Willow Valley / West Clear Creek
The triplog is extensivly illustrated in the 2 photosets I have included of this hike.
Locations can be closely approximated via the GPS coordinates outlined in the hike guide.
17-June-2006 - Day One: We turned onto the Forest Service road and soon found it to be a pretty decent road, winding through the forest to its end, and the start of our hike. In dry conditions I believe that most vehicles would have no problems. Only if it was really muddy would the need for a 4x4 be warranted.
At the end of the road, near the edge of a large area that had been burned by a forest fire several years earlier, we unloaded all our gear from the back of the Suburban. After shooting a team photo of us (my brother Ken, his son Ben, my sons Dustin and Brandon, their friend Josh and myself), my wife Jill, drove away leaving us on foot at the trail head. The quiet of the forest quickly enveloped us, reinforcing the reality of the isolation we would be experiencing for the next several days. My brother Ken turned to me and eloquently voiced our situation, "we're screwed now!" Actually, the fun was just beginning!
Climbing over and around all the downed timber that covered the burn area, we entered Willow Valley. We began our twisting trek through the depths of two canyons (Willow Valley & West Clear Creek) that are so rugged and remote that few people have, or will ever see, the full extent of their wondrous beauty in person. I was filled with a huge sense of anticipation, wondering what adventures, natural beauty and potential peril lay before us. I had been dreaming of this hike for over 4 years and we were finally here, living the dream.... It wasn't long however, before the reality of our remote location hit home. We had just cleared the burn area and started into the canyon when my youngest son, Brandon, started complaining about feeling sick to his stomach. I thought... great, this is all we need, our first day out and already one of us is getting sick. About 5 minutes later my nephew, Ben, somehow slipped off of a rock he had stepped on and landed right in the middle of a wild rose bush. By the time he had picked himself up and extracted himself from the thorny vines, he had several thorns deeply embedded in his arms and hands. I started to wonder if we were making the right decision by continuing further into the canyon.
I called a halt, so that Brandon could dig out a snack, hoping that it that would help settle his stomach. Meanwhile, I sterilized the blade on my small, lightweight plastic box cutter knife that I carry on hikes now, as a replacement for the heavy Leatherman that I used to carry... Back when I thought that I needed to be prepared for any contingency on the trail. Possibly including, but definitely not limited to the occasional resurrection and repair of long abandoned mining machinery or the possible need to quickly throw together a small 3 bedroom log cabin should we suddenly find ourselves needing to hold out for the winter somewhere along the trail. Bad knees and a desire to continue to be able to enjoy the outdoors have joined forces to prompt a reevaluation in my mind, of what really constitutes a necessary piece of hiking gear.
Back to the hike now! Following a short, and not too painful surgery (for me), all the thorns were extracted from Ben, and Brandon was indeed starting to feel somewhat better. We mounted up and headed deeper into Willow Valley. The soft gravely surface of the canyon floor was occasionally pierced by a rough bedrock surface of Coconino Sandstone that showed many curious and interesting patterns of erosion. Much of this surface however was covered by a thick growth of vines and foliage that spread over most of the canyon floor, grabbing at our feet and ankles with every step. At approximately 2.6 miles from the start of our hike, as the canyon made a sweeping curve to the left, there unfolded in front of us, a view straight from the pages of an Arizona Highways magazine, (an event that would repeat itself hundreds of times over the next 6 ½ days!) a magnificent rock arch curved gracefully over the mouth of a small tributary canyon entering Willow Valley. We didn't hike up under the arch but from our slightly elevated vantage point on the opposite side of the canyon, I perceived the arch to be approximately 25 to 30 feet thick at the center and about 75 to 100 feet long and high, forming an almost perfect circle of rock on the west side of the canyon wall.
Somehow in all my planning, I managed to overlook the hike guide posted for "Willow Crossing" that clearly details a small hike that crosses Willow Valley here and describes this very arch as the main event of that hike. As we departed the arch we actually started climbing up the Willow Crossing trail out of the east side of the canyon before we realized that the trail was headed out and not down the canyon. We then backtracked a short distance to continue our journey down canyon.
Shortly after passing the arch, Ken, who was on point, flushed a nice bull elk out of the thick brush ahead of us. The rest of us caught a quick glimpse of the bull rapidly disappearing ahead of us, climbing the steep east side of the canyon and putting what he considered a safe distance between himself and us. About a half mile further down the canyon Ken found the whitewashed skull of a small elk with the horns on one side still intact. Had it been the main course of a mountain lion's dinner? Or was he possibly the victim of a hunter's poorly placed shot? Time will never tell!
