Take a Hike: 7 of the Grandest Adventures in the Southwest

Adventures in the Southwest are trips of a lifetime that will challenge you physically and engross you spiritually, leaving an unforgettable and enduring impression of the richest wild places on the planet. The southwest contains literally thousands of amazing hikes. Therefore, we decided to separate the wheat from the chaff and give you the absolute cream of the crop. We rounded up 7 of the Grandest Adventures in the Southwest, treks we have experienced firsthand.

As you immerse yourself in this landscape, you will understand why hiking in the southwest should be on every adventurer’s travel bucket list. Experiencing it fully isn’t just about putting one foot in front of another; it’s about stepping into the geology, history and stupendous scenery of canyon country.

7 of the Grandest Adventures in the Southwest

1. Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon | 31 miles | 4 days

Adventures in the Southwest
First up on our list of the 7 Grandest Adventures in the Southwest, Buckskin Gulch. Trekking Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon is about walking down narrow gorges; places where sunlight seldom enters obscured from even the most intrepid of hikers. When you journey down these two canyons you enter the sublime. The Paria Canyon – Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness beckons adventurers who hanker for solitude, scenic glory and the chance to explore some of the most majestic canyons in the world. Serpentine red rock walls are streaked with desert varnish and canyons are so narrow in places that the sky is reduced to a narrow ribbon of blue. Since you will be culminating your hike at an entirely different trailhead then when you started, we recommend you book a shuttle with a reputable company. We have been utilizing Paria Outpost near Kanab, Utah. They are best in the vicinity.

Words cannot describe the rock walls, amphitheaters and labyrinth shadowed hallways. Navajo Sandstone cliffs tower 1,500 feet overhead. While hiking Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in the world, you will start to see water seeping from canyon walls. Shortly thereafter you come to the Paria River. At this point, your “trail” will continue down the Paria River. You will notice springs, old homestead relics and a side canyon which features Wrather Arch, a cave type natural arch measuring 165 feet in height and 250 feet across. National Geographic once wrote, “the Taj Mahal would fit comfortably into the arch.”

On your last day trekking Paria Canyon, impressive panels of Anasazi petroglyphs appear along the stream course. Before long you will reach Lee’s Ferry and the storied Colorado River, culminating an unforgettable canyon country adventure.

Turn up your speakers and enjoy Seven Awesome Canyons of the Southwest:

 


Best time to go: March to May and September to November.

How Challenging are Buckskin and Paria? Moderate hiking involving frequent creek crossings.

Extra Credit – The Wave: https://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/arolrsmain/paria/coyote_buttes.html

More information: http://www.southwestdiscoveries.com/sedona-adventure-epic-tour-page.

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2. Grand Canyon – Deer Creek/Kanab Creek Loop | 55 miles | 8 days

Adventures in the Southwest - Grand Canyon – deer creek/kanab creek loop

Next up on our list of the 7 Grandest Adventures in the Southwest, we journey to the Grand Canyon and Deer Creek/Kanab Creek Loop. Throughout this journey, one of the best backpacking trips in the southwest, you’ll discover the true essence of one of the seven wonders of the natural world. You’ll have the opportunity to backpack your way through this powerful landscape as you take in the vastness, plunging depths, soaring pinnacles, spires, mesas and a multitude of labyrinthine topography.

Your trek will start at the North Rim’s Monument Point, accessing the Bill Hall Trail. After 8 miles, you will come upon Thunder River, two vigorous springs gushing out of precipitous Redwall Limestone. Thunder River is thought to be the shortest river in the world. Hiking across Surprise Valley will enable you to observe Deer Creek Narrows and the sheer plunge of 200-foot Deer Creek Falls.

The acid green Colorado River winds sinuously below, cutting through 1.7-billion-year-old Vishnu Schist and Zoroaster Granite. These rock strata represent about a third of our planet’s history. Above the river are rock layers of the ages; Tapeats Sandstone, Bright Angel Shale, Mauve, Red wall Limestone, Supai, Hermit Shale, Coconino Sandstone, Toroweap and finally the Kaibab formation capping both rims. This prominent limestone layer represents the youngest rocks of the Grand Canyon, about 220 million years old. It was formed when a huge inland sea covered much of western North America as the supercontinent Pangaea began to break apart.

Hike along the Colorado River for 7 off-trail miles and you will enter the Kanab Creek Wilderness. It contains springs, a bubbling clear stream and tributaries such as Whispering Falls Canyon, a narrow cathedral-like abyss. Its pink canyon walls are adorned with redbud trees, monkey-flowers, and ferns. The sound of dripping water will be your background accompaniment. The climax is Whispering Falls itself, a spring fed moss-covered waterfall spilling 125 feet into an emerald pool. Scenes and experiences such as this makes backpacking into the Grand Canyon priceless, worthwhile and why we return time and time again.

