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Cottonwood Creek - Hells Canyon Wilderness, AZ

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Guide 15 Triplogs  0 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List AZ > Phoenix > Phoenix NW
3 of 5 by 6
Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
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Difficulty 1.5 of 5
Route Finding 2 of 5
Distance One Way 3.5 miles
Trailhead Elevation 1,750 feet
Elevation Gain 500 feet
Avg Time One Way 2 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 5.17
Interest Off Trail Hiking, Seasonal Waterfall & Seasonal Creek
Backpack Yes
feature photo
Photos Viewed All Mine Following
7  2017-01-21 JoelHazelton
9  2016-01-28
Peak 3465 - Hieroglyphic Mountains
15  2015-01-24
Peak 3465 Hiero Mtns - Morgan City Wash Loop
28  2015-01-24
Peak 3465 Hiero Mtns - Morgan City Wash Loop
10  2011-11-07 burntlizard
11  2010-11-26
Peak 3465 - Hieroglyphic Mountains
15  2008-09-07 cabel
10  2007-10-22 joebartels
Author JoelHazelton
author avatar Guides 16
Routes 10
Photos 967
Trips 406 map ( 1,971 miles )
Age 33 Male Gender
Location Phoenix, AZ
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   Oct, Nov, Mar, Apr → 7 AM
Seasons   Autumn to Spring
Sun  6:17am - 6:26pm
3 Alternative
Fauna Nearby
Culture Nearby
Snorting Burros and Solitude
by JoelHazelton

Allow me to preface this by noting my inspiration to hike this creek: November 2007 Arizona Highways Hike of the Month. Those authors really do know how to make hikes sound good.

Cottonwood Creek is a normally dry creek that serves as a drainage for the Hieroglyphic Mountains. Although it is so close to the extremely popular Lake Pleasant, it feels very remote, sees few hikers, and is home to mountain lions, deer, rattlesnakes and wild burros. The hike begins on Castle Hot Springs Road on a large pull off on the west side of the road about 5 miles from the Carefree Highway. The trail starts on the northwest corner of the parking lot just past a low, negotiable barbed-wire fence.

Follow the footpath west from the parking area, which parallels the creek for about a quarter of a mile until it drops down to the dry creek bed. Unless you are hiking in the rainy season, you are immediately greeted by the largest pool of water you will likely encounter for the entire trip. This area is rather lush with cottonwood, willow and mesquite trees, but don't let it fool you; the majority of the hike will be in a sun-exposed, arid wash. Turn left into the creek and from this point on, there is no trail except the occasional game trail to surpass an impassible boulder. In about a half a mile, keep your eye out for petroglyphs on a large east-facing boulder sitting towards the left side of the creek.

The terrain is typical of a dry desert creek bed with some mild bouldering, but nothing to worry about. There are also a few sparsely scattered, thickly vegetated riparian areas that will stretch for 100 feet or so and then quickly retreat back to desert landscape. A couple of these instances strongly resemble springs with small seeps that carve tiny paths through sandy banks before before reaching pools shaded by cottonwood trees. According to my USGS topo of the area, however, there are no springs along cottonwood creek. At about 1 mile, the creek forks and both forks seem equally as likely to be the main arm of the creek; take the right (north) fork. There are several dry waterfalls in this stretch that lead to pools of stagnant water that I imagine provide for a very pleasant hike after rain. The creek soon takes a sharp turn west again when it runs into an unnamed peak.

At mile 2.5 it passes a jeep road and the wilderness boundary. Coincidentally, the scenery improves at this point. Views of the jagged peaks and deep canyons open up ahead and offer stark contrast to the rounded hills behind you. In another mile or so the creek passes the base of a huge, awe-inspiring amphitheater on the left. Scramble and bushwhack up a steep wash to this shady, cool amphitheater for a great lunch spot. The shade from the huge, sheer walls and pools of water cool the air several degrees. There are numerous caves and alcoves scattered up the walls and many of them are within feasible climbing distance. On my hike I decided this would be a good turn-around spot. While hiking back, my hypnotic speed-walking was interrupted by a loud snort. On the hill above me were 6 burros, eying me painfully suspiciously. The male warned me with two other loud grunts before I reached a distance that was comfortable with him. By the time I reached the path back to the car I was more than ready to ditch the loose rocks and finally walk on something solid. Soon I started hearing traffic, and then my car appeared, a welcome sight to my extremely sore feet.

