Backpacking Guides

Aravaipa Canyon Backpacking Guide

Overview

Description

Aravaipa Canyon is a remote area of wilderness located between Tucson and Phoenix, Arizona. Encased by sheer cliffs, Aravaipa Creek is a perennial water source that flows from the Galiuro Mountains, a nearby sky island range. Currently managed by the BLM, the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness does not have designated trails, campsites, or facilities, though there is a ranger station at the West Entrance called Brandenburg Ranger Station.

Aravaipa Canyon still water reflections
There is endless beauty to be found in Aravaipa Canyon

Permits

On any given day, a maximum of fifty people are allowed to enter the canyon. For both day use and overnight, hikers must apply for permits online. Permits can be obtained for either the more accessible West Entrance or secluded East Entrance, where a reliable vehicle with 4WD and high clearance is required.

Get a Permit for Aravaipa Canyon

Typical scene in Aravaipa Canyon
A typical scene in Aravaipa Canyon

What to Expect

Be prepared to get your feet wet, as you will be walking in Aravaipa Creek for much of the 10.8 miles, from one end of the canyon to the other. High use seasons are March – May and October – November, when conditions are the best. During summer, daytime temperatures often exceed 100° F and flash floods occur frequently, often without warning. During winter, water and air temperatures are at their coldest with the occasional overnight freeze.

Although it is possible to do in a single day, I recommend spending at least one or two nights camping in Aravaipa Canyon. Strong hikers will be able to go from end to end in 6-8 hours, but this is highly dependent on the creek’s water flow. Click the button below to check its current water levels.

USGS Water Data for Aravaipa Canyon

Additional time can be spent exploring any of Aravaipa’s 11 side canyons. From west to east they are: Cave Canyon, Hells Half Acre Canyon, Javelina Canyon, Virgus Canyon, Horse Camp Canyon, Booger Canyon, Palisano Canyon, Deer Creek/Hell Hole Canyon, Parsons Canyon, Turkey Creek, and Bear Canyon.

Aravaipa Canyon flash flood debris
Piles of debris like this one are the result of devastating flash floods. Trekking pole for scale

What to Bring

If you plan to hike or backpack Aravaipa Canyon, there are some critical gear decisions to make. You will be ankle to knee-deep in Aravaipa Creek for most of the hike. The occasional misstep will put you waist deep in places and if you slip, you could be chest deep or fully submerged.

The Sonoran Desert is not known for being cold, but temperatures do plummet at night, especially in the winter. If you, your clothes, and/or your sleeping bag are wet, hypothermia is a real possibility.

Footwear

Bring shoes with lots of tread so you can get good traction. Do not use Gore-Tex, water resistant or waterproof shoes, because they will fill up with water as you slosh along and weigh you down. Some hiking shoes will work, but I prefer trail runners or water shoes with an aggressive grip. Teva, Chaco, or some other type of hiking sandal might work for some, but I tend to blister in those at longer distances. Also, sand and gravel get caught between my foot and the sandal sole which is irritating. If you are concerned about that happening with your trail runners, I suggest getting a pair of trail gaiters.

Altra Lone Peak 3.0

Altra Lone Peak 3.0 trail runners

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Socks

In winter, many Aravaipa Canyon backpackers use neoprene water socks to keep their feet insulated. These work the same as a wetsuit, but for your feet. If your feet run cold, this is the method for you. Otherwise, I recommend synthetic or merino wool sock liners with merino wool socks. The liner and sock method is a great combatant for blisters and merino wool retains its insulating properties when wet, so your feet will stay happy and warm!

NRS Hydroskin Wetsock

NRS Hydroskin Wetsock

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Darn Tough Hiker Micro Crew Cushion

Darn Tough hiking socks

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View at Darn Tough

Dry Bag

Some backpackers use a trash bag or pack liner to keep their gear dry. At the very least, you should have a dry bag for your sleeping bag and packed clothing. This ensures that you won’t sleep wet if you end up in water that is deep enough to submerge your backpack. You can find Sea to Summit dry bags at most outdoor gear retailers, but they are unnecessarily heavy compared to ultralight dry bags. If you are interested in lighter weight options, here are a few good ones:

Why You Should Go

There are a lot of aspects to Aravaipa Canyon that make it unique. For one, there are relatively few drainages in Southern Arizona where water flows all year. Aravaipa Creek supports a lush riparian environment with an abundance of plant and animal life.

