Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
No trail, but the canyon is open for business...
I'm not certain how Espiritu Canyon got its name and, it seems, that no documented history remains to give us a clue. I have a theory, though. When you first enter the canyon and start your journey, you are struck by the unusual presence of a healthy colony of saguaro in the canyon's mixed oak and chaparral backdrop. In many ways, they look like spirits hanging in the wind waving hello or goodbye to those who pass them by as they tower above bushes and peek out from behind oak and manzanita. The juxtaposition of species is only part of what makes this canyon special; the geology is truly exotic. What it lacks in elevation gain it more than makes up for in terms of difficult footing and obstacles along its course.
The Rainbow Expeditions (Glendenning, et al.) Trail and Recreation Map of the Rincon Mountains prominently displays what it calls the "Espiritu Trail" linking a section of old forest service road ending near a mine and the Allen Ranch trail. The trail, as displayed, seems to basically keep to the course of the canyon bottom or just to the east in various sections, most notably when it can shortcut a wide canyon turn or when the topology of the canyon appears to be particularly vertical. However, the USGS Soza Canyon quadrangle, on which Espiritu falls, shows no sign of a trail or path of any kind going back to an edition of the quad issued in 1950. Not surprisingly, the trail is almost completely gone. Its old course can be seen from time to time along sections of the eastern canyon sandbar that are still intact, but it is usually totally overgrown by catclaw or some other thorn scrub. It reappears at the south end of the canyon for an ascent up the canyon wall, but even that section is little more than a game trail. There are no trail markers, blazes, hashes, cairns, nor anything else to show that a proper trail ever existed. Much like the Aliso Spring trail that the Rainbow map displays, this trail was likely something that equestrians or amateur prospectors wore into the hillside with no intention of ever maintaining. When I called the forest service to ask about road conditions into the area, they didn't even know where the canyon itself was.
The first section of hiking follows an old jeep trail that breaks away from FSR 2245. Most experienced off-road drivers with a reasonable vehicle could easily reach the well that marks the entry point into the canyon, but there are numerous obstacles along the way that would cause this section of road to be rated five; most notably a hill with bad lines, deep ruts, and a steep grade. If you choose to park where I recommend in the directions, continue down this road and generally make every right turn you encounter. The Redington Backcountry OHV area is positively littered with social trails, false starts, and old routes that frequently go nowhere. As long as you seem to be veering south and you are on the more pronounced track, you are going the right way. You should encounter a mine and then wind south around a small hill and start a rapid descent. After 0.53 miles from my recommended parking spot, you reach a riparian basin that marks the junction with Espiritu. The area boasts a small concrete foundation that used to house an unnamed well and accompanying windmill. Turn off to the left into the canyon here; do not continue up the pinkish-red jeep trail that follows the canyon for a time. There are a bunch of old stone fire rings everywhere and you are likely to encounter hunters. This first section of canyon makes the trip down seem worthwhile. It is lined with cottonwoods and large shade trees and you can take your pick of easy-going tracks through the sand. Don't let this fool you, things are about to take a turn for the more challenging. After about two tenths of a mile, you come to what the canyon is going to repeatedly treat you to along its course: huge patches of catclaw and cocklebur, stony obstacles, and overgrown sections that make passage difficult.
Another quarter of a mile passes without incident as you pick the best way through what the canyon bottom has laid out for you. The canyon veers east and then south and the walls of the canyon start to close in and you encounter the first of several large choke-stone obstacles along the trip, this one with a large, deep tinaja at its base. I can't fathom where the old trail used to go, but climbing the rock wall would be an unprotected, class four scramble on a slick surface. The only obvious way is to go to the right (west) and scramble up and over a rock piling sticking out from the canyon wall. Note that there seems to be a bobcat den in the rocks just north of the bigger pile. This climb is nearly vertical and laden with scree, which leads me to suspect it is as far as most people ever go up the canyon. Indeed, I didn't see any human foot sign anywhere beyond that obstacle.
Things level off for a while and you can basically find a decent way through the scrub and brush as the canyon continues its repeating course of winding east and then south. The best route is usually to follow the sandy section rather than the accompanying rocky one, but it's really a matter of doing what it takes to avoid the scrub; however, it can frequently be impossible to avoid the cocklebur. The canyon winds west, east, then south twice to avoid two rocky ridges before arriving at a series of two large choke-stone obstacles at about the 1.15 mile point. The first requires careful scrambling up the rock face, the second can be bypassed to the right up the canyon wall. Both house numerous tinajas that were loaded with bees and wasps in the winter when I went through.