I thoroughly enjoyed this hike, but I enjoy almost every hike I do, simply because I get excited to explore new areas. It didn't offer too much spectacular scenery, but it did offer solitude and wild burros, and to me, that makes it worth while. Note that the road on USGS topo Governors Peak that looks like it should be Castle Hot Springs is NOT Castle Hot Springs Rd. This really screwed me up when hiking because I thought I dropped into the creek in a completely different spot than I really did.

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2007-10-22 JoelHazelton
    WARNING! Hiking and outdoor related sports can be dangerous. Be responsible and prepare for the trip. Study the area you are entering and plan accordingly. Dress for the current and unexpected weather changes. Take plenty of water. Never go alone. Make an itinerary with your plan(s), route(s), destination(s) and expected return time. Give your itinerary to trusted family and/or friends.

    Most recent of 11 deeper Triplog Reviews
    Cottonwood Creek - Hells Canyon Wilderness
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    Camped along Cow Creek Road, near the banks of French Creek, and hiked out Cottonwood Creek with a return on the Walking Jim Trail in the dark. French Creek was flooding a thin film of silty water over the road when we set up camp, and Cottonwood Creek was flowing strong as well. Beautiful time to be out there - easy hiking no matter how you choose to tackle the creek (trail or creek walking), perfect shallow flow that my dog loved splashing around in, and chilly but reasonable temps. Had a nice fire that night while listening to people drive up hills nearby. Those people came to the campsite next to us as we were going to bed. Obviously they were loud, though there was no shooting so that was nice. Around midnight we were jolted awake by loud country music as they started up their trucks and left. The rest of the night's soundtrack consisted of braying donkeys and howling coyotes. Next morning I made another foray into Cottonwood Creek for sunrise. Creek was about half of the flow and made keeping my feet dry very easy. Upon returning to camp, I saw that French Creek was totally dry.
    Cottonwood Creek - Hells Canyon Wilderness
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    Looked like a great day for a little solo hike. I've had 3465 in my sights for a while now. Set off fairly early (for me any way). Saw three hikers on the way in and only one on the way out. These trails don't get much traffic which is nice.

    Wasn't sure what to expect once I turned north and headed up. The trail is faint in a lot of places, but there are a few strategically placed cairns to help. Having the track loaded in my GPS as a back up was comforting.

    No real problems getting to the summit. I moved cautiously since the Gecko had reported some bees around the summit cairn. There were a few buzzing around but nothing too threatening. Signed the summit log in a small corner under Mr. J. Cleghorn's bold signature. A new summit log would be nice, but unfortunately I didn't have anything suitable with me. Took some time to enjoy the fantastic views and have a snack. Even had cell phone reception for a check in with Headquarters.

    The trip down is challenging in spots with all the loose scree on the trail. I brought my trusty staff and put it to good use.

    Unfortunately didn't see any burros today. Did hear the echoes of one braying down in the canyon while up at the summit.

    Really enjoyed this hike. Love the profile of this peak. Now I can point it out when driving past and say, "yep did that one back in '16."

    A few ocotillo blooms and scattered globe mallow. Will be a nice spring out here.
    Cottonwood Creek - Hells Canyon Wilderness
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    Peak 3465 Hiero Mtns - Morgan City Wash Loop
    Still dark, the day started off to a brisk and breezy 35 degrees. We covered the 4 miles to the "Big Jim Trail", quickly to warm up. From here you climb +2200' to the summit in less than 2 miles. This is the first time since the end of 2010, that I've done this hike. Back then, there was no defined trail from the end of the "Big Jim Trail" to the top. This has been getting noticeable traffic and has been flagged in spots.

    The view from the top is still one of the best in the area. It took a while to re-find the 1902 inscription, but Joe spotted it.

    The next person up, should bring a new summit container and log pad. The past records are getting trashed. It was too fragile to take out of the jar.

    We picked a route down the backside that was slow going, but not too bad. We luckily ran into the "Burro Flats Loop Trail", saving us some brush fighting. We bailed on target two for the day and set our sites for the Morgan City Wash. The 4.5 miles in the wash drug on, but were easy miles.

    On the way we stopped at the Bog Ranch area, right off the wash. This area is a disgrace with all the shot up stuff and shell casings everywhere.

