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Sierra Canyon - Tonto NF, AZ

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Guide 13 Triplogs  0 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List AZ > Phoenix > Superstitions NW
4.2 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 3.5 of 5
Route Finding 5 of 5
Distance Lasso-Loop 5 miles
Trailhead Elevation 2,150 feet
Elevation Gain 800 feet
Accumulated Gain 1,000 feet
Avg Time Round Trip 6-10 hrs
Kokopelli Seeds 10
Interest Off Trail Hiking & Seasonal Creek
Backpack No
Dogs not allowed
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Photos Viewed All Mine Following
Inaugural Calculation on Button Tap!
14  2016-03-07 desert_boonie
18  2016-01-02 GrottoGirl
25  2014-04-18 desert_boonie
40  2011-01-30 Vaporman
70  2010-03-06 Vaporman
25  2009-11-29 nonot
35  2009-11-29 suzaz
Author nonot
author avatar Guides 93
Routes 236
Photos 1,969
Trips 476 map ( 4,511 miles )
Age Male Gender
Location Phoenix, AZ
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   Nov, Dec, Feb, Mar → 8 AM
Seasons   Late Autumn to Early Spring
Sun  6:13am - 6:22pm
Official Route
0 Alternative
Fauna Nearby
Flora Nearby
Named place Nearby
by nonot

Overview: A class 3AIII technical canyoneering trip in the northern Superstition Mountains.

Warning: This trip involves rappelling and down-climbing. A full set of technical canyoneering gear is needed, including: HELMET, harness, caribiner, and rappelling device. For this trip add a GPS, helmet, a 200 ft rope, helmet, and a 60 ft rope. Furthermore, I recommend each party take along 80 ft of webbing, 40ft accessory cord, 7 quick links, and an extra few caribiner. I do not recommend this trip for beginning canyoneers or canyonettes. P.S. Everyone wearing a helmet saved us an otherwise ugly day, buy and wear a helmet!

Warning: Canyoneering involves slot canyons and you don't want to be in these places during a flash flood. Check the weather before you depart on your trip and do not attempt to go if there is any chance of rain.

Warning: This trip is rated a 5 in navigational difficulty. Horse Mesa is full of indistinct drainages running every which way. I recommend that you make use of the GPS route I will submit. Furthermore, to avoid the possibility of having to make tough choices in the dark, I recommend you get an early start.

Warning: This canyon has the potential to hold a good deal of water. This description was written following a severe drought when there was still a decent amount of cold water (!) in the canyon, but not an overwhelming quantity. Your experience may vary! Warranty void upon opening, made in China, not for consumption by people under 12 or pregnant...

History: Attempting to canyoneer Tango Canyon in late 2009, a group reported they found it extremely difficult and lacking anchors. However, my own descent of Tango did not find what they reported. Based on the geography and aided by a youtube video, I was able to reconstruct what I believed to be their route. Intrigued, I loaded up with way too much gear and tricked an unsuspecting friend into joining me on this adventure. :D Interestingly, this canyon had very aged webbing, indicating that the first descent may have been 5-10 years ago (or more).

Naming Information: Sierra is military phonetic for the letter "S". Tango is military phonetic for the letter "T". Sierra Canyon comes right before Tango Canyon in the geography of Horse Mesa on your approach; hence the name is appropriate and fits the theme. The letter "S" in and of itself has some additional significance.

Foreword: This description for Sierra Canyon will have sections that read very similar to the Tango Canyon description as both of these trips have similar approaches and returns.

Hike: From the pullout on the Apache Trail, head into lower Fish Creek and begin rock-hopping downstream. Keep track of your distance as you are looking for the 1st major drainage coming down into Fish Creek from your right at 0.5 miles.

Turn right and climb up the west slope of this drainage, trying to stay near the ridge that runs along the west side. You will pass by a rock formation that some say resembles a ship's bow. Past this rock formation, continue climbing up the left side of the canyon until you reach a fairly flat saddle. Do NOT wait too long to make the climb assuming you can use the slot-like drainage you see ahead of you on your left, you need to summit before reaching that drainage.

Once on top of the Horse Mesa flats, take a break to catch your breath. You are done with the hardest part physically, but not navigational! From this point, head west and slightly north. Get on the flat plain and contour your way to the head of the next canyon so that you can get up the 30 ft wall without difficulty. After getting up the wall, contour 100 yards around on the flat part of the ridge to your south, then west, and then where you cliff out, head north. Climb up about 60 ft to your northwest to obtain a saddle to the 2nd major drainage into Fish Creek. This 2nd drainage is the headwaters of Sierra Canyon.

