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Name: Fish Canyon Author's Rating:
Author: Matt Marine Avg. User Rating: (based on one vote)
Type: 4WD Difficulty: (easy 4WD/2WD)
Time: 3 - 6 hours Region: SW Arizona
Length: 6.0 miles (one way) Elevation gain/loss/change: +656 / -450 ft / +206 ft (one way)
Type: Through trail Avg Elevation: 5200 ft
Best time to go: fall, spring, winter Fees: NA
Fitness rating: Low Educational Merit: Low
Danger/fear rating: Low Scenic Beauty: High
Hours of Operation: NA Last updated: January, 2013
Short Description: This a great 4WD adventure that takes you to some incredible scenery, old mines and fun four-wheeling
Geocaches:Tons of cool geocaches around. Here's just a few. KY in AZ; Old Lady Cache; Bear’s Garden of Fun
References / Contact Information: Cave of the Bells; Exploring Cave of the Bells; Onyx Cave;
Points of interest: Snyder Mine, access to Onyx Cave and Cave of the Bells, the Old Still Rock House.
Special Considerations:Trail is located in illegal immigrant and smuggler high traffic area, see page regarding warning (it's not as bad as it sounds). Mountain lions have been seen in the area, stay alert and never travel alone. Lots of old mines in this area, stay away from open mine shafts and be careful of mine tailings.
How to get there: Drive 21.5 miles south of I-10 from exit 281 heading toward Sonoita on Arizona State Road 83. Follow SR 83 as it travels through the beautiful rolling hills and historical ranch grasslands of southeastern Arizona. As you get closer to the start of the trail, the scenery will change from rocky, cactus-laden hillsides to large working ranches. Take a right turn onto Gardner Canyon road (FR 92). After about 0.8 miles, take a right onto Kentucky Camp Road. Drive along this road until you reach Waypoint 001. Click here for directions.

Trail Description

January 2013 Update: The Forest Service has recently graded this entire trail. The rocky, intimidating section of the trail is no longer there. This trail is smooth and very easy now. Though, as nature usually does, it will slowly revert back to a more difficult state, especially after a few good monsoons.

This area is littered with old mines and cattle ranches and the scenery is just gorgeous to boot. This trail is one of my favorites near Kentucky Camp and Sonoita. There's also access to some caves, Melendrez Pass and a unique cabin that I will leave for you to find ...

General Information and History

Most of the area was developed by miners and ranchers. Although that isn't anything special, there is one unique place in the area: the Old Still Rock House.

Note: The above is not the "official" name of the site. I've changed it slightly. Also, I have not provided specific coordinates or directions to the site. The Old Still Rock House is not on this trail, but is in the general area.

The site is somewhat fragile and I don't want it trashed by people who don't care for the environment or historical places. Therefore, you will have to really want to do some exploring and investigating to find it. If you do happen to find the site, please be considerate of the building and the area. The more places like this that get trashed by careless people, the more trails get closed and soon four-wheeling will only be something that we "used to do."

A brief history of the site is as follows:

A mining claim for the site was registered in Pima County, Arizona in 1926 to a few small families working the Gold Seal Placer Mining Claim. The claim was worked without much success until 1929, when it was sold for “sixty days of labor and ten dollars.” and moved up the canyon.

The new claim holders worked placers on the claim, mostly with a sluicer and rocker, in a small box canyon near the site. But while the financial return on their efforts was adequate, the owners went into the whiskey distilling business, hoping to reap higher profits as a result of high demand during Prohibition.

The enterprise was extremely successful. The whiskey was in great demand, and was the “house brand” at several locations in Tucson. It was also reputed to be popular during the years that a CCC camp was located nearby in Gardner Canyon. One story has their first still at this site, with the product’s success resulting in their building a second operation behind a Tucson Mountain homestead. A different version has them operating the Tucson still first, then expanding to the site on the Gold Seal claim. Regardless, near the end of Prohibition some Federal Agents tailed one of the tenants home after a distribution run, arrested him, and destroyed the Tucson Mountain operation. Upon making bail, he returned to the site and dismantled the still, scattering the equipment across the hills (some has subsequently been recovered by his descendants). The 18th Amendment was repealed before he went to trial, and charges were dropped.

The current structure at the site began with excavating a room out of the creek bank in which the tenants could conceal their still. A platform of logs and pipe was constructed at ground level, which served as the floor for the cabin above. The first cabin structure, built in 1929 or 1930, had a low frame wall that supported an arching canvas roof, in the manner of a Quonset hut. The chimney from the ground floor stove extended to the basement, in order to vent the smoke and smell from cooking moonshine without raising suspicion. The walls were soon replaced with corrugated metal. In 1933, the tenants salvaged flat fieldstones and laid them up against the metal walls. Unable to afford cement mortar, they used a clay soil mixture for the mortar joints. The tin walls then became the roof of the rock house. Later an open ramada, referred to as the “summer kitchen”, was added to the east side. 