The canyon walls on either side of us, quickly rose toward the sky as we moved forward, stimulating a perceived sensation almost akin to that of entering a large cavern or cave. The canyon floor steadily grew more, and more rough, filled with boulders that increased in size as we descended further into a narrowing canyon that was rapidly living up to it's reputation as one of the more beautiful canyons in Arizona.
The weather was clear and very warm as we continued along and we were sucking water from our water bladders quite often. When we finally came across a small pool of stagnant water we decided to take a break and top off our water bladders. So we paused, and each of us spent a couple of minutes pumping the water filter, all the while, being carefully watched by a small Garter Snake that was swimming in the small pool.
After several twists and turns through the boulder strewn canyon we passed the Maxwell Tank Trail that is the more commonly used method of entering Willow Valley and shortly thereafter we approached the first of the 4 pools requiring a bracing dip in ice cold water! We knew that the pools in Willow Valley had a reputation for frigid water temps so we were curious just how cold they would be. Josh bravely jumped in as our guinea pig. His shrill squeak and gasping breaths quickly informed the rest of us that the water was indeed cold! I didn't get a temperature reading but I would guess the water temp in the pools of Willow Valley at approximately 50 to 55 degrees, motivating us to swim as if there was a shark lurking in the cold depths! We had to wait until later that night to relieve swollen bladders because all the necessary equipment had moved "south" for the "winter" and couldn't be located!
The pools are all in close proximity to one another in a narrow and very dramatic section of the canyon that cuts through the Coconino sandstone that is layered here. There are numerous holes, pockets and other odd formations carved into the sandstone floor of the canyon in the area surrounding these pools and I imagine that it would be very beautiful to see this section of the canyon flowing with water if a safe vantage point could be located on the canyon rim above. Tyler Williams in his book "Canyoneering Arizona" describes a climbing route around the right of the first two pools to avoid the cold water. This would be an option for those making a short day trip through the canyon with a light day pack and basic climbing skills. We were all climbers, however we were all carrying larger packs fully loaded for 8 days of wilderness isolation, and swimming the pools was deemed the safest route for our group.
This was the third week of June, 2006 and there had not been any precipitation in several weeks, all of the spring snowmelt was long gone and the Forest Service had already enacted fire restrictions throughout the forest, we were actually just 5 days away from the total closure of the forest due to the super dry conditions. There was no water flow in the canyon at this point and the water level in the standing pools was down about 5 feet from its normal level when water is flowing through the canyon from runoff. Further downstream on day two as we started passing springs that flow year around, the flow of the creek steadily increased as we passed one spring after another. With no flow through these first pools of standing water however, the water was pretty stagnant looking.
I was about halfway across the third pool when Josh and Brandon, who were both ahead of me and already out of the pool, started franticly motioning for me to hurry up. They had found an owl perched on a small rock ledge, in a shallow cave on the west side of the canyon just beyond the third pool. I climbed out of the water and quickly dug out my camera and managed to get several shots from about 15 feet away before the owl silently glided over our heads, across the canyon to another perch, a little higher up to watch us from. I am definitely not an orthinologist, but I think that the owl was one of the infamous "spotted owls" that loggers hate and environmentalists love. Middle ground that requires some "give" on both sides, and a heavy dose of common sense, is such an elusive thing!
These initial swims were the first real test of the buoyancy and water tight integrity of our packs. We were very happy with the performance of our water proof pack liners and the packs all floated very high in the water with lots of reserve buoyancy. We were carrying all of our camp and emergency gear as well as supplies for 8 days, so the packs varied in weight from about 60 lbs for my nephew, Ben's pack to the 25 lbs that my pack weighed, depending on what each individual's definition of essential equipment was and how much gear had been replaced by ultra light equivalents.
At a minimum, I do require that we all carry, the "ten essentials" as outlined by the "Mountaineers" on all hikes, and other gear as necessary, depending on the specifics of the hike. Items that the kids consider "necessary" luxuries are their choice to carry, or not, keeping in mind that whining about any minor discomfort, perceived or real, especially if it is the result of bringing along unnecessary gear, is absolutely taboo. The kids learned long ago that there are two things that Dad won't tolerate: "whining" and the two words "I Can't". Suck it up, march on, and find a way! What's that old saying? "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!
