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Canyons are inherently risky. Flash floods occur without notice on sunny days. Technical skills & surrounding topography knowledge required yet does not eliminate risk.
Oak Creek, the beginning!
Pumphouse Wash is the upper end of Oak Creek, where the magical watercourse begins! Upper Pumphouse Wash described in this guide is a superb option if Pumphouse Wash - Lower intimidates you.
On one of the warmest days in January, I decided to take the plunge into Pumphouse Wash. Having read about the area for years, I finally had a chance to explore.
Along the way, Kelly and James' canyons enter from the east. It's just under four miles hiking distance from the northern end of Pumphouse down to the confluence with Oak Creek. Although possible, the full canyon out and back would take six to ten hours. Therefore, I opted for a more relaxing day and chose to explore the upper section only. Flooding often occurs in Pumphouse Wash. If rain is in the forecast, stay out of this canyon.
Head down into the wash from the parking area. There is no trailhead marker or trail. The canyon is wide and shallow near the beginning. Follow the apparent main canyon south, and you shouldn't have any problems getting lost. For a short distance, the creek bed has striking contours etched by the forces of erosion. In about a quarter-mile, Kelly Canyon enters from the east. Along the way is a tiny cave. Most likely, you will miss it and catch a peek on the return trip. The canyon will start turning to your right. I passed several campsites with fire rings up along a mid bank terrace. I'm sad to report the area was somewhat trashed on this day.
Continue following the canyon. On to the falls, most or all of the gradual turns are to your left. The creek bed is rocky with small boulders most of the way. Be careful, hopping along the rocks. Jumping onto a colossal stone, I was stunned as it gave way. After that incident, I was a bit more cautious. Near the final left turn, watch out for the prickly bushes that cover the wash. On the return trip, I took a fair beating and scratched up my legs pretty good.
Approaching the falls area, be careful not to walk off the ledge. There shouldn't be much problem with this happening, though I did slip right near the edge. The issue was more of a personal challenge. On this trip, I wore hiking boots. It May sound funny, but I rarely wear boots. I have explored nearly everything in Teva sandals. Even on a warm, near sixty degrees day in January, as much as I wanted to wear the Tevas, the snow was too cold. And yes, I tried it for about a hundred yards. A beautiful canyon looking ahead is visible from the falls. The falls is the turn around point for this guide. You can hike on down the canyon if you're up to it. To the left of the falls is your only hope of getting down. Though very steep, it is possible.
Further down, James Canyon enters from the east. The canyon walls get steeper, and to be honest, the canyon is more exciting after the falls. The upper section of Pumphouse Wash, as mentioned above, is ideal for getting to know the area. It's easy to see with the width and length of this canyon how flooding can occur in a flash. Once again, stay safe and stay out of this canyon if rain is probable.
All in all, this was a great adventure. A rare treat to hike a beautiful Arizona canyon without passing a soul. Not that I dislike anybody. Sometimes it's just lovely to enjoy the outdoors in pure peace.
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