Those continuing on to Tango will descend into, but eventually leave Sierra Canyon. However, you will want to stay in the drainage and continue downstream. Several minor drainages will appear on your right. Observe them but continue heading downhill. Some boulder hopping will be required in several places. You may see some cattails, which is a good sign you're in the right place. Avoid the brush as best you can.

The first obstacle that you will encounter is a 15 ft drop over a chock stone into a pool of water. You will want to bypass on canyon left. Continue bouldering your way down stream, there is an enormous boulder chock-stone you will likely climb under. The canyon begins to deepen and presents some views that encourage you to keep going!
  • First rappel: The first rappel is a slung boulder on an 18 ft drop that can possibly be down-climbed on the left LDC. It is not much of a rappel, but it will be the first of many in the next short section of canyon so all should gear up here.

  • Second rappel: A short distance after the first rap, you will encounter a huge boulder chock stone with an opening beneath it that is possibly down-climbed. Find the anchor by climbing up on top of the boulder and going to the right side LDC. From here rig your 60 ft rope. Rappel 4 ft and 10 ft to a sand bar (with an annoying bush), walk 10 feet, and continue another 6 feet into the water. For a style point, you have to complete the rappel, pull the rope, and get past the water while staying dry, no partial credit.

  • Third rappel: This is the most difficult rappel of the trip, be very cautious with this one! Just after the second rap you will find a slung chock stone. Rappel 18 feet into a pool of knee-deep water (with a deep water exit lip). Unfortunately this is a very difficult setup since you have to basically stand on the chock stone that is the anchor. Sequence down your party, leaving the most experienced person on top to assist as necessary. I also recommend the second most experienced go first to provide a fireman belay.

  • Fourth rappel: Immediately after the 3rd rap you carefully pass a pothole and find the fourth major drop slung from a bush on left LDC. Inspect the bush carefully to determine if it is still suitable. Rappel 20 feet into a dry bowl.

  • Fifth rappel: Thirty feet from the end of the 4th rap you will find an interesting anchoring opportunity on the floor of the canyon. Rap 12 feet, the water is easily avoided.

    We took off our gear here, thinking we were done. Proceed through a tunnel and bat caves and continue hopping down the boulders and through the brush. The canyon begins to open up wide and you will likely be in the full sun for awhile. The open desert nature of the canyon returns and you will be bypassing around nasty pools through some fairly nasty brush. Find the safe way down back into the drainage.

    Climb down some boulder piles and suddenly you will find yourself on the largest, flattest expense of Superstitions slick rock I have yet encountered. As you think to yourself how cool this is, pay attention to what's in front of you because 150 feet later the bottom drops out of the canyon! In the most amazing and unexpected way, this is by far the greatest feature of Sierra Canyon. A beautiful green tree stands tall amongst a barren, mostly slick rock slot that is truly a Superstitions wonder.

  • Sixth rappel: Rig the 85 ft rappel with your 200 ft rope (fully deployed) from the conveniently located BFR. Rap into the sinuous slot admiring what Mother Nature has dished up. After 65 feet, a little of which is overhanging, you will be deposited onto a ledge, walk and rap another 12 feet, then walk to a hidden pool and finish off the last 6 feet into knee-deep water. Last person down should be very careful setting up for the rope pull, it could be a nasty one and you need that rope! Note: Some have reported you can do this with a 100 ft rope, climbing down part of the slot and sliding down the last part - it probably depends on how good your shoes are, and if you are comfortable with this. As the bonus, it is apparently able to do this canyon with a 100 ft rope if you intend to try this. Continue on with some easy walking and a few down climbs. Nice sections of slick rock alternate with rock piles. You will get forced to the right side (LDC) of the canyon where you encounter a massive break-down.

  • Seventh rappel: Rig the 45 ft rappel (originally I reported this was 60 ft) that is possibly down-climbable (no, you go first!) from a slung boulder. Finish up in the sand. Coil your rope and pack away your harnesses and helmets.

    Finish off with some easy down climbs and light bushwhacking until you reach Fish Creek. Turn left in Fish creek and head upstream and back to your vehicle.

Water sources: There were quite a few potholes found in Sierra Canyon, but nothing I would consider drinking in a non-survival situation, so bring at least 3-4 liters. Lower Fish creek will have some water. Depending on the season Fish Creek could also be flowing strong. However, after 4 months with almost no rain, only a few isolated pools that looked moderately decent were observed on this trip. You would need a filter.