We continued down Willow Valley about another mile and verified with the GPS that we had covered the 6 miles that we had set as a goal for each day in order to get us out of the canyon on schedule. We then started looking for a place to camp. On previous hikes we had pushed out 10 miles or more a day without any problems, however we found that we really were not enjoying ourselves, pushing hard to make the distance as if we were on a forced march with a Marine, Force Recon Platoon. We all felt rushed and unable to take the time to really enjoy the hike or stop and play or spend much time exploring anything. As a result, we decided to try 6 miles per day on this hike, knowing that the going would be rough and we would want to take our time to enjoy the sights throughout the length of the canyons.
We stopped near another stagnant pool of water in a very rocky section of the canyon. We had not yet passed any springs and there was still no water flowing in the creek bed and we needed access to water to fix dinner and top off our water bladders for the next days hike. We were all tired and ready to call it a day anyway, so this was it! We all managed to find spots where we could hang our hammocks up, fixed a hot meal and got changed into our dry camp/sleeping clothes. Ahhhhhhhhh! Throughout the area around our campsite, there were several small tanks hollowed out of the bedrock canyon bottom 1 to 2 feet in diameter and about 3 feet deep, and all of them had about 1 foot of very mossy, green water in them. Unknown to us, they also had several small frogs in them. As soon as it got dark they commenced to croaking and the volume that they could achieve was astounding! Their singing totally filled the canyon. We started looking around trying to figure out what was making the noise but with the sound echoing everywhere, they were hard to locate. We finally spotted one of them in one of the small tanks croaking away and he was only about the size of a quarter! I ended up putting in ear plugs to finally get to sleep as what sounded like a hundred of them sang the night away!
Day Two: Just after sunrise we packed up our gear, topped off our water bladders and continued down Willow Valley. We had decided that we would stop in a couple of hours to fix some breakfast and take a break. We now had approximately 4 ½ miles remaining to complete our trek through Willow Valley and then begin our westward push down West Clear Creek. Watching the sun slowly illuminate the canyon depths as it rose in the sky, we hiked onward towards the confluence of Willow Valley and Clover Creek, constantly in awe of the beauty of the canyon. How could such a jewel really be so close, to the high, dry, windblown and brown, high desert plains of the Little Colorado River Valley near Winslow? The contrast was simply amazing! We found another pool of water and stopped for breakfast and topped off our water bladders again. The morning was dead calm and the multicolored canyon walls were reflecting perfectly off of the glassy surface of the pools near us. As we mounted up and headed down the canyon again, following breakfast I got a couple of amazing photos of Ken and Brandon standing near one of the pools, looking into it, with the perfect reflection of the canyon wall shining off of the "mirror like" water surface in front of them.
Continuing downstream we finally passed the point where running water surfaces the canyon floor through multiple springs, we now had water available to us 24/7. We had now arrived at the section of Willow Valley that is known as the "straight-away," where the canyon gradually opens up and the sheer rock walls give way to gentler, wooded slopes climbing upwards away from the stream. The canyon floor here, actually had soil and not just the scattering of rocks and boulders that we had become accustomed to and it was supporting a wonderful carpet of lush, green, vegetation. The steam wandered back and forth across the floor of the valley, alternating between fast-flowing, rock strewn sections and various sized pools of motionless water surrounded by willows, cattails and grasses that were "head" high in places and so green that it was hard to imagine that we were still in Arizona. I was wading through the stream when I looked up and saw that we had a golden eagle gracefully soaring above our heads, just above the trees. Nothing could have looked more natural and perfectly placed as he circled around above us with the high canyon walls, tall pines and deep blue sky as a perfect backdrop.
About a half mile further downstream Ken stumbled across a matched set of last seasons' elk antler sheds. They were a huge 6x6 set, still shiny and brown and about 3 inches in diameter at the base. I tried to convince Brandon and Ben to carry them out on their packs and even offered them $50.00 each to carry the antlers out for me, but to no avail. Each antler weighed between 15 and 20 lbs and we still had another 4 or 5 days of hiking ahead of us, so they declined. I really couldn't blame them; I wasn't willing to carry them either! So they were left behind near the creek for some other adventurer to find and enjoy.