Turn up your speakers and enjoy The Wonderlands of The Grand Canyon:

 

Best time to go: March to May and October and November.

How Challenging is Grand Canyon Deer Creek/Kanab Creek Loop: strenuous backcountry hiking for intrepid Grand Canyon backpackers.

Extra Credit: Snake Gulch http://www.zionnational-park.com/snake-gulch.htm

More information: http://www.southwestdiscoveries.com/sedona-adventure-epic-tour-page.

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3. Grand Canyon – Nankoweap Trail | 40 miles | 7 days

Adventures in the Southwest - Nankoweep Trail
It’s no surprise that a post about Adventures in the Southwest includes two Grand Canyon rambles among the 7 grandest Adventures in the Southwest. If your desire is to experience majestic vistas and ruins of the ancient ones in splendid isolation, Nankoweap is your calling card.

The Nankoweap Trail was constructed in 1882 by the western explorer and geology enthusiast John Wesley Powell, the first man to delve into the depths of the Grand Canyon. The trail originates at the North Rim’s Kaibab National Forest and gently ascends through ponderosa pine and aspen woodlands. After a few miles, you will reach the rim of the Grand Canyon where unbelievable panoramas will unfold.

You’re surrounded by extraordinary geology, reflecting our planet’s past 300 million to 750 million years ago. Far below, Nankoweap Creek cuts into an enormous plateau, surrounded by colorful rocky ridges and lofty buttes. The most striking is Mt. Hayden, a sheer spire rising to an elevation of over 8,000 feet.

After reaching the bottom of the gorge after 11 rugged miles, your camp for the night will be among the cottonwood trees and flowing waters of Nankoweap Creek. The following day head down canyon along the trickling creek to the Colorado River, following the path of least resistance. Views of the emerald green Colorado River in the distance are mesmerizing. Not only will you finally see the river but you’ll hear the roar of the rapids, amplified by the walls of Marble Canyon.

Subsequent days can be spent exploring seldom seen Native American granaries, pottery shards, waterfalls, narrow wooded canyons and geologic richness. A short spur off the main trail along the Colorado leads to Anasazi ruins and a spectacular view of the winding river flanked by monumental rock formations, seemingly stacked one on top of the other.

Should the Grand Canyon be included on your travel bucket list? Most certainly. And the uncrowded Nankoweap trail is one of the best ways to experience the real Grand Canyon, the unspoiled splendor of one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Turn up your speakers and enjoy Nankoweap – a Grand Canyon Classic:

 

Best time to go: March to May and October and November.

How Challenging is The Nankoweap Trail? Challenging backpacking for the intrepid adventurer.

Extra Credit: Cathedral Wash hike – https://www.nps.gov/glca/planyourvisit/cathedralwashhike.htm

More information: http://www.southwestdiscoveries.com/day-trips-in-arizona-nankoweap,

TRAILS UNBLAZED – guest post: Adventuring at Nankoweap

 

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4. Zion Narrows | 14 miles | 2 days

Adventures in the Southwest - Zion Narrows
When it comes to Adventures in the Southwest, our list would not be complete without the Zion Narrows. The Virgin River has carved a spectacular gorge in the upper reaches of Zion Canyon: 16 miles long, up to 2000 feet deep, and at times only 20-30 feet wide. You will walk in the shadow of sandstone grottos, natural springs, and hanging gardens, an unforgettable wilderness experience. This epic hike, one of the most beautiful treks in the world, will take you down the North Fork of the Virgin River from Chamberlains Ranch to the Temple of Sinawava at Zion National Park. A few miles into the hike you’ll be cut off from the world above by canyon walls that can reach over 2000 ft. above. From time to time crevices, ramps, and side canyons make their appearance. Deer and other wildlife descend from the world above to forage and drink from the life-giving Virgin River.

The dominant rock formation in this part of the world is Navajo sandstone, a hard but porous rock. The river has sliced through this formation much like a knife cutting through layer cake. During your first day of hiking the Narrows, the contact between the Navajo sandstone and the Kayenta formation appears. The Kayenta is impervious so rainfall and snowmelt over the eons which has percolated through the Navajo is forced out of the canyon walls where it reaches the Kayenta. The result is seemingly hundreds of exquisite springs, hanging gardens and lush riparian vegetation. These lovely springs will accompany you throughout the rest of the hike.