The tenants lived in the rock house until 1936, when a bout with Malta fever forced their return to Tucson for treatment. A door had been placed in the west wall to provide access to a planned additional room, which was never completed. One of the tenants was hired by the Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington during World War II and relatives used the house sporadically for several years after that.

Upon retirement in 1969, the tenant returned to Arizona and settled in Sierra Vista. They spent that summer at the site and began a series of maintenance and modification projects. The parapet walls were re-jointed with cement mortar, and a concrete floor poured for the summer kitchen. In 1979 new rock masonry retaining walls were built on the south side, outside the basement entry, to stabilize the foundation after heavy runoff in the canyon flooded the basement. Several of the tenant's children and grandchildren spent weekends and summers at the house, which has been maintained and used intermittently over the ensuing years. The tenants died in 1989 and 2001. Descendents currently retain keys to the padlocked house and basement.

It is my understanding that the Forest Service is having ongoing discussions with the descendents of the original tenants. The descendents want complete ownership of the site, the building put on the historical register and the Forest Service to help with upkeep. The Forest Service claims that the laws regarding homesteads do not cover sites that were used for stilling alcohol (only mining which never actually occurred at the site-the mine was some distance away). As far as I know, the two parties have agreed to disagree.

It is also my understanding that the homestead itself is private property it is locked), but everything on the outside of the home is not. Even so, please respect this home and the people who built it. Treat it as though it were yours and it will still be there for your children and their children to enjoy.

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The Trail

Note: Some topo maps have different Forest Road numbers in the area. I've attempted to call out the ones I believe are accurate, but some may not match what is on Forest Service maps, some topo maps and actual road markers. Use GPS waypoints and directions to follow the route.

The trail starts at the intersection of the trail to Kentucky Camp and FR4085 (Waypoint 001). Head south on FR 4085. The trail immediately begins to wind its way down into Fish Canyon. Why is this called Fish Canyon? I have no idea. As far as I know, this isn't a great place to fish :-)

At Waypoint 002, keep left on the main road (FR4085). In this area you may see an old burned out car off to the left and a large piece of mining equipment in an large, open area. There are also some nice camping spots in the area.

Up to this point, the trail has typically been high-clearance 2WD and can be made by most trucks.

Keep going on FR4085, past Waypoint 003 as you head toward Snyder Mine. At Waypoint 004, keep left on the original trail. The trail to the right (FR4113) leads up to Melendrez Pass and a radio tower.

A little over 3 miles from Waypoint 001, you'll come to Snyder Mine (Waypoint 005) on your right. There are a few small trails that lead up to the mine and some ruins. You can take your vehicle or park and walk. It's a nice place to get out and explore. As always, be careful around any open mines.

Keep right at Waypoint 006 (the Forest Service has closed down the trail that used to go directly to Gardner Canyon Road from here).

Enjoy the nice rock formations in the area and access to Cave of the Bells can be reached between Waypoints 006 and 007. Sometimes the trail can get fairly muddy and washed out in this area, but usually there are ways around these.

At Waypoint 007, keep left at the trail intersection. Just before you reach Gardner Canyon (maybe 1/4 to 1/3 of a mile) there's a large open parking area. You can park here and find the faint trail to Onyx Cave if you're interested.

The last few hundred yards before you get to Gardner Canyon are just gorgeous. There are some nice places to camp along the creek, but they usually fill up quickly (and this part of the trail can be busy). The creek is a nice place to go for the day (when the water is running) and let the kids or dogs play in the water.

Climbed up the hill and you're at Gardner Canyon Road (Waypoint 008). This is a well-maintained dirt road and you can go left (east) back to Sonoita Hwy or head the rest of Gardner Canyon (a quick left after the cattle guard) or down Cave Creek (straight west).

Either way, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Have fun and be safe!

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The Caves

There are two caves in the area if you're into spelunking (Onyx Cave and Cave of the Bells). Both caves are gated off and you need to contact their responsible parties for reservations, keys, etc (see references above).

Although you have to have a key to enter Onyx Cave, you can go into a small "cave" that is maybe 50 feet deep at the mouth of Onyx Cave. Here you can see where miners collected the onyx. The trail leading to the cave isn't easy to follow and can be intimidating for small children or those afraid of heights (part of it follows a shelf trail above the canyon below), but I found it worth the trip (expect 1 - 2 hours additional time) to make this trip.

I have never visited Cave of the Bells.

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