A little further down the creek, we found a beautiful spot where we all posed for a team photo in front of a great section of the creek with the gentle, open valley of the "straight-away" as a wonderful backdrop. We proceeded further down Willow Valley, again entering a section of high, vertical cliffs. Near midmorning with the sun beating down on us and not having been forced into swimming any sections of the creek yet this day, we were getting hot and a mite bit sweaty. Rounding a bend in the canyon we found a wonderful pool that had several large logs floating in it. One of them ran from the bank, out into the pool to lie across the other logs that were floating in the pool. This neat arrangement, positioned against the back drop of a vertical wall of rock, hundreds of feet high. We couldn't resist! Every one dropped their packs, stripped down to skivvies and dove in for a little fun!
We spent a little over an hour swimming and enjoying the pool with the logs. The boys used one of the diving masks that they had brought along and made several attempts to catch some of the crawdads that were skittering about the bottom of the pool. They caught a handful and brought them along with us to add to their dinner fare at camp that evening. We finally saddled back up and headed down stream towards the confluence of Clover Creek and Willow Valley. We continued through the lower section of Willow Valley enjoying the wonderful green vegetation and clear sparkling pools of water set against a constantly varying backdrop of canyon walls that fluctuate from steeply wooded slopes to sheer multicolored vertical rock walls hundreds of feet high. There is no doubt that this canyon will draw us back for future outings.
We arrived at the head of West Clear Creek in the early afternoon and stopped to enjoy a snack and top off our water bladders in this spacious section of the canyon were Willow Valley and Clover Creek meet to form West Clear Creek. The canyon floor here is covered with football sized river rocks making the footing unstable and stressful on the ankles. Proceeding downstream along West Clear Creek, we passed the Maxwell Trail on canyon right that we would take to exit the canyon if we were just doing a day-hike through Willow Valley.
Near the trail we met a young man and his girlfriend who had hiked down for a day in the canyon. We progressed down stream about another 2 miles to a location where a GPS fix confirmed that we had reached the 12 mile point and we started looking for a campsite for the night. We didn't have to go far before we found a really nice campsite on canyon left as the canyon swept into a curve to the left. There was a great campfire pit that already had a nice bunch of fire wood laid out just waiting for a match to be set to it. It stayed ready to light for another group since we were hiking the canyon after the Forest Service had already implemented fire restrictions. There was plenty of space and trees for our hammocks and it was all on a nice flat level spot. For anyone using a tent this would be a great spot to spend the night.
We spent the rest of the afternoon resting and swimming in the nice pool that lies along this campsite. Just upstream from camp the stream flowed swiftly down through a series of small rocky pools and into the big pool next to the campsite. There were several interesting knobs of eroded Coconino sandstone that served as the opposite wall of the pool. The boys broke out the diving masks that Josh and Brandon had included in their gear and the hunt for more crawdads was on. The crawdads were generally a lot quicker than the boys were but they ended up catching several more to add to the handful that they had caught earlier at the pool with the logs. They cooked them up and added the "seafood" to their dinner that evening. While the boys swam the big pool in their search for crawdads, I broke out my new lightweight collapsible fishing pole and "wet a line" in the small pools and rapids above the main pool. I could see several small trout flitting about the small pools, and I got several nibbles but the bait wasn't to their liking and I came up empty handed. Ken meanwhile wandered about exploring the area around the camp and shooting a few photos of the boys and I in our attempts to add another course to our dinner.
Day Three: Breaking camp, we headed down the canyon and shortly came upon several panels of petroglyphs along the right side of the canyon just upstream of Tramway Canyon. There were hundreds of images in an area about 100 feet long. I did notice several spots where vandals had defaced the panels with their initials and I suspect that some of the images are not original petroglyphs but rather the imitations of more recent visitors. There are many however, that were unmistakably ancient native art. As we explored all the different images we jokingly imagined some teenage native being chastised by the tribal elders for defacing the canyon walls of their home with graffiti!
Continuing downstream we pushed through deep grasses and willows, as the high canyon walls of Coconino Sandstone guided our progress. This section of West Clear Creek, which lies east of Bear Canyon, is one of the easier sections of the canyon to navigate, with intermittent bits of a trail to follow and relatively few rocky, boulder strewn sections. This part of the canyon is also one of the prettier sections of the canyon, with pool after pool of clear spring water, flowing through the dense foliage being propagated by this abundant water source. This section of the canyon has several fine campsites and some excellent springs flowing nearby.
