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.
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 high clearance is required (4WD recommended).
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.
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.
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.
Tip: Not sure which lightweight backpacking gear to buy? We’ve done the “heavy lifting” for you. See our top picks.
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.
Tip: Nobody likes blisters. Find out how to prevent them.
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
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
Tip: We’ve tested a lot of different socks. Read about our favorites.
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:
Hyperlite Roll-Top Stuff Sack
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.
- 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
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.
Notes: High clearance is required for this route, 4WD is recommended. If you don’t have 4WD, park at the small lot 2 miles before the entrance. Road(s) 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
There are two USGS maps for Aravaipa Canyon. Brandenburg Mountain covers the west side and Booger Canyon covers the east side.