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Big Dipper - Castle Creek Wilderness, AZ

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Guide 51 Triplogs  3 Topics
Rated  Favorite Wish List AZ > Prescott > Black Canyon
3.8 of 5 by 29
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Difficulty 3 of 5
Route Finding 2 of 5
Distance Round Trip 3.7 miles
Trailhead Elevation 5,444 feet
Elevation Gain -1,187 feet
Accumulated Gain 1,200 feet
Avg Time Round Trip 3 - 4 hours
Kokopelli Seeds 9.7
Interest Off Trail Hiking, Perennial Waterfall & Perennial Creek
Backpack Yes & Connecting
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Photos Viewed All Mine Following
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13  2018-04-06 skatchkins
4  2017-04-27 MountainMatt
8  2016-03-19
Dipper - Horsethief - Recreation - Algonquin
8  2016-03-19
Dipper - Horsethief - Recreation - Algonquin
10  2016-03-01 MountainMatt
4  2015-09-12 Lumberjill
40  2015-09-06 Peter_Medal
13  2015-03-27 ASUAviator
Page 1,  2,  3,  4
Author joebartels
author avatar Guides 213
Routes 824
Photos 10,812
Trips 4,252 map ( 21,403 miles )
Age 49 Male Gender
Location Phoenix, AZ
Historical Weather
Trailhead Forecast
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Preferred   Apr, May, Sep, Oct → 10 AM
Seasons   ALL
Sun  6:13am - 6:35pm
Official Route
1 Alternative
Fauna Nearby
Flora Nearby
Named place Nearby
Culture Nearby
Mean Fall
by joebartels

Likely In-Season!
This hidden waterfall oasis is located on the eastern slopes of the Bradshaw Mountains. The Bradshaw mountain range keeps Prescott from becoming a suburb of Phoenix. The Big Dipper is worthy of a visit.

I would not recommend this hike if your dog has no off-trail experience or easily gets into trouble spots. The trail leading in has cacti near and dear.

The trail heading down from the road is the Algonquin Trail #225. Little time is wasted heading straight down into the canyon below. The steepest sections are near the top. Soon after the trail eases into long lazy switchbacks. It's about a mile and a quarter to Poland Creek. #225 continues on to Horsethief Basin.

Sun exposure turned out to be more of a concern than the steep grade. The trail is slightly overgrown in the lower sections. It seemed dry in March after an extremely wet winter. I can only imagine how dry it is in the summer. Get off the trail when it reaches the creek. Head down stream to the left. It's four tenths of a mile to the Big Dipper. Along the way you'll pass several nice cascades and pools.

From what I read, the Big Dipper was merely a few hundred yards down from Hells Hole. I'm not sure where Hells Hole is... I came to a stretch of wall to wall water that I estimated to be at least 30 yards long. The walls are extremely steep on either side. At the tail end of March the water was too cold for swimming. The Big Dipper came at price. I'm not sure if the water was higher than usual. Nevertheless I climbed up the right wall and worked my way over. It appeared several others have taken this route. It's steep with prickly bushes and thick shrubbery to be negotiated.

Coming down on the other end it's only a short hop and a skip to the Big Dipper. It is a truly awesome sight to see. I was dreading the scramble back and found it hard to relax. If you plan on swimming below take a good rope as I didn't notice a route to the bottom. Then again, I didn't look much either.

I started hiking at 11:15am. It took two hours to reach the Big Dipper taking numerous photos along the way. It was an hour and half back to the trailhead. I was totally exhausted most of the return trip. A fall on the rocks earlier may have contributed. It seems like this would be a better hike if the water was warmer. Swimming the pools would save time and energy. On the other hand it's one hot climb back up to the trailhead. Shade does favor this area in the afternoon as it is on the eastern side of the mountain.

Either I was a big wuss or the creek has filled in with sediment from fires. Getting to the Big Dipper without wall to wall water is reported more common now.

Check out the Official Route and Triplogs.

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

2001-04-22 joebartels
    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 of 15 deeper Triplog Reviews
    Big Dipper - Castle Creek Wilderness
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    Dipper - Horsethief - Recreation - Algonquin
    Check out Bruce's triplog loaded with details!

    Still love this loop. We last hiked the exact loop five years ago.

    Wore pants on a whim. It would have been brutal without. There is a little catsclaw, not really the issue. The killer brush is shin height, more of a low lying gauntlet of swords. It jabs right through thin pants that ward off catsclaw.
    Big Dipper - Castle Creek Wilderness
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Dipper - Horsethief - Recreation - Algonquin
    Big Dipper
    Finally hit the Big Dipper for the first time. Easy to get there with only minor rock hopping. Kept dry easily.
    Such a pretty area. The mSD Card in my phone self destructed, so I have no pictures. Hopefully Joe got some.
    I can see why this place is popular. We got there early enough in the day that noone was there.