Camping: Although I consider it unlikely, participants on this trip could dry camp anywhere on the Horse Mesa flats, as well as the ample at-large campsites in portions of Lower Fish Creek. A few overused campsites are found very close to the car spot.

Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.

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

2009-11-29 nonot
    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
    Sierra Canyon - Tonto NF
    rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5rated 5
    After doing Tango 2 weeks ago my legs have not yet fully healed up so I figured what the heck, lets go get Sierra done and add a few more battle wounds.

    Not being able to find a partner I headed on out solo yet again after a night of work, I knew this day would be a good one being up for 24+ hours and the feeling of a good adventure had me going.

    I got to the parking area after 10am and started the trek at 10:30. Fish Creek is considerable lower than it was two weeks ago which made the travel a little bit easier. Right at the turnoff to start heading up I had this weird feeling I was being watched. I looked up and couldn't believe my eyes, there were about 12 kudamundi scrambling up the rocks. I get my camera in hand but they were all pretty much out of sight, except for one who looked to be the biggest one just looking dead at me as if to say what the heck are you doing. But I thanked him for that because I got a pretty good picture of him. After all his buddies were gone he took off as if he was the guardian of the tribe. Pretty awesome, my second sighting of these guys in AZ and this time I didn't have some Arkansas loud mouth yell out about seeing them scaring the off as I had one all ready for my best picture ever. :)

    With that putting a good rush into my body I headed on up the wash and to the 2900' contour to traverse on over to Sierra. This time I made quick work of the area and was able to drop into the canyon fairly easy. After some nice boulder hopping I came to the first rappel and heard a noise above. Wow, six bighorn sheep running across a tiny ledge making my skills look worthless. They were too fast for me to get a shot of all of them, so the slow one bringing up the rear would have to do for today. Man today is going great. After the first rappel I continue down canyon and look up again. Out flies a spotted owl right over me, and since I do not have the bribing powers of Pam to get them to pose for me, I wasn't able to get a photo of this guy. But could I see anything else today as far as wildlife would go? Yes there's a squirrel or two in the canyon.

    This canyon was great, with the overcast day, and the few swims to cool off in I was quickly thinking this was one of the best outings in the Superstitions I have ever had. And to make it better, this canyon also is not as brushy as her sister Tango. The rappels kept coming and so did the wildlife. Halfway down a few giant openings in the sides of the canyons had bats flying around in them. I collected some guano to make bowls out of. Ace Ventura motivated me for this move. With the canyon opening up, I was able to finish the rappels and make it into Fish Creek safely. What a gem of a canyon.

    On the way out I made it back to the spot where the kudamundi were before but this time nothing. I walked backwards for a few steps just to make sure they were not there. Oh well I thought, at least I got to see them on the way in. I come to the middle of Fish Creek where the water has dried up and come around a few bushes and see one of the best things I have ever seen. About 30 kudamundi are smack dab in the middle of the creek and start to scatter once they see me. I stop to get a grasp of what I am seeing. They are everywhere and going to each sides of the creek. Some are going up trees, some are running through the water, the others are so small they are just running. After a minute standoff of silence and a few lucky pictures they started to make some noise, it was a rally call and amazingly they all ran in the same direction, to the same side of the creek and disappeared into the brush. Holy Cow. "I've seen a lot of amazing things in my life, but that was AWESOME!"

    Adrenaline rushes through my body, I make it back to the Jeep and expect a long slow drive out because of the time of day and traffic. I make it all the way back to the west valley with only one small traffic slow down. Today surely was a great day, one of those that doesn't happen often in all aspects. I guess I need to get out on Fridays more often and stay up as long as I can more.
    Sierra Canyon - Tonto NF
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Another great run down this beautiful gem of a canyon. Last winter, this was one of the most challenging canyons I'd done up to that point and now it's a scenic stroll thru yet another amazing canyon that we did with just one 100ft rope. :D

