A class 3AIII technical canyoneering trip in the northern Superstition Mountains.
This trip involves rappelling and down-climbing. A full set of technical canyoneering gear is needed, including: HELMET, harness, caribiner, and rappelling device. For this trip add a GPS, helmet, a 200 ft rope, helmet, and a 60 ft rope. Furthermore, I recommend each party take along 80 ft of webbing, 40ft accessory cord, 7 quick links, and an extra few caribiner. I do not recommend this trip for beginning canyoneers or canyonettes. P.S. Everyone wearing a helmet saved us an otherwise ugly day, buy and wear a helmet!
Canyoneering involves slot canyons and you don't want to be in these places during a flash flood. Check the weather before you depart on your trip and do not attempt to go if there is any chance of rain.
This trip is rated a 5 in navigational difficulty. Horse Mesa is full of indistinct drainages running every which way. I recommend that you make use of the GPS route I will submit. Furthermore, to avoid the possibility of having to make tough choices in the dark, I recommend you get an early start.
This canyon has the potential to hold a good deal of water. This description was written following a severe drought when there was still a decent amount of cold water (!) in the canyon, but not an overwhelming quantity. Your experience may vary! Warranty void upon opening, made in China, not for consumption by people under 12 or pregnant...
Attempting to canyoneer Tango Canyon
in late 2009, a group reported they found it extremely difficult and lacking anchors. However, my own descent of Tango did not find what they reported. Based on the geography and aided by a youtube video, I was able to reconstruct what I believed to be their route. Intrigued, I loaded up with way too much gear and tricked an unsuspecting friend into joining me on this adventure. :D Interestingly, this canyon had very aged webbing, indicating that the first descent may have been 5-10 years ago (or more).
Sierra is military phonetic for the letter "S". Tango is military phonetic for the letter "T". Sierra Canyon comes right before Tango Canyon in the geography of Horse Mesa on your approach; hence the name is appropriate and fits the theme. The letter "S" in and of itself has some additional significance.
Foreword: This description for Sierra Canyon will have sections that read very similar to the Tango Canyon
description as both of these trips have similar approaches and returns.
From the pullout on the Apache Trail, head into lower Fish Creek and begin rock-hopping downstream. Keep track of your distance as you are looking for the 1st major drainage coming down into Fish Creek from your right at 0.5 miles.
Turn right and climb up the west slope of this drainage, trying to stay near the ridge that runs along the west side. You will pass by a rock formation that some say resembles a ship's bow. Past this rock formation, continue climbing up the left side of the canyon until you reach a fairly flat saddle. Do NOT wait too long to make the climb assuming you can use the slot-like drainage you see ahead of you on your left, you need to summit before reaching that drainage.
Once on top of the Horse Mesa flats, take a break to catch your breath. You are done with the hardest part physically, but not navigational! From this point, head west and slightly north. Get on the flat plain and contour your way to the head of the next canyon so that you can get up the 30 ft wall without difficulty. After getting up the wall, contour 100 yards around on the flat part of the ridge to your south, then west, and then where you cliff out, head north. Climb up about 60 ft to your northwest to obtain a saddle to the 2nd major drainage into Fish Creek. This 2nd drainage is the headwaters of Sierra Canyon.
Those continuing on to Tango will descend into, but eventually leave Sierra Canyon. However, you will want to stay in the drainage and continue downstream. Several minor drainages will appear on your right. Observe them but continue heading downhill. Some boulder hopping will be required in several places. You may see some cattails, which is a good sign you're in the right place. Avoid the brush as best you can.
The first obstacle that you will encounter is a 15 ft drop over a chock stone into a pool of water. You will want to bypass on canyon left. Continue bouldering your way down stream, there is an enormous boulder chock-stone you will likely climb under. The canyon begins to deepen and presents some views that encourage you to keep going!
- First rappel: The first rappel is a slung boulder on an 18 ft drop that can possibly be down-climbed on the left LDC. It is not much of a rappel, but it will be the first of many in the next short section of canyon so all should gear up here.