Except for its narrower sections, the canyon floor is filled with tall deciduous trees such as cottonwood, willow, and sycamore. On the creek’s grassy banks, throngs of mesquite provide a thorny barrier between you and the devilish scene above. Here, the terrain turns to something reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, except more rugged; dense forests of saguaro, barrel cactus, cholla, and palo verde clamor to the cliffside in defiance of gravity.

Hikers are certain to encounter wildlife here. On my trip in December 2018, I saw numerous white-tailed deer, three groups of coatis, wild turkeys, Harris’s hawks, and a heron. I was surprised to not see a black bear or bighorn sheep, both known inhabitants of Aravaipa Canyon. I was both disappointed and relieved to not be tracked by a mountain lion (Ed Abbey reported seeing one here in his piece, In the Land of Laughing Waters). The canyon is also host to a variety of reptiles, amphibians, and endangered fish.

Aside from its diverse flora and fauna, the canyon’s geology is a spectacular thing itself. As you wind your way through the canyon, be sure to pause and look up at the rock formations from time to time. Much of the rock you see is volcanic in origin and through powerful forces of heat, pressure, faulting, and erosion, has transformed into brown, buff, red, orange, and gray cathedrals, spires, hoodoos, and even arches (if you know where to look).

Finally, observant hikers might find remnants of Aravaipa Canyon’s ancient peoples. According to archeologists, hunter-gatherers occupied the area as early as 10,000 years ago and the agricultural Hohokam and Salado people inhabited the area until their sudden disappearance in A.D. 1450.

Turkey Creek Cliff Dwelling
Turkey Creek Cliff Dwelling, a well-preserved ruin used by the Salado in A.D. 1300

Quick Facts

  • Distance: 21.6 miles
  • Hike Time: 2-3 days
  • Elevation Gain: 460 feet
  • Fee: $5 per person/per day. Non-refundable $6 reservation fee
  • Dogs: No
  • Difficulty: Hard

Map

Location

West Entrance

Note: High clearance is recommended but not necessary for this route.

From Tucson, follow Speedway Boulevard east then turn left on Main Avenue, which turns into Oracle Road after 0.3 miles. Continue on Oracle Road for 19.8 miles then turn right on AZ-77. After 35.3 miles, turn right on Aravaipa Road. and follow it 12.2 miles (4.5 miles from the turnoff it becomes unpaved) to the West Trailhead.

Get Directions

East Entrance

Notes: High clearance and 4WD are required for this route. May be impassable when wet.

From Speedway Boulevard in Tucson, get on I-10 eastbound. Continue on I-10 for 83.3 miles then take exit 340 and turn left on AZ-186. Continue 15 miles then turn left on Brookerson Road. Continue 3.0 miles then turn left on Ash Creek. Continue 2.9 miles then turn right on Fort Grant Road. Continue 8.6 miles then turn left on Bonita Aravaipa Road. Continue 2.4 miles then turn left on Bonita Klondkye Road. Here, the road becomes unpaved. Continue 38.3 miles to the East Trailhead.

Get Directions

Trip Reports

December 2018

In December 2018, I went on a solo backpacking trip to Aravaipa Canyon. I spent 3 days, 2 nights hiking through the main canyon and had time to explore Cave Canyon, Booger Canyon, Deer Creek/Hell Hole Canyon, and Turkey Creek. Weather conditions were mostly sunny with highs in the 60s and lows in the 30s.

Note: To see a full breakdown of the gear I carried and used on this trip, click here.

Day 1

  • Distance: 10.8 miles

Made it to the trailhead and started hiking around noon. Hiked a mile up Cave Canyon, hoping to reach a “cave house” supposedly built in the 1930s. Almost turned back when I reached a 10-15 foot cliff with a large chockstone. Was able to circumvent the obstacle by backtracking a hundred feet and scrambling up solid, grippy rock to the left. Was unable to continue much further as there was another, larger cliff with a deep pool below it.

Continued up the main canyon where I spotted a cave. I was able to scramble up, get inside it, and the view was great. Hiked another 1/2 mile where I found an established fire pit on a flat grassy area well-hidden by mesquite. Settled in for camp, started a fire, cooked dinner, and attempted to dry my socks. Once the stars were out, I backtracked a bit downstream to shoot some astrophotography.

A cave in Aravaipa Canyon
Looking out through the opening of a cave in Aravaipa Canyon

Day 2

  • Distance: 13.7 miles

Slept in, made breakfast, and took my time packing up. My camp was visited by three wild turkeys. Started hiking at 10 a.m. After 2 1/2 miles, I reached the East Trailhead where I was greeted by a group of coatis. Bore right at Turkey Canyon and headed up the dirt road. After 2 miles, I took the short trail up to a well-preserved cliff dwelling. Turned around and headed back down the main canyon. Hiked 1 1/2 miles up Deer Creek/Hell Hole Canyon and was in total awe of the narrows. To my delightful surprise, there was an arch too. Got back to the main canyon and camped at the mouth of Booger Canyon.