Walking along, enjoying the beauty of the canyon, I came upon a large chunk of sandstone that had fallen from the cliff somewhere high above. In separating from the cliff, it had exposed a small cavity that was stained a dark rust color. There were several concentrically stained rings of varying shades of reddish brown radiating out from the cavity, to a diameter of about 12 inches. I am not a geologist by any means, but I love rocks and minerals and have accumulated a fair sized collection over time, so I was immediately drawn to this unique feature on this chunk of sandstone lying along the creek. It was too large to fit into my pack (or the kids!) so I had to be content with a photo or two of the cavity and stain on this rock. I have studied the photos since then and am at a loss as to the origin of the cavity and stain. I have pondered the possibility that a small meteor or some other metallic substance became embedded in the sandstone as it was being formed "a few years" back. Then, as it was exposed to moisture seeping down through the sandstone over the years it slowly began oxidizing and dissolving away, and over time it left a stain in the surrounding sandstone and the cavity where it had been. That's my theory! If anyone out there has a more educated hypothesis as to the origin of this cavity and stain, shoot me a message and bring me up to speed!
Just upstream of Bear Canyon we discovered a narrow side canyon, on the left side of the main canyon. This side canyon is described on page 130 of Williams "Canyoneering Arizona" Exploring this side canyon we found that it ran only about 100 yards before dead ending in a large open, cavern like area. The canyon walls appear to be at least 300 feet high and seem to lean in at the top, giving the large room a small slit of sky, high above, that allowed a shadowy, diffused light, to illuminate the large cavern like room that forms the end of this side canyon. In times of water runoff from rain or snow there is a waterfall that courses down the south wall of this room and I imagine it would be a beautiful sight to see. Slightly elevated from the floor level, there were what appeared to be, the remains of a small ruin on the southwest corner of the room. I did not climb up to examine it closely and it may be something that other more recent hikers have assembled for some reason or another. This side canyon can be explored via a day trip from the trail that enters the canyon about a third of a mile down stream from it, via Bear Canyon and the trail that enters the canyon from the end of Forest Service road 142e. This road can be accessed from highway 260 to the south of the canyon.
Heading downstream past Bear Canyon, we hiked through the segment of West Clear Creek that Williams refers to as the upper section of the canyon. This section is noticeably rougher than the previous section, but not the narrow defile that the canyon becomes near the central section. We were constantly wet as we crisscrossed back and forth, negotiating the many pools and bends of the canyon. We hadn't been forced into swimming any pools on this day, but waded chest deep once, in the pool upstream of a large spire of sandstone referred to as "the pillar" that rises out of the center of the canyon floor as if it was planted to grow there.
We verified our position late in the afternoon and having reached the 18 mile point, we started looking for camp number 3. We ended up finding a nice level bench, within a few minutes on canyon left. There were plenty of nice trees for our hammocks and a great pool along the opposite wall of the canyon for swimming and fishing. Our camp was just upstream from trail #33 and Forest Service road 142B. We set up camp and again enjoyed a great evening, relaxing with full bellies, hot tea and dry clothes as the sun settled slowly into the depths of the canyon below us. As the darkness engulfed us, we climbed into our hammocks. Swaying gently, to the soothing sounds of the canyon, day 3 soon became a memory.
Day Four: Entering the central section of the canyon we completed the first half of day 4 traversing terrain very similar to what we had encountered on the afternoon of day 3. We were immediately wet and remained so the entire day. The canyon became more and more rugged as we progressed downstream. We occasionally had bare sandstone "sidewalks" above the creek to hike on, which were nice when they were available. Vegetation was becoming sparse along the canyon bottom as it narrowed and became more of a slot as the day wore on.
Rounding one bend near midmorning, we came upon a wonderful niche carved into the side of the canyon wall, on canyon right. It was about 20 feet wide and deep and about 35 feet tall. The bottom half of it was jammed chock full of driftwood, from previous storms and flood stage water levels. The driftwood had been jammed into the niche in such a manner as to closely resemble a bird's nest, of pterodactyl like proportions. The inner wall of the niche bore some beautiful stains of some sort that were much more vivid than the stains on the canyon walls that were exposed to sunlight. Anyone that harbors doubts as to the potential danger of these canyons during the monsoon rains of late summer need only look at the height of the driftwood jammed into the niche to quickly realize that not much would survive a flood in the bottom of the canyon.
