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Coal Creek, AZ

no permit
57 9 0
Guide 9 Triplogs  0 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List AZ > Alpine > Alpine S
3 of 5 by 2
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Difficulty 1.5 of 5
Route Finding 1 of 5
Distance Round Trip 5.5 miles
Trailhead Elevation 5,735 feet
Elevation Gain 181 feet
Accumulated Gain 280 feet
Avg Time Round Trip 3 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 6.9
Interest Seasonal Creek
Backpack Yes
feature photo
Photos Viewed All Mine Following
15  2017-07-30 SkyIslander18
10  2013-08-26 PrestonSands
9  2009-09-24 PrestonSands
10  2008-09-04 PrestonSands
13  2008-05-01 PrestonSands
Author PrestonSands
author avatar Guides 168
Routes 149
Photos 5,534
Trips 1,317 map ( 6,690 miles )
Age 42 Male Gender
Location Oro Valley, AZ
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   Apr, Oct, Mar, Nov → Any
Seasons   ALL
Sun  6:02am - 6:19pm
Official Route
0 Alternative
Flora Nearby
Meteorology Nearby
Named place Nearby
Culture Nearby
Coal is the goal
by PrestonSands

This hike describes scenic Coal Creek canyon, which runs along the Arizona-New Mexico border, in the Big Lue Mountains. Specifically, this hike is along the upper portion of the creek, south of state highway 78. Coal Creek doesn't really have a "destination", but rather offers an enjoyable hike along its seasonal watercourse, through ponderosa pine forest. Just let your time, energy level, and enthusiasm determine how much of the canyon you explore.

Mileage listed in the statistics is for the hike described here. It may be possible, however, to follow Coal Creek all the way to its headwaters at Maverick Hill, for a 14 mile round trip hike.

Is there any coal on Coal Creek? No. But there is pseudobrookite. Coal is not located anywhere near the volcanic country of the Big Lue Mountains. Perhaps Coal Creek's name stems from the black obsidian nuggets that can be found in the area. Most of the rock seen along this hike is a pale, almost whitish, Tertiary tuff (cemented volcanic ash).

Forest road 8345 comes in from the south to meet state highway 78 at mile marker 174, just a few hundred feet west of Coal Creek. There is ample parking here, and at the pull off spot across the highway.

Start following forest road 8345 south, as it parallels Coal Creek. After the first creek crossing, this four wheel drive road passes through a gate, and rapidly deteriorates into a jeep trail.

The jeep trail makes frequent creek crossings, and in many places it just follows the rocky bed of Coal Creek itself, while gradually gaining elevation. Route finding is not an issue in the narrow canyon.

The tuff derived rocks in the creek bed give off a metallic sound underfoot. Tall ponderosa pines are the predominant trees, with some alligator junipers and oaks mixed in. Cooler north facing slopes hold gambel oaks, while drier, south facing slopes are covered in chaparral and white oaks. Willow thickets begin to line the creek in many places after the first mile.

At the one mile point, a gate with rock posts marks the hike's crossing into New Mexico. Coal Creek crosses the border three more times upstream.

Mile 1.4 finds a side canyon splitting off to the right, while forest road 8345, which is really an atv trail at this point, stays east to continue following Coal Creek.

The hike passes an unexpected aspen grove at 1.8 miles, at a bend in the canyon, and soon after reaches the remains of Coal Creek Tank. The tank is dry and filled with rock.

Beyond Coal Creek Tank, the canyon widens, and the pines grow taller. Although not on any maps, forest road 8345 (a trail at this point), continues up the canyon, and reportedly reaches its end about 5 miles upstream of the highway.

I turned around at the 2.75 mile point, having satisfied my curiosity. If you choose to hike all the way up Coal Creek to its headwaters near Maverick Hill, be sure to bring a topo map or gps, as there are several side canyons branching off.

Return the way you came.

Scattered pockets of water can be found along Coal Creek during the spring, or during monsoon season, where bedrock forces it to the surface, but Coal Creek appears to be dry most of the year.

There are several small, open parks, and scores of fine, shaded campsites along Coal Creek, for those who choose to backpack.

Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.

Gate Policy: If a gate is closed upon arrival, leave it closed after you go through. If it is open, leave it open. Leaving a closed gate open may put cattle in danger. Closing an open gate may cut them off from water. Please be respectful, leave gates as found.

Leave No Trace and +Add a Triplog after your hike to support this local community.

2008-05-03 PrestonSands
    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 Triplog Reviews
    Coal Creek
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    Took Coal Creek to the NM boundary then back. No water flowing which was a bit surprising given all the recent monsoon rain in the area. Wet forest, but dry creek ...
    Next was my first hike up Maverick Hill. Made it just 2 miles up before the heat, humidity & threat of more storms had me headed back down ... will be back to finish this one another day.
    2 beautiful forest trails, a couple stops at the campgrounds & the always scenic drive to and from and I was happy with my Monday choices!
    Coal Creek
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    Met up with Chad for a Sunday adventure and drove east to the New Mexico border for some Big Lue Mountain time. After a visit to the New Mexico state line, we backtracked half a mile to Coal Creek. Chad had not done Coal Creek before, so we opted for one of my Big Lue favorites.