    Horsethief Canyon Trail #30
    This is a favorite of mine in the area. The creek has been flowing every time I've been there. This trail in the past has seen very little traffic, but it seems to be getting a bit more now.

    Recreation Trail #201
    I'd remembered this one as being hard to follow. The last time all we had to follow was a trace from the TOPO maps Those are notoriously inaccurate. This trail actually is not all that bad to follow, when you are on it... The track that I posted is spot on for all but the first 100 yards on the east end. I adjusted out our "exploration" and used RM/Satellite predict where it actually starts on the east. It may in fact start a little farther South than I show it.

    Senator Highway #52
    We had a 2 mile road walk on this to get to the Algonquin Trailhead.
    Kind of a busy day with 4x4's, ORV's, and Motorcycles.

    Algonquin Trail #225
    The start of this one is all but impossible to find without a track. I'm sure the fire took out the old TH sign. This one needs some love. There are numerous downfalls across the trail. Joe and I put a dent it it by clearing the ones we could and adding some appropriate Cairns. There are some real nice views from this one. I saw a red headed wood pecker on this trail.... without a body. :o

    Back down by Horsthief Creek we were mostly in the shade w/ a light breeze. Perfect.
    4 or 5 other groups had signed in after us, but we saw no one the whole day.

    Another very enjoyable day in the Castle Creek Wilderness!
    Big Dipper - Castle Creek Wilderness
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Started out on a gorgeous morning and pretty much had the trail to ourselves the whole time. The trail was overgrown with cat claw and though I knew this was the case, I wore shorts and was bleeding pretty quickly. I was quite happy to make it to the stream and start doing some boulder hopping. We made it to the Big Dipper but couldn't figure out a way to get to the pool at the bottom of the waterfall. Well, at least not safely! And there didn't appear to be any way to get back up, even if we had gotten to the bottom. Back the way we came, travelling through the stream/river bed was pretty easy going and I had almost forgotten about the cat claw. We started the climb back up, up, UP the mountain in early afternoon. The sun exposure and the heat made for a grueling climb. It was warmer than we anticipated and we ended up stopping to rest for a few minutes. I wasn't super excited about just sitting in the sun, but my legs were very happy for the reprieve. There were storm clouds all around us that were flirting with covering up the sun for us, but didn't actually do so until we got back to the car. :?

    On our way in, we saw a snake that was probably about 6 feet long (not a rattler, but not sure what it was) and on the way back to I-17, we spotted a tarantula crossing the road, which was pretty cool. :) Good day for seeing wildlife!
    Big Dipper - Castle Creek Wilderness
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    Hiked the big dipper late last April with my brother. This was my 5th time out there, and I was amazed at how much silt and sand have filled up the canyon! The long stretch that used to be a mandatory swim was now just a trickle through a sandy floor. You no longer have to get wet at all on this hike, which in my opinion is unfortunate. It is still an incredibly beautiful area, and I will continue to come here as a quick respite from the heat of the valley. The Dipper was still a decent waterfall, but the pool below is now a much smaller pool but mostly sandy beach. (I will post photos). It makes for a nice little place to relax, and you can still wade into what little of a pool remains. Next time I think I will head upstream when I reach the creek, and see what lies up in the canyon.
    Big Dipper - Castle Creek Wilderness
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    Started this hike out pretty ambitious. Planning to hit the Dipper come back and find the infamous Hells Hole with just a guess of where it might be based on my read of the topos. Time for all those plans were quickly eaten away by a multitude of events. First the 1-1/2 hours I guessed it would take just to get to the trail head became 2 hours and 20 minutes in our little white Altima. That dirt road is certainly passable but 25 miles wears you down.
    Then I was hoping against hope that the water might be swimmable but was pretty sure nobody was getting in the water... And neither of us did, way too cold still. But ultimately this turned out to be our downfall in reaching the big dipper itself. In the photosets for the trail description there is a picture of a group who are up to their pits in water and ever one is holding their packs over their heads. I had that in my head the whole way hoping that they were doing that just for fun. Yeah,no. I scrambled all over the rock for a good while looking for some clever little route to sneak past and although their were a few that pushed the limits of just crazy enough for me try there was no way I was gonna put Wendi in any of those situations.
    We resigned to giving up, eat our lunch and reflect on all the beauty that we did see. Which considerable. There are a ton of swimming holes, these small orange spotted butterflies were every where you looked and stepped... carefully stepped so as not to step on them or tree frogs that constantly under foot once we reached the canyon bottom.
    After lunch I took my own little trip. A last ditch effort to prevail over our obstacle by backtracking a bit and find a line over the top southern canyon wall. I did succeed and even set up some ducks as I went. I ended up on what looked either game trail or some other "Don't know when to quit" hiker, couldn't find definite tracks one way or the other, just obvious signs of disturbance.
    Eventually I made it to the other side. Caught Wendi's attention, which took some doing, I learned later that she was being delighted by a small baby frog. By the time I made it back to her it was obvious that we needed to get back to the trail head.
    Just as the trail leaves the water we stopped and stuck my feet in the water just to say that I could. I also pulled out my pruners for the track back. I pruned every catclaw that looked menacing from there to the trail head. We'll be back in a little warmer weather to be sure.
    Big Dipper - Castle Creek Wilderness
    rating optionrating optionrated 3rated 3rated 3
    Did this hike a long while back. Didn't realize it was a listed hike on here until I was cruising some photos.

