Aravaipa Canyon – the Grand Canyon of the Sonoran Desert

hiking Aravaipa Canyon

Aravaipa tributary – photo by Russell Lowes

Besides the Grand Canyon, hiking Aravaipa Canyon comprises one of the finest adventures in the Southwest. The canyon, a protected riparian area, is truly a desert paradise with a perennial stream, towering canyon walls, lush vegetation, and lots of wildlife.

What makes Aravaipa so unique are its beautiful wilderness characteristics, including the lack of any well defined trails. Located halfway between Tucson and Phoenix, it is a rare example of what happens when water flows through an-arid environment.

Besides magnificent scenery, we travel there during the first week of December for fall splendor. Aravaipa in autumn is magical, portraying the essence of the season. Blazing cottonwoods, willows, ash and sycamore vie with painted towering canyon walls for one’s attention.

hiking Aravaipa Canyon

autumn splendor – photo by Michael Madsen

Hiking Aravaipa Canyon

As we hiked further the canyon walls steepened and the stream crossing became more frequent: Aravaipa is an Apache name which means “laughing waters.” The stream is brisk and clear and cascades around boulders, gravel bars and plunges into pools.

Aravaipa is just as much about the sound of the water as it is the awesome scenery.  Part of the uniqueness of Aravaipa Canyon is hiking through shallow water ranging from ankle to knee deep. When hiking Aravaipa Canyon, Five-Ten Canyoneer boots and neoprene socks make for perfect footwear for splashing your way through the creek.

Buff Colored Walls

Aravaipa Creek cuts a magnificent chasm, displaying impressive red, orange, and gray walls with columns towering over 1,000 feet above the canyon floor. We enter a splendid side drainage; the name belies the nature of this winding tributary gorge. Cut from tan to buff conglomerates, Hellhole Canyon is a wonder to behold. The view around each bend becomes more spectacular as the creek carves an ever more impressive gorge.

Springs and Hanging Gardens

We round yet another bend, past the gushing spring on the left. This side gorge, with its lush hanging gardens, springs and deciduous trees is a delightfully cool sylvan oasis in the midst of the Sonoran Desert . Hellhole’s ecosystem includes monkey flowers, maidenhair ferns, columbine, Arizona Walnut, Ash, and Sycamore; a wonderful riparian habitat.The  cavernous, buff-and-brown colored walls you see as you walk through the canyon from the east are composed of Hell Hole Conglomerate, which extends quite a ways downstream.

Aravaipa - Madsen 4

photo by Michael Madsen

Hellhole is a true slot canyon, it includes an impressive sandstone window high above the trickling creek.

Then we heard it, the granddaddy of all hanging gardens! On the right stood this weeping cascade pouring from the rock wall, resembling rainfall. The scene was more reminiscent of Costa Rica than the desert southwest. I threw down my day-pack and sat behind the waterfall, mesmerized. After more than a dozen trips hiking Aravaipa Canyon, I was delighted to still be discovering new sights of interest in this most hallowed of ground.

Edward Abbey, the famed western writer, summed it up elegantly:

“it seems to me that the world is not nearly big enough and any portion of its surface, left unpaved and alive, is infinitely rich in details and relationships, in wonder, beauty, mystery, comprehensible only in part. The very existence of existence is itself suggestive of the unknown – not a problem but a mystery. We will never get to the end of it, never plumb the bottom of it, never know the whole of even so small and trivial and useless and precious a place as Aravaipa. Therein lies our redemption.”

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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.

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