    We got out of the wash at Tule Spring and started the cross-country burro trail trek to meet up with the "Walking Jim Trail" and the truck.

    Another fine day in the Hieroglyphic Mountains, with still some unfinished business.
    Cottonwood Creek - Hells Canyon Wilderness
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    Peak 3465 Hiero Mtns - Morgan City Wash Loop
    Nice, long loop hike in the Hieroglyphic Mountains on a gorgeous day. Please see Joe's (or Bruce's) trip log for the route taken. It was chilly (mid-30's) at the start and warm at the finish (mid-70's).

    The highlight of the day was peak 3465, which offers outstanding views of Lake Pleasant and the surrounding countryside. More fun as we went off trail looking for an alternate route down and around the mountain to our next destination (Pike's Peak), hoping to save some of that hard earned elevation. We didn't save much, but we found a cool route through a pass that had a man made rock wall at the top. Big, heavy rocks that would have taken some time and effort to build. Not sure of its purpose; there is an easy route around it, albeit a couple hundred feet down and half mile longer if you dropped down into the canyon below.

    Dropping down from the pass, we aimed for a creek. I went farther left, down a drainage and landed on a trail that turned out to be part of the Burro Flats Loop. We followed that for awhile, but realized it was taking us too far away from our second goal. We turned south and headed uphill hoping to follow a ridgeline back towards our goal. We took a break at the top of the hill and decided there wouldn't be enough time to accomplish all that we set out to do, so we headed towards Morgan City wash to continue on the loop.

    The wash provided some easy walking for a few miles. Nothing exciting here unless you're on an ATV, but we made good time getting to Bog Ranch, which is not worth your time unless you like shooting up stuff and leaving a mess. The place was trashed.

    Another off trail excursion to hook up with the Walkin' Jim trail. I enjoyed this section. The wild burros cut some nice trails through here. Two of them stopped and posed for us as we passed by (see Bruce's photo set - mine didn't make the grade). They were more beautiful in person. Lot's of beautiful saguaros through here. We took another break in this area to enjoy the beautiful scenery.

    We linked up with the Walkin' Jim trail and closed the loop with Joe singing songs. How a guy can sing after 18 miles is beyond me (I was hanging on by a thread). More outstanding views as Lake Pleasant came back into view.

    This was the second longest hike of my life. Well worth it, but I was a tired puppy at the end.
    Cottonwood Creek - Hells Canyon Wilderness
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    Peak 3465 Hiero Mtns - Morgan City Wash Loop
    Returned after a short sampler of Cottonwood Creek in 2007. A healthy forest of saguaros offers photogenic sun events on the horizon. Peak 3465 steals the show protected by waves of black jumbled rock on the ascent. Gnarly lichen accents demand your attention. Distant views are pleasing. My favorite being the Sierra Estrella range standing proud in the sonoran sea of wannabee peaks.

    A large balance of this loop was nice yet forgettable after Peak 3465. We stumbled upon old jeep trails that now look to be cattle fairways. Anti cairnopelli would be no match for a few of the route guidance markers along the way. We only witnessed signs of cattle. The patties now in a styrofoam consistency may indicate winter absence?

    We saw two burros and heard another pack out of sight. Two inch disintegrating hay bundles throughout with concentrated piles on occasion suggests a large presence.

    Finishing up on the southern Walkin' Jim Loop offered the most stunning views of the day. Lake Pleasant sings on the horizon. Panoramic views sweep through downtown Phoenix with its tiny skyscrapers offering wow scalism.
    Cottonwood Creek - Hells Canyon Wilderness
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    I went just past the rock art and took the small creek heading South and followed that for a half mile or so. There is a little wet area, with what looks to be an area of wheat grass, that is growing in large clumps and has been a nice grazing area for the cattle. The grass is very healthy looking, I think there might be some type of underground spring supplying the moisture, it is very wet in this area. This would be a nice area to hide out and wait for some mammals to come and get water.
    Cottonwood Creek - Hells Canyon Wilderness
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    This was a nice hike through the Creek bed. The bee's were feeling sassy, being that they were dive bombing me around every puddle, guess a little rain water will do that. I decided to cut this one short and bail out, being that the terrain was becoming redundant so, I hopped over and picked up Little Jim trail. At this point, I headed over to hike Peak 2191, just North of the parking area.