    Parked up on Crown King Road and hiked down. Trail is easy enough. You will know when to turn south and from there it gets dicey, or did for me. Wasn't prepared to swim (especially alone)when I hit some deep and steep walled pools, so I chose to go up and left (west). Was a total scramble. The descent was easier once I reached the top of the falls. Came out the east side which wasn't really much better.

    Continued east once I got out to the old Algonquin Mine. You will know it when you see it. Lots of briars along that portion of the trail. The hike out is a huffer at the top, but quick enough.
    Big Dipper - Castle Creek Wilderness
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    Now out of the Recreational brush and on an actual trail, I decided to keep going until nightfall and find a good camp spot hopefully near water. The trail looked well traveled and semi-recently maintained- cut back and wide enough for two. It was also cairned heavily along the way. The old topo and the posted route would have kept me off of this easy path and in the thickets higher up.
    I made it to the first unnamed creek in no time and found it trickling and still holding some nice pools. I contemplated camping here but thought with the light left and the trail so hospitable, I would press my luck at the next creek over. Unfortunately the trail began petering out as it continued up and along the ridge. By keeping my feet in the high grass I was sometimes able to make out the overgrown trail but the further along I went, the more it disappeared. At the point where route, map, and path all dictated a downward commitment, it was just following drainage courses down the steep hillside. A scramble would be too nice of a word for what ensued. I was trying to keep on the stable rocks but many turned on me trying to goad me into following them on what they touted as a faster path. I gave up persisting in the correct path, even as random cairns appeared and I skied down random old waterways. I can't imagine attempting an upward assault on this side of the hill. The light was fading fast but I could see the water steadily growing closer. I paused a few times to reassure my mind I was just overexerted and not panicking. I finally made it down on my own terms and well off any map lines that entered downstream. The good thing was I had spotted a great pool that looked like it had a small beach on the way down, so I hiked a hair upstream further to check it out. With a little rock rooting, I made a great bed in the soft silt two feet off the water and still had room for a small fire ring. I gathered a little dry wood from the immediate area in the almost dark, and lit up my accommodations to begin dinner and to ward off the early animals visitors. A private party creek dip after dinner and I was ready for the moon to see me to sleep.
    The next morning I woke to the buzzing of yellow jackets quite interested in the leaves of the tree next to me. I stayed brave in my bag for as long as I could but then figured it was morning enough to begin breakfast on the other side of my pool. I got going again shortly after and decided to stay in the creek for as long as I could, giving up on the route completely. Still no animals but a fair amount of tracks including bear in the soft soil.
    After rock hopping a ways, I came to the confluence (I really like saying this word for some reason- really, it's on my fun list of words I try to insert it all the time into everyday conversations) at the real Horsethief Canyon and found a decent waterfall that told my backpacked self that I shall not pass, so I had to back track a smidge and get up the hill and around.
    More ghost cairns appeared in drainage shoots down the other side until I got to the creek and what the old topo iconed as the Algonquin Trail beginning. With a little searching I found a trail and cairns popped up everywhere as I walked in the tall grass between the creek beds. Near an old pen fence I lost it and moved towards the main creek where I gave up again trying to regain it. I headed downstream admiring the much prettier surroundings and better waterflow and pools. I saw that the mapped route climbed out again before the next...confluence and figured it was probably due to another unnavigable fall, so I refilled my water and looked and found the way out. The detour switchbacks weren't bad and were quite short and in no time I was close to the creek again and next to the old mining cabin. The creek pools got larger and deeper below as I made my way onto the old road along side. I was excited to see the road in the distance thinking my footsteps would be easier until I was actually on it and the catclaw began to thorn rape my legs. Halfway through the unshaded and unseasonably hot "trail," I joked out loud, "Well, Michael, maybe we should turn around and go back," and that was when the only other hiker of the trip, relaxing on the creek below heard and hailed up to me and my hiking partner. I thought about shouting ahead, "What? No you keep going I'm going to talk to this guy and then catch up," but the many times being caught talking to myself on seemingly empty grocery isles has weaned me (us) of that prideful behavior.
    We shouted for awhile, about where I had come from, and then him telling me he had tried the Algonquin with his wife from the top only to lose the trail, have to set up camp and then give in and hike back out. He mentioned some catclaw but the ones still holding me in their embrace all the while during our discussion assured me this man had no idea what real catclaw love was.
    I struggled free and plodded on and was refreshed to see Poland Creek coming into view. The last part of the old road that hovers over Poland seems immune to overgrowth and a nice flat camp spot can be found. I hiked down, took off my heavy pack and rolled my tattered pad out under a rock outcrop for some napping. I woke to find I still had 3hrs before I should see my Big Dipper companions so I left a note and my large pack and small packed it down to the confluence and large pool I had passed above. Poland was almost completely fry until this feed hit but the deeper pools still held strong. I got into the water found a nice submerged seat and continued my read in All The Pretty Horses (man as macho as that book can be that title seems uber-gay out loud) for a few hours until I heard the brother-in-law's voice on the ziplocked 2-way.
    He made it to me and I found out everyone had canceled except his mentor kid (Mentee). It was still ok since neither of them had been to the Dipper before so I led them on down without too much frustration.