Moving further downstream, we started encountering deep pools of water surrounded by sheer walls of rock. The boys were quick to jump into these pools from ledges and Boulders as high as 30 feet, as we made our way through the canyon. I sought out the high ground when possible, and kept shooting photos of the others as the canyon began to close in on us the further we went. At one rather long pool, Josh and Dustin opted to stay in the water and swim while the rest of us followed along a small ledge on canyon left. As we progressed downstream, the ledge began to narrow and climb higher above the creek. We finally arrived at a point where we were about 40 feet above the creek and the ledge was about 6 inches wide. This required us to face the rock, and use handholds as we negotiated our way along the ledge. Fortunately, the ledge soon widened and gradually descended back to creek level, saving us from backtracking to where we had started following it. This was a rather fun deviation from our normal routine of wade, swim, wade and wade some more! We negotiated one more ledge shortly after the first, and then headed back to the water so that our newly formed webbed feet wouldn't dry out to much!
It was about this time that Brandon discovered that his dry bag wasn't so dry! He had taken on a bunch of water while swimming some of the previous pools and his sleeping bag was soaked. He was slightly less than pleased! We stopped to grab a bite to eat, and he emptied his pack to assess the damage. None of his food had been compromised and his sleeping bag had apparently absorbed most of the water. I was trying to get a position fix on the GPS when I happened to look over and see Brandon and Dustin using a very unique technique to extract as much water as possible from Brandon's sleeping bag. I quickly grabbed my camera and started shooting! I informed the boys after they were done squeezing as much water as they could out of Brandon's bag that they were not going to like those photos! They quickly attempted to coerce me into deleting them, to no avail. Not being one to let such an opportunity slip by, I had to refuse the request for deletion, and post the photos to the internet! We determined that Brandon had just a little too much gear in his pack and it was preventing him from getting his dry bag shut properly. I had the lightest pack and some extra room so I took on some of his camp clothing so that he could get a water tight seal on his pack.
Continuing on we soon encountered a section of the canyon that was almost completely overgrown with willows and other heavy brush, including poison ivy. We quickly gave up trying to force our way through the heavy growth and found our way back to the water where the going was slippery, but faster. In a couple of locations throughout the day, we had observed several, very large logs that had been jammed between the walls of the canyon by flood waters and then left suspended after the water receded. Just down stream of the power lines that cross the canyon high overhead, we came upon a narrow slot, about 6 feet wide and 60 feet long with another large log jammed between the walls at the beginning of the slot. We crossed the log to canyon right and then entered the deep water under the log and swam the slot to where the canyon opened back up and we were able to walk again.
As we neared Home Tank Draw, and the central section of the canyon that turns and runs south, the canyon began to become noticeably more rugged and narrow. We now were progressing downstream mainly through the creek, hopping from rock to rock, wading and occasionally fighting our way through heavy brush as the canyon walls closed in. We arrived at a pool that was several hundred feet long and spanned the whole width of the canyon. It was not deep enough to require a swim, but did require chest deep wading. Brandon was slightly paranoid at this point and was trying to avoid the water as much as possible due to his previous dry bag leak, so he and Josh detoured around the pool via a wide, but rather high shelf on canyon left. They then had to down climb a steep rock face at the end of the shelf, aided by several tree roots, to rejoin the rest of us at creek level.
Just below this point, and about 1 mile from the southward bend of the canyon, most of the vegetation disappeared and the canyon bottom became very narrow with sheer vertical walls, often less than 20 feet apart, and the canyon bottom was strewn with a jumble of large boulders and short deep pools that offered no alternatives to swimming. The water in these pools seemed to be slightly colder than the creek had been upstream, but I believe that this was probably due to the lateness of the afternoon and the fact that the sun was not penetrating the narrow depths of the canyon here.
We pushed forward through the narrow canyon, climbing over and around the endless boulders and swimming at least 5 more pools. We were all pretty well worn out at this point and really looking forward to camp. It was plainly obvious that if we found a camp site that would accommodate us we had better not pass it by! There were no trees or other locations to hang a hammock, and definitely no place where a tent could be set up. We pushed forward and finally made the last swim before arriving at Home Tank Draw where the canyon bends to the south. This was the 24 mile point and our spot were we had covered enough ground to start looking for a camp site. Coincidentally there happened to be a small sand bar with about 4 small trees on canyon left, right across from the mouth of Home Tank Draw so we were able to stop for the night and set up our hammocks using the trees and some sticks jammed between boulders for anchor points.
Later after we had eaten dinner and the sun had set, I got a fire going and Brandon and I worked on getting his sleeping bag dried out while everyone else crawled into their hammocks and crashed. We had his bag dry in about 45 minutes and the fire was doused, before we too called it a night.