    Side note: I always seem to hike when the stunt planes are out, 30 minutes of dive bombing and aerial acrobatics. :wrt:
    Cottonwood Creek - Hells Canyon Wilderness
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    I've been eyeing this one for awhile now. My son was home on break, so it was a perfect day to eat away at the over eating from T-Day.

    First....A big thanks to Bob Gregg, who has created and maintained the trails up here (quite recently actually). This was the first time I've hiked the northern portion of the loop and did not need GPS to guide me.

    We followed the Walkin' Jim Trail at Cottonwood Creek, to the newly created Big Jim Trail.
    The Big Jim Trail (Newly signed) takes off from the western most portion of the Wakin' Jim Trail.
    This trail takes you to the saddle almost directly north of Peak. 3465. From here, my son and I cairned a trail to the top of the peak. It's about .6 mile to the peak. We thought we'd be one of the first to ever get to this remote peak..... but after reading the peak log that was placed in 1993...... we were the first since 2008.

    Excellent 360 views from the top!

    We were very lucky to stumble across a rock that was engraved with the name H T Sprouse Jan 26th 1902 (See my pictures).
    So there was a 108 year span from first to last on the peak!
    Saw 6 wild burros on the way back to the TH.

    Great weather! Great Hike!
    Cottonwood Creek - Hells Canyon Wilderness
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    I thoroughly enjoyed this hike this time! The creek is flowing at a very pleasant, humble trickle. Nothing like those arrogant Superstition Creeks, but enough to make you smile! If you decide to do this hike within a week or so of rain, I encourage you to stay in the creekbed rather than the cairned route, at least for the first mile or so, because it's easy walking and the small cascades are fun to hop around. When I reached the wilderness boundary gate at around 2 miles (again, forgot the GPS, I swear I'm destined to get lost and die one of these days I'm out on my own), I turned right on the jeep road that passes through the creekbed and followed it through Spring Valley. Spring Valley is a wide valley with awesome views of the Hells Canyon Wilderness to the west. It basically borders the wilderness boundary the entire way. What is odd is that there is a Spring Valley Trail in this same area, but it never actually reaches spring valley. It ends at Garfias Wash, although you could follow a tributary from Garfias Wash to Spring Valley legit. Anyhoo, I followed the jeep road until a turnoff for some unnamed springs I saw on the map. There were definitely springs and they were definitely flowing into a large muddy pond, although I could not physically get to the source because there were too many pesky Tamarisks in the way. Pain! After checking the springs out, I took a break and ate my honey roasted cashews (now my favorite hiking snack after buying them off a total whim), took in the views of the crazy looking Hells Canyon Wilderness, and returned the way I came.

    There are so many peaks to bag out there!

    Oh, and of course I saw some wild burro action. It's inevitable when you're out there.
    Cottonwood Creek - Hells Canyon Wilderness
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    Headed in with little expectations. Arrived at the trailhead to a couple trucks with atv trailers and the expectations dropped further. About fifty yards onto the trail I passed a recent copper mine of gun shells and the expectations were rounding the bottom of the barrel.

    Now for the good news. With the fence and narrow width of the trail I didn't see any atv activity in this canyon. Since you don't find gun shells over a two minute walk from an atv source this one started looking pretty good!

    The area really does have some pristine saguaros in quantity. I crossed the creek and never returned as I found a pretty good trail. It started off pretty good. Then you had watch for cairns through some indistinct sections. About a mile later it turned into a cairn hunt. Not quite two miles in I decided to head for a high point and abort the cairn hunt. Would have gone further but I got a late start. Returned in fading light.

    The going is probably faster in the creek bed as it looked fairly clean. Looks if you keep going you'll eventually hit Burro Flats. I've hiked trails further north and off trailed further south. This is a nice area in that it hasn't been overrun and the desert flora is rich and pristine!

    Joel nailed the hike description, nice work. Right after photographing some rock art I read about it! Literally too, about twenty seconds later :lol:

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    Map Drive
    Paved - Car Okay

    To canyon trip
    From Phoenix, take I-17 north to the Carefree Highway (SR 74). Turn left on Carefree highway and drive west to Castle Hot Springs Rd (Lake Pleasant exit). Turn north and drive for approximately 5 miles to a large pull off on the left side of the road. Careful of deep sand in the parking area. The hike begins at the northwest corner of the parking lot on the other side of a fallen barbed-wire fence.
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