    The long swim had turned into what we called the poop channel ("All poop, All the time") and we were able to wade through it. The stinky mud wanted our shoes as souvenirs, especially the part towards the end that had no water but still sunk you in a good foot. Black and sloppy, our slippery steps continued the rest of the short way to the now just trickling fall. To my great surprise, the Dipper was only down maybe 6 inches which is nothing to for the depth that lies beneath. The water wasn't as cold as it was in April but it was still chilly out of the sun. We stayed for a goodish amount of time and then hiked back so that we could make it to the climb out before 6:30 so we weren't rock hopping by flashlight. I was saddened to see that even the trail to the creek here was thorny, of course I didn't care at this point because my damage was already done. We made it up in 50 minutes with lights on the last half, then drove down the hill for home and In and Out.
    Big Dipper - Castle Creek Wilderness
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    I'd had this trail in my wish list for a couple years and got reminded by J. Larson's recent hike.
    Most of my hikes aren't a "want" scenario but a "need." I need to get away, therefor I do.
    Of course I researched all I could ahead of time on HAZ and printed out the directions and nifty little map. Half of my fun comes from the planning (ask me about my map room :)
    Anyway, it looked like it was family duo on this one so my sis and I drove out and up to the trail. We stayed above the washboard most of the way off the highway until we caught up to a slower vehicle on the curves. Sometimes that's a good thing for me, slows me down, keeps me in check. Anyway about 1.5hrs and we were suiting up at the trailhead.
    I think there were about three other vehicles parked there. We met two groups coming out as we were switchbacking.
    I finally got a link cord this week for the old abused etrex I traded a friend my iQue M5 for (which as nice as it is on paper, somehow doesn't "do" tracks but was free for some work I did anyway). I still have my old 3600 which I would love if the internal battery didn't only last for an hour. I keep it because I would miss it in the vehicle for its color topos and also miss for its solitaire and MP3's on certain secluded sit down occasions.
    Anyway, less coffee ramblings and more on topic trip stuff. The point was, I got to do my very first official route for this trail instead of powering up the other GPS 6 different times along the trail like usual to just ease my mind on my whereabouts.
    So the trail- Not too much to think about on the way in. After boulder hopping and some climbing later on in the day, the steep side took a little toll.
    Did the down stream, loving the water sounds the whole way. Also did the long legged brotherly thing where you hang back just a little but still let sister legs make it on her own for her own piece of mind.
    Got a few steps too close to a descent sized Black Rattlesnake that was only sporting two rattles and seemed to to be stingey on the shakes on top. I only heard two hints of a rattle later on when he let me know that no he wasn't going to come out of his new shady position on his own for pics and to move it along. Other that that he was cool with us and us with he. (btw, nurse sister and I were wondering, if a bite should take place down in the canyon, would it be best to work the poison in by hiking out on your own legs for help or hope your partner could get some kind of help for you as you waited much longer below?)
    Anyway, most of the pools were clear and full. Plenty of 8ft mark spots to dip along the way.
    When we got to the narrow section we went left-up then straight down.
    The rope down to the Dipper was pretty tricky. From above, at its position on the left, it dropped you right into the water. I free climbed it down a little further over since I was wearing my unwettable camera and gun. Dana dropped down on it to the steep water's edge but then came to the realization that she wouldn't ever be able to touch the bottom and didn't want to get wet yet past the knees. She made me blow up one of the tubes and float it over but by the time it was ready, her arms had lowered her to the neck line anyway.
    After bring her a tube and making her blow up mine, I took it and floated around, played in the waterfall and then tried to climb it. It did what I wanted to do but couldn't yet and slipperily slid me down, fully submerging me in the cold water. Of course the wind picked up just then and I retreated back into the sunnier part of the pool. For those curious, the pool is at current at least 18 feet deep, perfect for jumping (just make sure there is no unseen debris beneath!).
    We let the sun get over the hill top, and took some better pics before deciding we were just about out of light for the trip back. We moved the rope over a bit so it could be accessed out of the water, but the assisted climb still required a bit of hand and toe work and an awkward chest oomph over the ledge.
    Now that the sun was out of the picture, every waterfall looked like it needed to be photographed but I resisted somehow for the sake of time. At the narrows, I tried out the other side but Dana retraced her previous steps. It took longer over there and from my vantage point, the rock face looked a lot more severe. The frogs also started getting noisy along the way, calling back and forth along the creek. (Yet another side story: My previously non-camping brother-in-law, upon one of his first trips with us to Red Creek, ran all the way back to camp in the dark after exploring with his friend, because I needed to "come quick with the gun, because there was something out there!". This was the weekend right after the rabid mountain lion incident, so I asked him to detail me on what he heard. He said he couldn't explain it, he'd never heard anything like it before. I asked him to try and reproduce the sound before I went storming off into the night to find it on my own. His words: "It sounded like a digital goat." Well I went with him to the area the sound came from, having no idea what to expect. After a long dark silence, the tiny little camo frog in the crevasse finally spoke again. Before he could turn and run (thank God he is a little too much closet-Dem for his own gun), I showed my light over his monster in the dark, and you know what has happened ever since.

