17-mile loop: Meadow Trail to Woods Canyon to Willow Springs Canyon, returning on the General Crook Trail.
Sorry for the long description! A lot of new terrain to cover!
I had wanted to explore South Chevelon Canyon for a while, and knew nothing about it except that it is 18-20 miles from Woods Canyon Lake to Chevelon Canyon Lake. Figuring that would take at least 2 or 3 nights of backpacking, I decided that it wasn't realistic right now. So I opted for a shorter trip to get my feet wet on the route. I decided to hike down Woods Canyon from the lake until reaching Willow Springs Canyon, and then hike up to Willow Springs Lake.
I woke up late, didn't feel good, and got a late start. I had mapped out the route and knew it would be about 15 miles to complete the loop. Estimating how long it might take in the canyons, I figured that I couldn't start hiking after 2pm or I would risk darkness while still off-trail. Having never been in the area before, if it was going to get dark on me, I wanted to be in the easy stretch of familiar territory of the Rim Vista Trail, FR300, and General Crook Trail, rather than in an unknown canyon, off-trail.
Sure enough I got to the Rim Vista trailhead at 1:50, and began my hike down the Meadow Trail at exactly 2:00. Half an hour later, I was at the dam and headed downstream in the grassy canyon. There were some pools of stagnant water, but otherwise, the end of June was taking it's toll on this drainage. The first couple of miles were easy to hike, and as I was cognizant of the time, I was able to keep my speed close to 3mph. Initially, the hiking was flat and grassy, but the vegetation increased, and the use trails became less defined.
Soon it was a struggle to decide if it was easier to hike next to the dry creek, or just make my way down the rocks in it. Having left the lake far behind, there were no signs of people anywhere, but plenty of signs of wildlife. I startled an elk and its young calf, as well as a rafter of turkey... big, fat, delicious-looking turkey! I was surprised at the number of blue spruce in the canyon, offering a nice contrasting color to the bright green grass and other flora along the creekbed.
Eventually however, the canyon slowly transitioned from grassy meadow to rocky canyon. The only way forward was to navigate the boulders that fill the creekbed. From time to time, it looked like there was an option for hiking alongside the creek, but every time I tried, the path I had seen ended abruptly in deadfall and brush, pushing me back to boulder hopping.
Knowing I was looking for the junction of Willow Springs Canyon, and hoping to be there before 5:30, I pressed forward. A couple of large rockslides and one good landslide along the canyon provided some different views than you typically see in lower elevation canyons in Arizona.
Finally, it looked like there was some easier hiking on the right bank, so I headed over and found a very well defined wildlife trail through a nice healthy forest. Of course, after 200 yards it ended and I realized I was at the junction of the three canyons. It was exactly 5:00 so I was happy with my time, knowing I had 3 hours of daylight remaining.
Having studied the satellite photos of the area, I was anticipating that the lower half of Willow Springs Canyon would also be an unpleasant boulder field like Woods Canyon had turned into. I wasn't really looking forward to that, and decided to take a short break, have a sandwich and hydrate before pressing on.
When I started again, I had not gone 300 yards when the most pleasant thing happened. Suddenly the dry canyon I had been hopping rocks in began to trickle with a little running water. And suddenly more and more! There is no spring marked on the map and yet, the water flow was as impressive as many mountain springs in Arizona!
What a fantastic surprise!
The only way to navigate upstream was in the center of the mountain stream, but the rocks are plentiful and getting my feet wet was totally unnecessary. The stream ran over dark black rocks, and the water, though crystal clear, appeared black, juxtaposed against brilliant green grasses and flora. This is still a very rugged and remote area, and the going was slow. Deadfall across the creek, and occasional route-choosing decisions impeded progress from time to time.
I startled a big, fat porcupine sitting on a rock in the center of the stream. He stared at me and didn't move. I looked for a way around, but there was no option, so I slowly approached him, calling out for him to move. He slowly waddled his fat butt to the shore and disappeared into the grass. That's my 2nd porcupine sighting in Arizona!
So I continued upstream for what seemed like forever, but despite getting later in the day, it actually got lighter as the canyon got shallower and the remaining sun was sometimes visible on the trees above me. The canyon suddenly changed complexion, going from a beautiful wooded mountain stream, to a meandering meadow of grass with pools of water and little flow. I figured I was now close to the lake, but I was wrong. The grassy meadow seemed to continue forever, probably because I was now tired and anxious to get back on a familiar trail before daylight was lost.
Finally I arrived at the dam and climbed up in time to catch beautiful sunset light across Willow Springs Lake. I had to climb two fences to get across the spillway and head for the boat ramp. Anybody else who does this should hike up on the north side of the spillway to avoid the closed areas. I didn't want to retrace my steps, so I opted for the illegal route.
I now knew I had 4-5 miles back to my truck, but it was familiar territory. There's no established trail between Willow Springs Lake and the FR300 TH for General Crook and Rim Vista trails, and was more of an adventure than I thought it would be, but with the waypoint on my GPS I still found it easily. As darkness set in, I decided to stick to the Crook trail because it is essentially a closed dirt road and I figured I could make better time on that than the Rim Trail. Plus, the fun of the Rim Trail is the view and at night there's not much to see except the annoyance of bright headlights passing you on FR300. Choosing to skip the headlamp, I hiked Crook with only the aid of the nearly-full moon above me.
So I made it the 3 miles back to the truck in about 45 minutes, arriving just before 9pm. Exhausted, but feeling the accomplishment of a good day! Managed to be in my garage only an hour and 45 minutes later, and bed very shortly thereafter!