As if the immense canyon walls with their vivid striations and desert varnish aren’t enough, you’ll also encounter waterfalls. Consider Big Springs for instance, which you will see on the second day. Water that has collected and permeated through thousands of feet of stone burst forth from canyon walls in crystal clear cascades over ivy-covered rocks. Near the end of the hike, you’ll see Mystery Falls streaming down over orange varnished walls. The hike will culminate at Zion’s Riverside Walk where an easy 2-mile stroll along a paved path will bring you back into civilization.

Turn up your speakers and enjoy Sacred Place in The Wilderness:

Best time to go: May and June, September and October.

How Challenging are the Zion Narrows? Moderate hiking including numerous stream crossing.

Extra Credit: The Subway https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/thesubway.htm

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5. Coyote Gulch | 25miles | 4 days

Adventures in the Southwest - Coyote Gulch
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”

Edward Abbey, the famed western writer and fiery environmentalist, elegantly summed up the canyon country in this iconic quote; and Coyote Gulch, located on the fringes of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, is a prime example of the canyonlands at their best.

Coyote Gulch is a dramatic side canyon of the Escalante River, said to be the last river to be discovered in the continental United States. It is reminiscent of what the old Glen Canyon used to be before it was flooded by Lake Powell in the 1950’s. Be sure to see: http://www.southwestdiscoveries.com/hiking-coyote-gulch-most-beautiful-hike-southwest.

For prime vistas, we recommend you access the canyon via Crack in the Wall, south of U.S. 12, off Hole in the Rock Road. Turn left at Forty Mile Ridge Road and follow it for 4.3 miles to the trailhead.

After an easy two miles, you will reach the rim of the canyon. The Crack in the wall is a narrow slot sliced through sandstone, just wide enough for hikers to squeeze through unencumbered by packs. Backpacks can be lowered down a 30-foot cliff utilizing ropes. Once at the canyon bottom, exhilarating views of gargantuan red rock formations and Stevens Arch in the distance will open up. Of all the hikes in the southwest, this stretch of trail may be the most impressive of all.

To complete an amazing three or four-day backpacking loop, hike up Coyote Gulch and exit at Hurricane Wash. You will take in natural arches and bridges, numerous springs and hanging gardens, huge sandstone amphitheaters, luxuriant vegetation and the cascading Coyote Creek, cutting through the Navajo and Kayenta Formations.

Ed Doran, a talented photography and hiking enthusiast, described Coyote Gulch:

“Magical rock formations, geologic wonders full of color, texture, and spellbinding beauty inhabit the area. One becomes acutely aware of how small and insignificant we are against the backdrop and solitude of the area. Endless slot canyons and crevices beckon you, each with its own unique perspective and hidden secrets.”

Check out Ed’s excellent narrative and Adventures in the Southwest photography at:
http://www.doranphotographicworks.com.

Turn up your speakers and enjoy “Walking in a Dream,” a five-minute cyber journey showcasing the sublimity of Coyote Gulch and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument:

 

Best time to go: March through May, September through November.

How Challenging is Coyote Gulch? Moderate backpacking splashing through the creek.

Extra Credit: Peek-A-Boo and Spooky Gulch.

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6. Stillwater Canyon, Canyonlands National park | 52 miles | 6 days

Adventures in the Southwest - Stillwater Canyon, Canyonlands National park
One of our all time favorite Adventures in the Southwest is Stillwater Canyon at Canyonlands National Park. A float trip down the Green River is one of the premier adventures of the West. Although this isn’t a backpacking trek, there are many great hiking opportunities along the Green River. Soaring rock formations, intriguing side drainages, old pioneer relics, Anasazi ruins, rock art and crystalline air add to the allure.

The put in for this epic journey is Mineral Bottom. You will float 52 miles to Spanish Bottom near the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Tex’s Riverways offers an excellent shuttle service from Moab, Utah to the Green River and back. Reservations and permits are required.

At the confluence, the Green River, which originates in Wyoming meets the Colorado River, born in the snows of the Rockies, The Colorado engulfs the Green and then goes on to chisel some of the most awesome canyons in North America, Cataract Canyon, Glen Canyon and The Grand Canyon.

Stillwater canyon is a place to savor such scenery. Besides observing varied riverside panoramas, by taking a hike at any of the side canyons you will begin to grasp the essence of this place.