    Dana and I both made it, kept on keeping on, missed our snake friend on the way out, crossed the creek for the last time and headed up to pay our toll on the steep in the fading light. We hit the vehicle at 7:15 and rolled down the hill lights ablaze until pavement was spotted.

    Note: bring some bug spray. Not an issue until the shadows bring them out, and sometimes even the curious ones bite.
    Big Dipper - Castle Creek Wilderness
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    Great hike...there are two creeks that come together. From the confluence, head downstream to find a narrow section with cliffs on both sides. Just a little past that is the waterfall. The cliffs along the narrows were pretty treacherous, but we made it. There is a rope to help you down the waterfall. Kind of treacherous there if you are not careful. Definitely worth the hike!!

    Parking lot coordinates...N 34 13.043 W 112 18.444

    Waterfall...N 34 12.869 W 112 17.823
    Big Dipper - Castle Creek Wilderness
    rating optionrated 4rated 4rated 4rated 4
    This trail was confusing to find the Big Dipper waterfall and pools. Unfortunately we were following what a book said about the area, and should have read this first. You do have to either scramble up the side of a difficult cliff or swim to get to the waterfall. But there are some really nice pools for swimming before this if you prefer. The hike back up the mountain is pretty hard, and yes, not much shade to be had. The road getting to the trail is long and windy and is mostly a dirt road from the I-17. The trailhead isn't marked but is 100 yards before mile marker 25 on the scenery overlook. (you can park here and look over the tip to see the trail)

    Permit $$

    Prescott Forest
    Prescott National Forest Pass

    Only trailheads with six "amenities" have fees. Amenities are picnic tables, trash, toilet, parking, interpretive signing and security.

    Map Drive
    FR / Dirt Road / Gravel - Car Okay

    To hike
    READ CAREFULLY :: Take 1-17 north out of Phoenix. Pass Black Canyon City up to the Bumble Bee Exit just after mile marker 248(exit at the bumble bee exit and go left or west). Follow FR259 25.3 miles to the turnout on the left(anonymous adds FR259 is not marked, at all. Once you turn off I-17 you are on FR 259). The turnout is located between mile markers 24 & 25. Closer to 25(25 is visible from the turnout according to anonymous). There's room for a half dozen cars. There is no visible trail signage. Look over the edge and you'll see the trail heading down. Trail signs are within the first quarter mile or so of the hike.
    $17 3L Hydration Bladder
    help comment issue

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