- Second rappel: A short distance after the first rap, you will encounter a huge boulder chock stone with an opening beneath it that is possibly down-climbed. Find the anchor by climbing up on top of the boulder and going to the right side LDC. From here rig your 60 ft rope. Rappel 4 ft and 10 ft to a sand bar (with an annoying bush), walk 10 feet, and continue another 6 feet into the water. For a style point, you have to complete the rappel, pull the rope, and get past the water while staying dry, no partial credit.
- Third rappel: This is the most difficult rappel of the trip, be very cautious with this one! Just after the second rap you will find a slung chock stone. Rappel 18 feet into a pool of knee-deep water (with a deep water exit lip). Unfortunately this is a very difficult setup since you have to basically stand on the chock stone that is the anchor. Sequence down your party, leaving the most experienced person on top to assist as necessary. I also recommend the second most experienced go first to provide a fireman belay.
- Fourth rappel: Immediately after the 3rd rap you carefully pass a pothole and find the fourth major drop slung from a bush on left LDC. Inspect the bush carefully to determine if it is still suitable. Rappel 20 feet into a dry bowl.
- Fifth rappel: Thirty feet from the end of the 4th rap you will find an interesting anchoring opportunity on the floor of the canyon. Rap 12 feet, the water is easily avoided.
We took off our gear here, thinking we were done. Proceed through a tunnel and bat caves and continue hopping down the boulders and through the brush. The canyon begins to open up wide and you will likely be in the full sun for awhile. The open desert nature of the canyon returns and you will be bypassing around nasty pools through some fairly nasty brush. Find the safe way down back into the drainage.
Climb down some boulder piles and suddenly you will find yourself on the largest, flattest expense of Superstitions slick rock I have yet encountered. As you think to yourself how cool this is, pay attention to what's in front of you because 150 feet later the bottom drops out of the canyon! In the most amazing and unexpected way, this is by far the greatest feature of Sierra Canyon. A beautiful green tree stands tall amongst a barren, mostly slick rock slot that is truly a Superstitions wonder.
- Sixth rappel: Rig the 85 ft rappel with your 200 ft rope (fully deployed) from the conveniently located BFR. Rap into the sinuous slot admiring what Mother Nature has dished up. After 65 feet, a little of which is overhanging, you will be deposited onto a ledge, walk and rap another 12 feet, then walk to a hidden pool and finish off the last 6 feet into knee-deep water. Last person down should be very careful setting up for the rope pull, it could be a nasty one and you need that rope! Note: Some have reported you can do this with a 100 ft rope, climbing down part of the slot and sliding down the last part - it probably depends on how good your shoes are, and if you are comfortable with this. As the bonus, it is apparently able to do this canyon with a 100 ft rope if you intend to try this.
Continue on with some easy walking and a few down climbs. Nice sections of slick rock alternate with rock piles. You will get forced to the right side (LDC) of the canyon where you encounter a massive break-down.
- Seventh rappel: Rig the 45 ft rappel (originally I reported this was 60 ft) that is possibly down-climbable (no, you go first!) from a slung boulder. Finish up in the sand. Coil your rope and pack away your harnesses and helmets.
Finish off with some easy down climbs and light bushwhacking until you reach Fish Creek. Turn left in Fish creek and head upstream and back to your vehicle.
There were quite a few potholes found in Sierra Canyon, but nothing I would consider drinking in a non-survival situation, so bring at least 3-4 liters. Lower Fish creek will have some water. Depending on the season Fish Creek could also be flowing strong. However, after 4 months with almost no rain, only a few isolated pools that looked moderately decent were observed on this trip. You would need a filter.
Although I consider it unlikely, participants on this trip could dry camp anywhere on the Horse Mesa flats, as well as the ample at-large campsites in portions of Lower Fish Creek. A few overused campsites are found very close to the car spot. - Nov 29 2009 nonot