Day Five: Feeling refreshed and rested, we had a hot breakfast, and then began the days hike through the roughest section of the entire canyon. This day would see us completing the most mandatory swims of any day of the hike. We counted 12 before we set up camp on this day. (A swim had to be water over chest deep and this count does not include any of the numerous sections that had to be waded at depths less than chest deep.) It wasn't long before we had arrived at the famous "White Box" and it lived up to its name and reputation for being a long cold swim through a narrow slot of white sandstone. It was really beautiful! This almost 2 mile long section of the canyon south of Home Tank Draw, with its multiple swims requires the largest expenditure of energy per mile than any of the rest of the canyon from top to bottom.
At the bottom of the southward run of the canyon, where it again turns west, just east of Meadow Canyon, we arrived at the also famous, "Hanging Gardens" and the spring that feeds them. There is a nice place to camp there, with lots of trees and plenty of level ground to set up a tent on the creek bank opposite the spring and gardens. We paused here for a while, enjoying the beauty of the ferns and flowers of the gardens, and the veil of water flowing over the lip of the gardens and into the creek below. We grabbed a snack and then climbed up above the gardens on canyon left, and found where the spring comes out of the ground under the roots of big tree. This spring, and the gardens are a very spectacular feature of the canyon, and are well worth budgeting some time for a pause here.
The canyon opens up to the west of the hanging gardens, and again is filled with trees and other vegetation. We pushed through several pools that required wading to chest deep and a few feet of swimming. Brandon's dry bag was now working as intended and we were smoothly rolling along. Smoothly, except for the repeated stops to dump the gravel out of our shoes every few minutes as we had been doing since the second day of the hike when we first hit flowing water (see the gear recommendation about shoes in the hike guide). About mid-morning we started seeing outcroppings of the red Supai sandstone and it gradually took over the canyon as the day wore on. We started to see some spectacular pools lined with huge red rock ledges. Most of the pools could be skirted by staying high and walking along the top of the shelf that seemed to follow along about 20 to 30 feet above the canyon bottom. There were a couple of spots however that offered no way around the pools and we had to swim.
We were all having a great time swimming and jumping into the pools from the rocks and I just kept shooting photos as we moved along. We arrived at the 30 mile point in late afternoon but we were in a section of the canyon then that offered slim pickings in the way of campsites so we continued on downstream for about a half a mile before we found a spot where there were enough trees for us to all hang up hammocks. This had been another long day of swimming and picking our way through a pretty rough section of the canyon, and we were ready for that campsite! The area where we stopped was littered with rocks and it was not a site that was suitable for a tent but we were too tired to be picky and our hammocks had us up above the rocks anyhow, so it made for a welcome and comfortable camp.
We got camp set up, and completed our evening routine before settling in for another great nights sleep in our hammocks. We had all been in the sack for less than 30 minutes when I heard a loud ripping sound and a thud, quickly followed by some explicatives from Josh! His imitation Army Surplus, jungle hammock had ripped out and dumped him on the rocks. He and Dustin took the hammock down and managed to clear most of the rocks out of the one small spot just big enough for Josh to lie down on, anywhere near our camp where there was a little sand and he could halfway be comfortable. After he got somewhat settled in his spot on the ground we were finally able to get some much needed sleep.
Day Six: Waking to another beautiful morning of clear skies and clean air, we rolled out of our bags to prepare our breakfast and get our packs ready for another day in the canyon. Josh was looking "slightly less" than rested and was starting to display a desire to be done with the hike and get back home. The rest of us had gotten a much better night's sleep and were displaying slightly more rosy dispositions, but we were all starting to look forward to a hot shower, a dry day, and some real food!
We departed camp and headed down stream in the coolness of the early morning. Rounding the first bend in the canyon about 100 yards from our camp we were faced with the first swim of the day. Well the dry clothes were nice while they lasted! We continued on through a canyon that was beginning to open up into a wide valley covered with lots of cactus, dry grass and juniper trees. The widening valley still retained the slit of the creek cutting into the valley bottom through the Supai sandstone layer and forming some very beautiful pools, falls and bubbling stream sections of clear water against the deep red color of the Supai layer. The going was much easier on this day. There was still lots of climbing up, down and around some large boulders but these now tended to be mainly sandstone and were more flat and offered better traction than the smoother, rounded boulders of basalt we had grown used to, higher up in the canyon. We were now having some nice stretches of smooth sandstone benches and shelves 15 to 60 feet above the creek level and our rate of progress downstream was significantly faster than what we had been able to accomplish the previous day.