    Coal Creek was flowing nicely from recent monsoons, but no late summer wildflowers yet. We roamed and photographed our way up the gravelly, pine filled canyon, enjoying the cool creek water and solitude, while puffy monsoon clouds built and collapsed above us. Coal Creek Tank was our lunch stop and turn around point, although the Jeep trail continues for an unknown distance. Never one to pass up a swimming hole, I stopped for a brief soak in a pool near the willows. The first cracks of nearby thunder sounded as we approached the trailhead along highway 78.

    Thunderstorms, rolling green hills and old ranches brought great photo ops for Chad and I, and we stopped to check out the old ranch with the stone chimney. Returning to 3-Way after our Big Lue adventure, we turned the rental car south for a side trip through Duncan. It had been 6 years since I had driven the Duncan/York stretch, back when I lived in Safford, and it was nice to see the area again. Chad pointed out some cool destinations for future adventures on the drive back to Safford, and then we parted ways. I grabbed a burrito at Los Jilbertos, and headed down highway 191. Another fun adventure with a great friend.
    Coal Creek
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    Day 2 of my time spent with Preston was had in the Big Lue Mountains.
    We chose Coal Creek for the days adventure, only my 2nd hike ever in this scenic mountain range.
    Arrived, geared up & headed up the canyon. Very nice easy-going stroll up the jeep trail with many cold clear creek water crossings. Ponderosa pines, oaks a a few aspens lined the trail. A mile in we crossed through the boundary gate into New Mexico making this a 2 state hike. Reached our turn-around point, had a quick lunch under the pines & headed back. On the way back Preston opted for a quick cold creek soak (yikes) while I explored some old campsites followed by a couple of creek videos before returning back to the start.

    Coal Creek is my kind of place, tall pines with a clear creek running through ..... simple beauty!

    Many stops were made along the drive up from Safford and back. Great scenery throughout the trip including the always awesome monsoon storms brewing above and around.
    Thank You Preston for showing me another in the Big Lue's (sorry for the tantrum after the ant bite ... it hurt!)

    The gentle flow of Coal Creek -
    [ youtube video ]
    Coal Creek
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    I awoke to bright sunlight at my campsite near the Black Hills rockhounding area, tossed my sleeping bag into my truck and then started east on 191 for the New Mexico line to meet a botanist from Tucson at Coal Creek. We roamed Coal Creek, studying flowering specimens of an unusual cactus I had come across years ago. The willow patch had a small pool like always. Saw a few deer. After locating what we came for it was off to Black Jack for the second half of the day.
    Coal Creek
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    Following a day of New Mexico fun, I pulled off of highway 78 for a hike in one of my happy places: Coal Creek. Coal was in its late summer glory, with green grass, wildflowers and water in its white, gravely bottom. Sunflowers danced in the breeze. I was in heaven. Happy memories of past trips here flooded my mind, and I took my time hiking, just enjoying my surroundings. The return hike was in golden afternoon light. Coal Creek invited me in for a soaking at the willow pool. Mosquito swarms did their best to suck me dry, but I cared not. After my perfect hike, I hit the highway once again, with vague destinations in mind...
    Coal Creek
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    All year I had been looking forward to a repeat of last September's fondly remembered Coal Creek hike, with its flowing creek, and wildflowers everywhere. Today there were some flowers, but the creek was not flowing. It did have a number of small pools, though. With temps around 70 and a few splashes of fall color, I couldn't complain. The aspens were still green, but ash trees and poison ivy were turning gold. I hiked to Coal Creek Tank where I turned around, with a setting sun filtering through the ponderosas. Squirrels chattered excitedly and ran amok, while the crunch of rhyolite gravel beneath my boots stirred an otherwise quiet canyon. Another evening well spent!
    Coal Creek
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    My wife wanted to try backpacking again, so we did this as a quick and easy overnighter. Enjoyed a small campfire, stargazing, and perfect weather. Highs were around 80, lows in the upper 40's. Had a very brief sprinkle in the middle of the night. I should have brought in my water like Jessie did, as the two filthy water puddles I found to pump from resulted in greenish post-filtered water. I didn't think the pump was working right, so I didn't drink the water. We saw a half dozen deer on the way out. Good times!
    Coal Creek
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    Hiked from highway 78 to Coal Creek Tank and back. Everything was super green with wildflowers everywhere, due to almost daily downpours in the Big Lue Mountains this summer. Saw 3 deer. Coal Creek was flowing clear, strong, and wide. Tevas would have been a better choice of footwear. It was a relaxing and enjoyable hike today. :)
    Coal Creek
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    I started my hike on a warm spring day, and immediately met a small group of hikers who had just hiked up Coal Creek. They gave a favorable report, and told of aspens. It ended up being a very relaxing hike, with minimal elevation change, pools of water, and wind whistling through the pines. This hike felt more like something on the Mogollon Rim, instead of being near the Chihuahuan Desert.

    Permit $$

    Map Drive
    Paved - Car Okay

    To hike
    From Safford, head east on Highway 70/191. 10 miles from Safford, the highway splits, turn left onto Highway 191 and follow it for another 23.75 miles to a (4-way) highway junction known as "3-Way" (old drive-in movie theater and store). Go straight at the intersection. You are now on Arizona highway 78. Follow highway 78 for approximately 19.0 miles, to milepost 174. There is parking available along the road at this point. On the south side of the highway, next to milepost 174, is where forest road 8345 (signed) meets the highway. Follow forest road 8345. (see hike description)
    page created by PrestonSands on May 03 2008 8:54 pm
    3 pack - loud whistle
    go prepared
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