You essentially pick you way through the rocks and scrub for a time until about the 2.5 mile point, when the elevation begins to change noticeably and juniper and pinyon really begin to dominate. Most of the saguaro and prickly pear disappear within the next half-mile. Things get pretty narrow and you encounter a set of rocks that flank the sandy path up canyon that almost resemble a natural gate. The canyon begins coursing west and widens, until it eventually opens with its junction with Chimney Canyon. Climbing into this section, you get your first views of the northeastern edge of the Rincons and the boulder-strewn ridgeline that houses the Italian Spring trail. The trail veers east and you come to an old ranch wire fence that is now suspended about fifteen feet above the stream course. This is the Rincon Wilderness boundary, dogs can go no further and hunting ends here. I left a huge cairn here in 2010.
The canyon narrows and becomes overgrown as it continues east and then begins to widen again for its intersection with Tres Pipas canyon. The views of the Rincons reappear, the trees thin, and it would be easy to get confused here as both canyons wind west. You will know almost immediately if you turned into Tres Pipas because it begins to climb and turns almost northerly. Espiritu continues west and south and becomes narrow. It turns west and widens as one of the only viable remnants of trail appears to the south of the stream course. I left a hefty cairn, but it's an obvious turn and has probably been maintained by game or livestock over the years. The trail follows just to the west of the stream course and remains relatively straight as the stream winds.
The canyon straightens out and the trees disappear as the stream course becomes sandy and relatively level just before an old two-track road crosses from east to west. If you were following the old trail, you've been walking on this track for about three hundred meters, if not - turn to the right (west) and follow it for about 100 meters and you encounter Espiritu well and its old windmill. You get a great shot of the east range of the Rincons from here. The remnants of an old stone building sit just across the wash to the east. Ignore the section of track headed south to the west of the canyon as it is a dead end and rejoin the stream course. The canyon winds slightly but remains on an essentially southerly course and stays sandy and wide for another quarter of a mile before disappearing under a canopy of cottonwood and veering east at the large junction with another unnamed canyon entering from the south.
Things get rocky and narrow again as the third major choke-stone obstacle appears. This one requires a direct scramble, as well; it's sketchy but it isn't very high. The canyon seems to continue due east and begins to narrow as it climbs through the rocks and then encounters a large tinaja and accompanying pools being fed by Willow spring just before the stream course turns due south. As you look around, you realize that the people who named Willow spring were not very creative. The canyon continues southerly as it climbs through the rocks slightly and its dense canopy of trees begins to dissipate. Here, another large choke-stone obstacle is encountered that houses deep tinajas above and below. The only way around is to the east up the canyon wall along a well-worn game trail. The ascent here is easy as there are numerous great chunks of bedrock but descending back into the canyon requires a little discretion. The tree canopy returns for a while and then disappears abruptly as a large wash enters from the West. Upper West Fork spring sits about two hundred meters above in this wash, which was dry in the winter.
The canyon curves slightly east and widens as the course becomes increasingly sandy. An old pipe sticking up out of the ground is all that remains of Sycamore spring, but the south wall of the canyon is flanked by a large grove of sycamore and willow and the spring is probably their namesake. This grove follows the canyon as it turns west and disappears as the canyon turns south again. Things get rocky once more as the canyon can't seem to decide if it wants to go east or west but still generally continues south and gains elevation. Numerous boulder obstacles exist in this section, but all are easy to bypass. A rocky wash appears from the east, which can be followed for about a quarter of a mile to reveal Steel Trough spring, a dry and rusty old cattle trough full of stone and a large population of flies.
After Steel Trough, the elevation gains starts to become noticeable. Boulders start to appear on the canyon walls and the foliage begins to take on a more evergreen character. You pass by a large boulder in the stream course and several more easy choke-stone obstacles appear along the three-quarter mile section that climbs from the Steel Trough intersection to a wide, shady confluence between Espiritu and two unnamed canyons entering from the west and south. Bear spring lies about 200 meters to the west along the canyon wall and is a pool of clear water about the size of an average bathroom sink basin. The stream course continues south and east but this is where you want to part ways. Look immediately east and you will see the minor high point just south of Fox Mountain. An obvious, sandy wash breaks east toward this high point; follow this wash.
After about two hundred meters, a fork in the wash is encountered; take the right turn that follows the wash going south. Stay to the sandy path or you will likely lose direction. After following the wash's basin for about another two hundred meters, the trees disappear and it becomes clear that you are following a worn path. Whether this is the original course of the old Espiritu trail, or a well-trodden game path, is unclear. The elevation gain ceases and you realize that you are on a small ridge dominated by boulders. If you start losing elevation again, turn around and return to the ridge. On the north side of the ridge and to the north of the boulders you will find what remains of the Allen Ranch trail that is also seen on the Rainbow map. The junction is completely unmarked, but it lies right next to a conspicuous group of pinyon and I left a large cairn here in 2010. The Allen Ranch trail appears to see regular equestrian use and is more easily followed to the east than west, though the section that continues for about a kilometer west into Sycamore canyon looked like it might be intact. That said, it may or may not be possible to link up to the trail network on the east side of the Rincons from here; otherwise, return is back out the way you came.
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