Tale of Two Willows
How many Willow Springs Canyons are there in Arizona? More than two! This hike describes the one that begins at Willow Springs Lake, at an elevation of 7500 feet on top of the Mogollon Rim.
This is an off-trail hike heading 4-miles down an ever-narrowing canyon beginning at the Willow Springs Lake dam to the canyon's very remote confluence with Woods Canyon and Chevelon Canyon.
This is listed as a one-way hike! Returning the way you came will double the mileage indicated, to a total of 8 miles traveled. Other options are available as indicated at the end of this description.
Begin at the Willow Springs Lake boat ramp, and head north toward the dam. Follow the left side of the fence along the spillway and follow it down to the back side of the dam. You've already gone half a mile! This is by far the steepest terrain you will encounter all day! Enjoy the stroll in the grassy meadows alongside the trickling stream. Follow the existing use trails and/or old roadbed that parallels the drainage. This relaxing part of the hike meanders for nearly 1.5 miles before the meadow closes in and the trickling grassy creek enters a forested area and turns into more of a rocky mountain stream. Ideally you will want to be on the right side (east) of the creek, so as you meander down the meadows above, make sure to find your way to the right bank at some point. Not that it is difficult to cross once you enter the more wooded lower section of the canyon.
If you are not an experienced off-trail hiker, I don't recommend proceeding down canyon beyond the grassy meadows and the 1.5-mile distance. It gets progressively more difficult and more remote the farther you go. Make sure to turn around if you no longer feel comfortable with the terrain.
Once in the wooded section of canyon, the use trails peter out and you will find yourself doing more exploring and bush-whacking. Initially, the canyon is wide and shallow, and there's plenty of room on the banks for hiking. Soon however, you will find that travel is best done via rock-hopping down the center of the stream. The canyon narrows and the vegetation along the banks becomes thicker and less-pleasant to attempt to get through. There are occasional pools, but none much more than knee deep. The entire hike can be done without getting your feet wet, but there are a couple of places where a little creativity may be in order to accomplish that goal.
As you descend the gentle slope farther into the canyon, the sound of the mountain stream you are walking in soothes the ears. The increasing remoteness raises the possibility of wildlife sightings. I encountered a big, fat porcupine on a rock right in the middle of the stream. Unlike many wildlife sightings, he was not just a shadow running away, but rather, a slow, lazy, wobbly blob that I had to encourage to get out of my way!
About 3.75 miles into your hike, the most unpleasant of things happens! The stream you are walking in just disappears. Vanished. Nothing but dry rocks, sand, and boulders in a 500-foot deep canyon. You can proceed the last few hundred yards to the junction of Woods Canyon and Chevelon Canyon. There is ample flat ground and pine and willow shaded forest at the junction for lunch or camping. From here, turn around and hike the 4-miles back upstream to the lake.
Water Flow Note
This description was written based on a pre-monsoon June 30 hike. During spring snowmelt or monsoon runoff, water may exist in the canyon below this point. It does appear that the stream up to this point is perennial and fed by multiple unseen seeps/springs along the way. This has been a very dry year and there was ample clear water flowing nicely in the stream the entire way up to just before the junction where water disappeared. Only the very lower portion of this canyon hike appears to be susceptible to dangerous flooding potential. But be aware of surrounding terrain, waterflow, and weather if you visit during the summer monsoon.
Backpackers might continue down Chevelon Canyon another ~10-miles to the first established canyon exit point at the Telephone Ridge Trail #203, or the full 13-miles to the head of Chevelon Canyon Lake where another exit trail exists. Or they might head up Woods Canyon for the 6-miles to the Woods Canyon Lake dam. Except for at the junction of the three canyons, the only good camping opportunities in Willow Springs Canyon were in the grassy meadow section in the first 1.5 miles from the lake.
This hike is listed as One-Way.
When hiking several trails on a single "hike", log it with a generic name that describes the hike. Then link the trails traveled, check out the example.
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.