Turkey Creek Cliff Dwelling Roof
A closer look at the Turkey Creek Cliff Dwelling’s roof
The arch in Deer Creek/Hellhole Canyon
The arch in Deer Creek/Hell Hole Canyon is perched high on a cliff

Day 3

  • Distance: 7.1 miles

Took a 1/2 mile detour up steep Booger Canyon to warm up my feet (I woke up to frozen shoes). It worked! Continued down the main canyon and back out to the West Trailhead. Was happy to see my Ford F-150 waiting there.

Resources

Guidebooks

I do not know of any guidebooks that cover Aravaipa Canyon. If you have authored or know of one, please leave a comment on this post.

Topographic Maps

There are two USGS maps for Aravaipa Canyon. Brandenburg Mountain covers the west side and Booger Canyon covers the east side.

Photos

Aravaipa Canyon late afternoon deep shadows
At 1,000 feet deep, the late afternoon sun imposes deep shadows in Aravaipa Canyon
A beautiful spot to stop for lunch in Aravaipa Canyon. December 2018
Last light at the mouth of Creek/Hellhole Canyon
Last light illuminates the cliffs at the mouth of Deer Creek/Hell Hole Canyon. December 2018
Rugged, saguaro studded cliffs in Aravaipa Canyon
Rugged, saguaro studded cliffs in Aravaipa Canyon. December 2018
Fall colors and handsome cliffs in Aravaipa Canyon
Fall colors and handsome cliffs in Aravaipa Canyon. December 2018
Aravaipa Canyon mesquite trees
Aravaipa Canyon’s river banks are covered in mesquite trees. December 2018
Near the mouth of Aravaipa Canyon
Near the mouth of Aravaipa Canyon. December 2018

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6 comments

  1. Hi,

    Great information. I’m interested in taking a trip to the East Entrance and a bit of day hiking. It’s hard to find information. A couple of questions:

    What’s the road like to the East entrance. I’ll have a high clearance but probably not 4WD ( a rental )? I know the road is subject to washouts, etc.

    I have a Senior Pass for the National Parks, etc. Wondering if this covers the entrance fee to the area. Now that the government’s shut down it’s hard to get info.

    I plan to visit in two weeks. Any other general info is greatly appreciated.

    James Starkey
    Templeton, MA

    1. Hi James, thanks for your comment. We’ve been getting rain and snow that might’ve gotten that East Entrance road pretty chewed up. I would make sure to call the Safford BLM Field Office to check conditions: 928-348-4400. You can also email them: [email protected]. Your Senior Pass will not cover the permit fee. As the article mentions, permits are required and can be obtained here.

  2. If you plan on staying overnight, do you need a two day permit?

  3. Hi Max, Thanks for the informative blog post. I’m bringing my family out there in 2 weeks for a 3 day, 2 night trip and am very excited. I’m an experienced backpacker but I’m bringing my novice wife, twin 16yr olds (this will be their 3rd backpacking trip) and my 73 yr old father who is in excellent shape and has done some backpacking with me. My plan was to enter the west entrance and hike to Horse Camp Canyon and camp there the first night. I thought day 2 would be spent lazily exploring side canyons etc but keep our camp site at Horse Camp Canyon then day 3 will hike out to the west entrance again where we parked. First, do you think that is a good plan as I’ve never been there and I don’t want to bite off more than this group can handle. Second, would it be foolish to keep our camp site set up and leave it to explore other areas? I’m assuming with so few people in the canyon at any given time that the odds of theft or vandalism would be low. I’d take our food with me to prevent critters from creating a mess. I’ve never done anything like that on any previous trip but this one seems quite unique and I wanted someone’s opinion. My other option was to just hike a little further east and set up the second night there and then explore around. Any thoughts would be appreciated. Thanks for your time!

    1. Hi Doug, sounds like a great plan to me! It’s pretty slow going through Aravaipa Creek, but Horse Camp Canyon is only 5 miles from the West Entrance. You should have no problem getting there. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to leave camp in one place as long as you take your food with you (as you mentioned). Packing up and moving further east on day 2 isn’t a bad idea either because it’ll put you closer to some of the other canyons. You’ll have to see how you feel once you’re there. Please let me know how it goes and what you see! Thanks.

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