About 2 ½ miles into our day we arrived at a section of the canyon where the water had cut deeper into the red sandstone forming some wonderful pools about 60 feet below the shelf of flat sandstone that we had been following along the creek. Ken was leading at this point and he and the boys followed along the creek staying close to the bottom of the cut, while I stayed high above them and used the higher vantage point to get a better view and perspective for the photos that I was taking. At the head of this particular section there was a very pretty twin water fall cascading down over the red Supai. Near the center of this cut there was a wide, deep pool that was fed by water being channeled through a narrow slot that formed a great natural water slide. The boys dumped their packs and spent about a half an hour sliding down into the pool and climbing back up to do it again. I stayed right above them shooting photos while Ken crossed the creek below the pool the boys were in and found a steep narrow crack in the rock face where he could climb up to the top of the shelf that I was on to join me, and we continued down past the deep cut.
After all the fun that the pool and slide in the cut had been, we were surprised about ½ a mile further on with what I have determined to be the absolute best swimming hole that I have ever had the pleasure of swimming in! It is at Maiden Falls, a wonderful set of two pools separated by an extremely picturesque waterfall about 20 feet high. The upper pool is calm, clear, about 4 feet deep and 25 feet across. On the downstream end of this pool the bottom curves up to form a lip for the water to flow over and down to the lower pool. Directly below the waterfall there is a nice ledge that you can walk around on in knee deep water. There is a crack in the ledge right under the waterfall that is about 3 feet wide and 8 feet deep. This crack runs the width of the ledge. The lower pool below the shelf is about 30 feet deep and about 50 feet across and long with rocks of various heights on either side of the creek to jump from. The whole setting is absolutely beautiful with the red sandstone, the waterfall and the deep clear water in the pools. We ended up spending about a couple of hours there jumping off the rocks and playing in the waterfall. You could easily climb out of the lower pool by first climbing out on the submerged ledge below the waterfall and then bridging yourself across between the rock face of the waterfall and the large rock on creek right. Once you were up on that rock you could access the rocks on either side of the creek by walking along the rim of the waterfall to jump into the lower pool again!
We finally managed to pull ourselves away from the pools and Maiden Falls and headed downstream again. The rest of the day's hike was rather uneventful. We continued towards Bull Pen hiking alongside and through the creek and several clear pools and past numerous small waterfalls tumbling through the jumble of broken and water carved Supai sandstone. Near mile 5 of the days hike we came upon a troop of Boy Scouts that had hiked up from Bull Pen. They had come in about 7 miles from Bull Pen carrying packs and tents and rubber rafts and beach towels and the kitchen sink and..... We stopped for a short time and chatted with them, answering their questions about our hike up to that point. After we left the scouts we hiked on another mile and passed the point where trail #17 drops down into the canyon from the rim on canyon right. Throughout the next day we would have intermittent sections of trail available to us where it hadn't been washed away. Verifying our location via a GPS fix, and having completed our 6 miles for the day we started watching for a camp site.
It wasn't long and we found a large open area that was scattered with lots of worn river rock and had several trees scattered about its perimeter for the hammocks. The rock structure in this area was a weird conglomerate that really reminded us of concrete with large rocks thrown in with the smaller gravel. There were several huge boulders comprised of this strange mix about 25 feet in diameter scattered about the large open area in which we were camped. Along the cliff face on canyon left there were a couple of caves that went back into the cliff about 25 or 30 feet. We got our hammocks hung for our last night in the canyon and prepared our last evening meal, knowing that the next night would bring the pleasure of a pizza or something! We all hit the hay as it started getting dark and drifted off to sleep.
Day Seven: Rising with the sun we ate, broke camp and started downstream towards Bull Pen. The canyon continued to open up into a rather wide valley that was hot and dry with the exception of the area right along the creek which remained green and lush. We still had to cross the creek several times as it wound its way back and forth across the bottom of the valley cutting into the Supai sandstone. We now had a trail to walk on and far less obstacles in our path so we were making pretty good time. This section of the canyon has some really pretty pools and small falls of sparkling clear water contrasting beautifully with deep red of the Supai. In the early afternoon we arrived at the wilderness boundary at Bull Pen Ranch. We had made it! We had pushed through 46 miles of two of the most beautiful canyons in Arizona. We were all filled with a huge sense of accomplishment in our successful completion of this hike through Willow Valley and West Clear Creek.
This hike truly was a wonderful week of Wilderness!