Consider Water Canyon: as you walk up this canyon, you will eventually top out at the rim overlooking the Maze. You will gaze at windows, arches and the geologic layer cake characteristic of the Colorado Plateau. The Maze was one of Edward Abbey’s favorite haunts in fact. Glimpses of red rock spires, twisting canyons, and snowcapped mountains are unforgettable. Water Canyon is just one of the many attractions of the Green River, one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever experience.

Turn up your speakers and enjoy “the Journey”:

 

Best time to go: April and May, September and October.

How Challenging is Stillwater Canyon? An easy float trip down the Green River.

Extra Credit: Delicate Arch, Arches National Park https://www.nps.gov/arch/planyourvisit/delicate-arch.htm

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7. Arizona’s Galiuro Mountains, The Place Time Has Forgotten | 32miles | 4 days

Adventures in the Southwest - Arizona’s Galiuro Mountains
As we round out our list of the 7 Grandest Adventures in the Southwest, we turn our focus to Arizona’s Galiuro Mountains. Not many hikers venture into Arizona’s amazing Galiuro Wilderness, one of the best-kept secrets of the southwest. Early pioneers vanished, leaving many of their belongings behind. This superb 4-day adventure will start out at beautiful Ash Creek, resplendent in the fall with fiery maples which sport riotous colors.

The Galiuro Mountains rise to over 7,500 feet, comprising one of the dozens of Sky Island mountain ranges in the western U.S. Giant saguaro cactus and other Sonoran Desert vegetation surround the mountains while huge Arizona cypress trees, sycamores, maples and cottonwoods flank riparian areas. The high-country encompasses stands of ponderosa pines, Douglas Firs and Quaking Aspens.  You will visit all of these life zones and more.

Your hike will span not only Ash Creek but Rattlesnake Canyon, one of two main drainages in the Galiuro Mountains including Redfield Canyon. If you are lucky you might see a jaguar, a few have been spotted roaming southern Arizona’s mountains. Mountain lions, bighorn sheep, mule deer and coatimundi also make their home here.

Active volcanoes, which occurred 18 to 35 million years ago, formed red rhyolite cliffs and other igneous strata in the wilderness. These volcanoes created mineral rich deposits which drew many prospectors to the area to develop mines. Some of their cabins, machinery, and relics are still present and you will come upon them along your route. Early settlers also grazed cattle there.
Hiking along the West Divide trail in Rattlesnake Canyon, you will access Powers Garden. The historic cabins and gardens are in an idyllic setting, a meadow bordered by Ponderosa pine trees and peaks ascending above. The Power family farmed, ranched and mined in Rattlesnake Canyon shortly after the turn of the century. They eked out a living there until 1918.

It was then when one of the most famous shootouts in the West occurred. A sheriff’s deputy was shot and killed in the vicinity in 1918, leading to the biggest manhunt in Arizona. A few miles from Powers garden you will visit Power’s mine and cabin where the famous shootout took place.

You will conclude an epic backpacking excursion in the Galiuro Wilderness by hiking down a steep but lovely trail to the Deer Creek Trailhead, capping a memorable journey.

Turn up your speakers and enjoy “Ash Creek Fall Color”:

 

Best time to go: February through May, October through December.

How Challenging are the Galiuros? Moderate backpacking.

Extra Credit: Chiricahua National Monument – Heart of Rocks Loop. https://www.arizonahighways.com/explore/hiking/heart-rocks-loop

We hoped you enjoyed our list of the 7 Grandest Adventures in the Southwest. If we missed any that you believe should be on the list, let us know in the comments below.

* All images used on this page are Copyright© of Southwest Discoveries and may not be used without express permission.


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About the Author

Mitch Stevens has been leading hiking and backpacking outings throughout the southwest for over ten years. As a Sierra Club hiking leader, writer and photographer, he has promoted the enjoyment and conservation of our remaining wild lands. Born and raised in New York City, Mitch came to discover the great outdoors and fall in love with Arizona’s special places. Through his countless trips across the state and region, Mitch made it his mission to encourage fellow hikers and enthusiasts to protect the beauty of the desert. Now, he continues to embrace his fascination with the desert beauty by creating and leading multigenerational tours throughout the southwest. His experience coupled with his passion for the great outdoors make him a unique tour guide and outings leader.

  1. Pingback: Meanderthals | 7 of the Grandest Adventures in the Southwest

  2. mlanza@thebigoutside.com'
    Michael Lanza Reply

    That’s a great list, Mitch. Although I’ve done several of them, you’ve given me some new ideas. Your readers might be interested in my top 10 favorite backpacking trips in the Southwest: https://thebigoutside.com/the-10-best-backpacking-trips-in-the-southwest/.

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