I led a group of nine intrepid explorers (four adults and five teenagers) to the fabled Rucker Canyon Grottoes. Back in October of 2021 I did a backpacking trip around the Crest starting and ending at Rucker Canyon trailhead; we wanted to visit the grottoes then, but didn't have the time, so I had vowed to return. This was it!
The original plan was to stay two nights, Friday through Sunday, and have all day Saturday for exploring. The weather mostly cooperated; the forecast of snow, wind, and freezing temperatures on Sunday persuaded us to cut the trip short.
We arrived at the trailhead around 10am Friday morning and set off. The creek was flowing strong, and the weather was beautiful.
The trailhead used to be the Rucker Forest Camp campground. Last year the Forest Service decommissioned this campground as well as all the others in the canyon (except the old group site) due to massive flooding. Everything has been removed, and concrete barriers put in place to prevent cars from entering. It was kind of sad to see, as this area was once a very popular campground, particularly before Rucker Lake silted in.
The Rucker Canyon Trail was at one time a spectacular trail, but it has been abused by flooding and fires and doesn't get the maintenance it needs to keep it spectacular (the last maintenance I am aware of was in 2019). While the trail was mostly clear and followable, there were significant exceptions. Some of the trees fallen on the trail were huge, and had taken out adjacent trees on the way down to create massive pileups. Enormous rockslides from side canyons had buried the trail, sometimes at creek crossings, making it occasionally difficult to pick the trail back up again. Segments were overgrown with scrub oak, stickerbushes, and small trees. There were also several spots that were completely washed away, sometimes for hundreds of feet at a time. Some of the obstacles had established workarounds but most did not. Frequent bushwhacking was required to either bypass or navigate through all these obstacles, so progress was very slow in general. Then there was the creek itself, which was wide enough and deep enough to preclude any easy way to cross with dry feet.
I'd warned everyone that it might not be possible to do the hike in with dry feet; most of us had an extra pair of camp shoes but a couple folks really didn't want to get their feet wet. We ultimately separated into two groups, the "Dryfoots" and the "Wetfoots". The Wetfoots arrived a lot earlier to camp. But the Dryfoots did arrive with dry feet, a testimony to their determination, creativity, and acrobatic ability.
We had hoped to arrive at camp around noon; on a decent trail it would have been pretty easy to accomplish as the camping area was only 2.7 miles from the trailhead. The Wetfoots arrived around 2pm, while the Dryfoots followed about an hour later. (And there was much rejoicing!)
The remainder of the afternoon we set up camp, the youngsters scaled cliffs, and the old fogies looked on so we'd at least know where to look for the bodies. We had a campfire and dutifully did our part to clear out some of the dead wood that had built up over the months or years since the campsite was last used.
It wasn't a terribly cold overnight; most of us slept warm though a couple ill-prepared folks had summer bags. Oops.
The next day we decided to head to the grottoes, which is an off-trail adventure up Rucker Canyon. To get there, you essentially hike a little less than a mile up the creek as there is no trail. The grottoes are on the other side of the Rucker Gates, which are located at a narrowing in the canyon about three quarters of a mile from the camping area. They are towering spires of rock, rising 700 feet above the canyon floor. A few hundred feet past the Gates are two grottoes, the first being the smaller of the two, and the second, much larger one a few hundred feet further on. The second is the main attraction.
For our trip, seven of us decided to make for the grottoes while two remained at camp. Of the seven only myself and three of the teens actually made it to the Gates and grottoes. The rest decided it was too rough and sketchy, and turned around shortly before the Gates.
Rucker Canyon past the camping area is choked with boulders and giant fallen trees like massive piles of toothpicks. Where there aren't boulders or fallen trees blocking the canyon, there is rampant overgrowth. Every hundred feet or so there would be impressive obstacles to scramble over, under, or through. It was super fun and super slow!
We started at 10am, and made it to the first grotto around noon, and the second shortly after. We had lunch there and turned back. I'd read that there are small caves to explore a little past the grottoes, but discretion was the better part of valor. I'd determined we needed to get back to camp in time to pack up by 3pm, since we weren't staying the night and we still had to make it back to the cars.
It didn't take nearly as long for us to get back to the camp as it did to reach the grottoes, partly because scouting routes wasn't as involved, and we were much more willing to just walk in the creek. We got back to camp at 2pm, rested a bit, then saddled our packs around 3 for the hike out (we had already packed up in the morning). We were all Wetfoots on the way out, since we could dry our feet in the cars, so we made it to the parking lot before 5.
Back in Tucson, we celebrated our trip at In-N-Out on Kolb, then went our separate ways. Sunday morning we woke to rain mixed with snow, wind, and really cold temperatures. Seems heading out Saturday was the right call!