When I was on top of Agua Caliente Hill last week, I looked into the interesting canyons at the base and wondered what it was like down there. I recently joined the Alt Hiking Meetup group, and someone posted a loop hike of those very canyons I was admiring from above. My Royal Arch Loop trip made me a little wary of hiking with a large group of people I don't know, but I decided to keep an open mind and I signed up to do a loop of La Milagrosa - Agua Caliente Canyons. Translated from Spanish to English, the names lose a little of their luster- it becomes The Marvelous (or Miraculous) - Hot Water Canyon Loop.
Ten of us met on Martin Luther King Day and we started hiking at 9:15 am out of the trailhead located on Suzenu Ave. The "trailhead" is really just some parking alongside of the street, there is no lot or anything. To get to the trail, we went around the fence and started hiking along Horsehead Road. We passed the Milagrosa Ridge Trail turnoff and continued into the bottom of La Milagrosa Canyon. The canyon soon got narrower, the walls got taller, and large shelves of rock appeared for us to travel on. The canyon walls were wonderful, banded Gneiss so typical of canyons in the Catalinas. This canyon is very popular with rock climbers, and known as "5.11 Heaven" for the proliferation of tough routes.
As we got farther up the canyon, obstacles began to appear. At first they were just small spots where it helped to put your hand up on the rocks, but soon we were confronted with larger and larger boulder jumbles and it became more interesting. Only one of our group, SAMBA on HAZ, had been here before, and it helped to have someone who knew where the bypasses were. One of them shot straight up the slope to the left and I found myself precariously inching up a steep, loose chute thinking "I'm glad I didn't try this one solo!" We finally came to the largest rock jumble yet and found a way through it. A lot of the rock was slick without hand or footholds and it made traction a bit difficult on some of the larger angled boulders.
We finally all made it up the rockfall and turned the corner to see a large dryfall with a deep pool at the bottom with ledges perfect for a break. The canyon had been in shade up till this point (about an hour after we started), which was good because the climb upcanyon was enough to work up a sweat. We had a quick snack and then Jeff, the trip leader, got us moving again. We scrambled up a crack in the middle of the ledges. By the time I got up to the next level, I could see that there was yet another steep climb up a rocky chute, this one had good hand and foot holds.
Soon afterwards, we intersected the Milagrosa Ridge Trail and followed it down, back into the streambed. We stopped at the streambed to regroup and plan our next move. After a bit of discussion, all but one of us decided to go for the whole canyon loop, rather than jump on the Milagrosa Ridge Trail to get back to the cars. From the streambed, the trail climbed up and up along the ridgeline. I had great views of Agua Caliente Hill and Peak 4778, where I'd been last week. Peak 4778 is steeper and predominantly grassy, while Agua Caliente Hill's summit is darker, due to the oaks and junipers on top. I wished I'd brought my umbrella- the day was unseasonably warm and I couldn't believe that I was sweating in January. Only in Southern Arizona!
We paused to regroup at the junction where the route went down into Agua Caliente Canyon and the descent into the canyon was on good trail. If we would have continued on the Milagrosa Ridge Trail, we would have eventually intersected the Arizona Trail south of Molino Basin. We reached some rocks and finally sat down for a lengthy (for this group) break. Jeff and I talked about our wildly different hiking styles: he goes to bag a peak, spends 10 minutes on the summit, then hikes down. I, on the other end of the spectrum, want to backpack up to a peak and spend the whole night up there, taking a bunch of scenery and photo breaks along the way.
After our break, we continued down Agua Caliente Canyon, scrambling, rockhopping, and occasionally going high on the hillside to the right to traverse past tricky parts in the canyon bottom. The streambed was filled with boulders that had fallen from the hillsides, some as large as a house. La Rompage definitely came in handy a couple of times today.
As we progressed downcanyon, the obstacles became less and less frequent and soon it was just a matter of rockhopping down the dry streambed. Tiring on the knees and ankles, but a lot easier than what we'd just come through. We regrouped one last time at the exit of the canyon, a little under two hours from our lunch spot where we'd dropped into the canyon. There were great views from where we came with Peak 4778 in the background. This was an extremely scenic route that begs for more exploration. I'll be back.