West Clear Creek Wilderness, Coconino National Forest
Distance: as little as half a mile, up to 20 miles or more
Special equipment: Footwear suitable for wading, swimming, and hiking. Bring some sort of air mattress to be tied to your pack for ferrying your gear across deep "holes," or a heavy plastic bag for flotation. The cold, clear creek flows year-round, but water purification is recommended.
Directions to the western trailhead: Head southeast out of Camp Verde on Highway 260 for about 23 miles. You'll pass under some large powerlines. A bit further ahead, between mileposts 245 and 246, turn left (north) on Road #142 and continue to Calloway Butte. Turn left again and follow 142A to its end, located just beyond the same powerlines you passed earlier. The distance from the highway to the trailhead is approximately 4.8 miles.
Directions to the eastern trailhead: Exit I-17 at Camp Verde (Exits 285 or 287) and head southeast on Highway 260 for about 6.5 miles. Between mileposts 226 and 227, turn north on Forest Road 618 for 2 miles, then go east for another couple of miles to the locked gate leading to the old, abandoned Bull Pen Ranch.
A 20-mile, end-to-end journey along West Clear Creek will keep you cool in the hot summer months, with 49 water holes that can't be avoided in the narrows. Twenty-eight of these pools are said to be "swimmers," and 21 of them "waders," all easily entered and exited, so wrote Michael R. Kelsey, author of Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau, Second Edition (1991).
From the west (heading downstream), you'll follow a well-used path down the steep canyon wall to the creek, where the treadway ends. You won't be trail-walking again until a point approximately six miles above Bull Pen Ranch at the eastern trailhead. At least three days are recommended to make the trip an enjoyable one. A National Geographic team took five days to complete the route, while working on the book America's Wild and Scenic Rivers. Kelsey made the trip in two days, with 17 hours spent on the "trail."
In The Hiker's Guide to Arizona (1992), authors Bruce Grubbs and Stewart Aitchison describe a strenuous, nine-mile alternative from the western trailhead. This trip includes five miles of wading, swimming and rock-hopping between towering Coconino Sandstone walls, and a four-mile walk along a jeep track back to the starting point.
Beware of flash floods during monsoon season, especially in July and August. Runoff is high and the water very cold in spring and early summer. The best time to explore the narrows is mid- to late summer and early fall.
For more information, contact the Beaver Creek Ranger District, Rimrock, AZ 86335. (928)567-4501.
Trip report: September 28, 2003
For me, an end-to-end hike of West Clear Creek will have to wait, but it's definitely on my ever-growing list of Arizona adventures. Today, however, was a day of leisure and dogs. Karrin and Dale brought 10 year-old, well-trained Jesse. Anne and John were accompanied by high-energy Brandi and his four month-old playmate, Tika. And Steve and I enjoyed the outing with our own cutie-tootie, Sassafrass (a/k/a Sassy, Tea-frass, and Teater-totter). The four canines were wonderful companions, both to us six bipedals and one another, with only an occasional growl and bearing of teeth when food was near.
We all rendezvoused at the Camp Verde exit and drove to the eastern trailhead at abandoned Bull Pen Ranch. There were several vehicles parked amongst the cottonwood trees, where a volunteer "host" was busy picking up trash left behind by the growing number of people who frequent the easily-accessible swimming holes at the lower end of the creek. He told us that over Labor Day weekend there were fifty cars at the trailhead, and he'd hauled out three large bags full of garbage -- broken glass, beer cans, plastic and so forth.
But today was a fairly quiet summer Sunday. There were several people swimming and cliff-jumping at the first sizable pool, maybe half a mile from the trailhead. A flat half-mile. The walk took us a little longer than expected, however, because many wandering feet have made many wandering trails in the canyon, and we accidentally strayed off the main path. But it would be quite a challenge to get lost at West Clear Creek. We just took a less direct route to the swimming hole. And a rockier one.
After an hour or so spent at our first stop, all dogs and their owners were ready to move on, further up the creek where we hoped to find a quiet spot for our next stretch of R&R.; As we continued up the trail, so did the group who'd been at the first pool. But they soon stopped, and we didn't see them again. The next pool we came to, which included a neat little water chute to play in, was deserted.
Maybe two hours later, Steve and I asked if anyone wanted to explore further upstream. Ann and her husband, John, decided to stay put with Bandi and Tika, but Karrin, Dale and Jesse joined us for another walk. Always ready to move on and explore, Sassy took the lead. We found a third great spot to sit, nap and swim, maybe a quarter-mile further.
At 5:30, as the shadows were growing longer, we headed back to our vehicles. It was a pleasant, comfortably warm walk after a wonderful day of dips with our dogs. I highly recommend spending a hot afternoon cooling off at West Clear Creek, but if you can do so on a weekday, all the better if you'd like some solitude. Pack out your trash, of course! And perhaps a bit of someone else's.
(Note: Camping is permitted at the eastern trailhead, where there is a latrine.)
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