Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness

Hiking in the stream in Painted Cave Canyon

Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness is a remote property located about 120 miles southeast of Phoenix. Aravaipa Creek has eroded a canyon up to 1,000 feet deep in this section of the Galiuro Mountains, creating a natural vegetation and wildlife preserve. The gem of the 19,410-acre wilderness is perennial Aravaipa Creek. Within the boundaries of the wilderness area are desert bighorn sheep, mule deer, javelina, nine species of native desert fish, more than 200 species of birds and many archaeologically significant sites. The Nature Conservancy owns a large part of this property and co-manages it with the Bureau of Land Management. Access to Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness is through Nature Conservancy-owned property and visitors must respect that.

With that in mind, the rules at Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness are a little different. The stay limit is 3 days and 2 nights. Group size is limited to 10 people with no more than 5 pack animals, and pack animals are not allowed to stay overnight in the canyon bottom. Rug Road (a severe 4WD back country byway) ends at the junction of that road with the dirt road in Turkey Creek Canyon, several miles west of the general parking area at Klondyke. There is a parking area at that junction but the area is often subject to flooding (as happened in the winter of 2009-2010). The majority of folks accessing the east end of Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness itself should park their vehicles at the Klondyke parking area and hike the 1.5 miles across Nature Conservancy property to the wilderness boundary.

A small group of javelina drinking in the creek
Javelina getting some water
Hikers at the entry to a slot canyon in Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness

The distance between the east trail head (at Klondyke) and the west trail head (at Brandenburg Ranger Station) is eleven miles. In between there are no designated trails, no designated/developed campsites, no signs, no facilities of any sort. If you stay in the bottom of Aravaipa Canyon and simply hike from one end to the other, the elevation difference is 430 feet. Because you'll be hiking in sand, gravel and loose rock with many stream crossings (in water often knee-deep), most folks will make the hike in 8-10 hours. If you make a detour and start to explore any of the side canyons along the way, expect to take significantly longer. Another thing to consider: you'll be hiking through an area of very dense riparian vegetation. Sometimes it's easier to just walk in the stream. Be careful, though, because the streams carry populations of native desert fish and some of these species are on the federal and state threatened and endangered species lists.

No pets are allowed. Appropriately licensed and permitted bow-and-arrow hunting is allowed in designated seasons but no firearms. Camping is limited by the spaces available, and this area can be subject to severe increases in stream flow. Because of the presence of endangered and threatened species of fish, fishing is never allowed.

Hiking along Aravaipa Creek

Aravaipa Canyon has been occupied by humans since about 9,500 years ago. The most recent constructions in the canyon were left by the Mogollon, Hohokam and Salado peoples, the Salado being the last to leave around 1450 CE. There is a well-preserved Salado cliff dwelling in Turkey Creek Canyon. There are other, smaller structures scattered up and down some of the other canyons.

The Spanish arrived in southern Arizona in the mid-1500's but their impact didn't really touch this area for a hundred years. The Spaniards brought the horse with them and it was a hundred years before the local tribes had enough horses to impact the Spaniards. By the late 1600's, though, Apache raids were having an effect on Spanish settlements to the south. The Apache used Aravaipa Canyon as a route for their raiding parties to reach Sonora. The Apache raiding problem continued even after the Americans took control of Arizona and didn't stop until the US Army finally confined most of the Apaches to reservations in the 1870's and 1880's. That opened the door for American farmers, ranchers and miners to flood in safely. By 1900, the village of Klondyke was serving as a supply and distribution center for farms, ranches and mining prospects scattered through the Galiuro Mountains and the eastern Aravaipa Canyon area. The western area of the canyon got its supplies from either Mammoth or Winkelman (both sites of huge, open pit copper mines).

50 people per day are allowed in the canyon: 30 entering from the west end (Brandenburg Ranger Station) and 20 from the east end (Klondyke). Permits are required to access any part of Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness. Permits are available only through . Part of the trip with the permits is the strict limitation on the number of people allowed in the wilderness at any given time, so reservations must be made at the time of permit purchase. In the off-seasons (winter and summer) it is sometimes possible to buy permits on arrival, but no guarantees. Fall, when the cottonwoods, sycamores and oaks are showing their colors, is usually the busiest season. Permits for the busy spring and fall weekends are usually sold out 13 weeks in advance.

To reach the west end of Aravaipa Canyon: get on State Road 77 and go to Central Arizona College (11 miles south of Winkelman and 8 miles north of Mammoth). Turn right on Aravaipa Road and go 12 miles to the trail head. To get to the east trail head: take US Highway 70 to the Klondyke Road (between Fort Thomas and Pima) and go west 24 miles to a "Y" intersection. Bear right and go another 16 miles to Klondyke.

Looking down from the canyon rim
A view from the canyon rim
Another view looking up Aravaipa Creek
Another view looking up the canyon
Map of Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness
Photos and map courtesy of the Bureau of Land Management