    Fish Creek Canyon is only flowing lightly as we made the rock hop to the bottom of the steep ridge that we climb to get up on the bench that Sierra & Tango canyons descend from. :sweat: Upper Sierra Canyon is a little thorny with some light down climbing and pools before reaching the first 15ft rappel. We geared up and made this super awkward first rappel from a thick dirty bush into a waist-high pool... ;) Some moderate down climbing as the canyon drops into some beautiful narrows and we reached the 2nd rappel of about 25ft but oddly enough the anchor was missing so I build another one in a better location. ;) People down climbing that gnarly drop?!? :o The third rappel was a 30ft drop with another chilly pool to wade. By now, the geology in this canyon is off-the-hook amazing! :y: We hit the formerly awkward 4th rappel that now has a much more user friendly anchor but still drops into a super chilly full-on swimmer. :o A short slide into a wader and then rappel #5 was another 20ft drop down a chute into another shallow pool and this was quickly followed by another short 20ft rappel. The canyon dried up & opened up as we descended out of the 'narrows' with some cool alvcoves to check out & plenty of rock hopping. We enjoyed the warm sun a bit before dropping into that amazing slickrock hallway lined with shallow reflecting pools. :D I setup the 45ft 7th rappel before stopping for a lunch break and then we dropped down this sweet rappel with a cool chute below the dry falls that ends in a pool that I tried stemming over but still had to get a little wet. The final 8th rappel was a bouldery 40ft drop into sand shortly followed by the confluence with Fish Creek where we dropped gear and made the rock hop/sand slog/scenic stroll back up canyon to the car pack along the highway. :sweat:

    I always love the looks tourist give us as they try to guess what the pumpkin we just got done doing with our funky looking packs & ropes. :lol:
    Sierra Canyon - Tonto NF
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Another beautiful day of canyoneering in a side canyon of the amazing Fish Creek Canyon! Of all the canyons I've done in the area, this is by far the best and it was even sweeter full of water & with great company. :y: I've done Tango twice now, so getting to Sierra Canyon was no trouble and the recent rains seem to have cleaned the creek bed of catclaw. The creek was flowing fairly good causing all the pools to be full, so we got our wetsuits on pretty quickly after dropping in. I bypassed the first major pool while they jumped in covered in neoprene. :) At the next little drop into a wader, I added an additional anchor around a bush instead of down climbing on the left followed by some more rock hopping & down climbing. Eventually we reached the first official rap with an awkward start of course with another short rap right after it followed by a swimmer that they just jumped into. I wanted some extra style points, so I climbed on the left to avoid the water. :) Then we hit the tricky rap #3 into a swimmer that Todd & I were able to down climb into rappel position without too much difficulty while I just lowered Kelli into position to play it safe. Those were follow by another 2 short & sweet easy raps alongside waterfalls with #4 into another swimmer. After rap #5, we hit that semi-dry section of bush whacking & down climbing until we reached that sweet spot of down climbing into pools followed by the slickrock narrows before hitting the 85ft rap. For me, this was the sweetest rappel alongside a cool fall into a waterslide followed by a small wader. :DANCE: Afterwards, the creek opened up a bit but stayed fairly wet as we did more down climbing and passed a few more slickrock sections until reaching the final drop that was fairly easy. After some more light climbing & bushwhacking, we eventually hit Fish Creek where we dropped our gear & wetsuits before making the slow hike upstream thru & alongside the nicely flowing creek, slogging thru quicksand, pushing thru tree branches, with of course loads of rock hopping. :sweat:
    Sierra Canyon - Tonto NF
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Todd & I had set out to drop into Sierra Canyon, but there was a fair amount of water in its upper pools and we soon hit a waist-chest high wader that made us think twice. We hadn't even hit the technical section yet and I remembered Steve's warning about the potential for this canyon to hold deep pools. From memory, I didn't think Tango had much pool potential and what it did have we should be able to avoid so we decided to check out Tango. We bypassed that first pool which was still full of course but the first rappel was still dry as a bone below, so we dropped in and the second didn't have any pool potential so we were good there. Since I've recently done this canyon, I knew all the bypasses and we saved loads of time by not have to look for them. Last time this canyon seemed rather rugged with all its down climbing and thorny bushwhacking but now that I've done a handful of other desert canyons to break me in more, this time thru didn't seem nearly as brutal. :sweat:
    Sierra Canyon - Tonto NF
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Wow, it was exciting to descend this canyon with minimal beta. Was a great day with some unexpected and wonderful surprises (like the last 2 rappels :). Only one scary moment the whole day but luckily no permanent damage done. Thanks to suzaz for joining me!

    If someone knows of a Vitellaro who explored the Superstitions please have them contact me as I'd like to find out a bit more of the history.

    Permit $$

    Map Drive
    FR / Dirt Road / Gravel - Car Okay

    To canyon trip
    From Phoenix, head east on US60, past the 101 and 202, until you reach Idaho Rd. Go N on Idaho Rd until you reach the Apache Trail. Turn right and drive along the pavement. Eventually the road turns to gravel. Before the end you will reach the Rest area and Fish Creek Vista. Past this is Fish Creek hill, which is a fairly steep narrow road. Once at the bottom of the hill, cross the bridge and continue ~0.7 miles further N until a large pullout on the left.
    page created by nonot on Nov 29 2009 1:12 am
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