for backpack rentals, clothing, and dehydrated foods.

Since we were staying for just two nights, the helpful employees recommended renting a 44-liter women’s backpacking for me. And, my partner decided to go old school and use his dad’s very vintage backpack.

Taylor’s Tip: Rent or buy a critter bag, made of cut-resistant material, and bring rope to hang from a tree…you do NOT want a little squirrel or big bear to steal all of your snacks.

Research the Weather

With temperatures below 30 at night, we stocked up on wool undergarments, gloves, hats, and socks. As we’re now inching closer and closer to summer though, a trip to Aravaipa will be different.

Instead of snuggling up in a 20 degree and below sleeping bag, you can sleep under the stars in a hammock. But, no matter what time of year you visit, I would highly recommend using wool socks under your shoes.

And…speaking of shoes…make sure you’re ready to get wet in Aravaipa! This winding canyon has been chiseled by Aravaipa Creek, and much of the ‘trail’ is actually through the creek.

The water levels will vary greatly depending on when you go, so be careful if you visit during monsoon season since flash floods are frequent.

Getting There

While it takes approximately two hours to drive to the west trailhead from Gilbert, it would take double the time and a high clearance vehicle to make it to the east trailhead.

Our permits were for the west trailhead, so we made our way towards Apache Junction on the 60 to drive through the scenic vistas around Superior, Kearny, and finally Winkelman — the nearest town.

The turnoff to Aravaipa Road is just after the Apache Sky Casino, and I was surprised to see many farms and ranches along the road right up until the trailhead.

We made sure our printed permits were showing on our dashboard and set off into the canyon in the early afternoon.

Learning Along the Way

Like the creek we walked along, we realized that the best way to enjoy this experience is by going with the flow.

Yes, it would be amazing to see all 12 miles of the main canyon path and someday I hope we will, however, what we found to be more important was to cherish the solitude in nature and the beauty surrounding us (and tbh we would be over ambitious to try to hike much more than we did).

The steep canyon walls are covered in saguaros, while the surrounding creek bed is lush with greenery. We walked mostly through the shallow creek for about four miles before we found a pleasant campsite perched by the rock wall and some trees.

With a fire ring already in place from a previous camper, we quickly set up our two-person backpacking tent and built a fire with branches and twigs that were already on the ground.

Although it had been a warm day in the 70s, we were in for a cold night with rain and possibly snow in the forecast. The desert can really be so shifty, so we were glad that we packed waterproof layers.

So Much to Explore

While the distance from the west entrance to the east is about 12 miles, Aravaipa also has many side canyons. Our full day in the canyon was rainy and chilly, so we didn’t want to make the trek through the water to find a side canyon.

Luckily, the views around our campsite were nothing short of amazing. We used our Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter System to get clean water from the creek to use for cooking and drinking.

Using the french press attachment on our Jetboil, we were able to easily make coffee — which we desperately needed after a night of tossing and turning on our sleeping pads.

Taylor’s Tip: If you have the carrying capacity, bring both an accordion sleeping mat and an inflatable one. You want as much padding between you and the ground as possible.

Heading Home

Photos really don’t do Aravaipa justice. The peaceful energy emits throughout the canyon, and really seems to transform all who enter. Although we only saw one other backpacker pass by our campsite, there were many day hikers enjoying the canyon as we hiked out, and all were smiling from ear to ear with gratitude to experience this hidden gem of Arizona.

With tired feet and achy backs, but full hearts, it took us about five hours to get back to our car. We felt so accomplished, and were dreaming of the tasty, fresh food we would enjoy.

Another tip: Bring some salt and pepper to add some flavor to dehydrated food…it makes a BIG difference.

After a quick search online, we found Old Time Pizza in downtown Kearny — just one hour from Aravaipa. Their OTP Pizza was topped with lots of veggies, making my choice for a root beer float a guiltless choice. And, if you have more time and energy, we would highly recommend learning about the area’s mining history.

You’ll see many mines in this area, and can even stay in a historic boarding house that was used for working men and wealthy merchants that flocked to nearby Globe more than a century ago.

I know I could have used some pampering at the Chrysocolla Inn, a cozy bed and breakfast that has clawfoot tubs in some of the rooms. Instead, we made our way back to the Valley and forged mental notes of everything we want to see next time.

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