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Name: Peña Blanca Canyon Author's Rating: and (see trail description)
Author: Matt Marine Avg. User Rating: Not rated yet
Type: 4WD Difficulty: (Easy 4WD until Waypoint 006 - see trail description)
Time: 3 - 4 hours Region: SE Arizona
Length: ~4 miles (one way) Elevation gain/loss/change: ~ +240 / -0 ft / +240 ft (one way)
Type: Out and back Avg Elevation: 3700 ft
Best time to go: fall, spring, winter, summer Fees: NA
Fitness rating: Low Educational Merit: Low
Danger/fear rating: Low Scenic Beauty: High
Hours of Operation: NA Last updated: September, 2013
Offroad Passport Forum: Click here to join the discussion on Offroad Passport
Short Description: A short trail through a narrow canyon to a 50 foot waterfall
Geocaches: A few geocaches in the area. Wolf Tracking; Pink Shirt; Mesquite Gulch Ghost Town
References / Contact Information: US Forest Service; AZ Starnet
Points of interest: 50 foot waterfall, narrow beautiful canyon, riparian area, cool side canyons to explore
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).
How to get there: From Tucson, take I-19 south about 53 miles until you reach exit 17 (Rio Rico). Take a right onto Rio Rico Dr. Bear right onto Yavapai Dr. Head north on Yavapai Dr through the residential neighborhood for almost a mile, then take a left onto Camino Agua Fria Road. Drive west for about 2 miles and the pavement turns to dirt road (Waypoint dirt road), then keep going for another 1.7 miles (green track) until you reach the trail head at Waypoint 001. Click here for directions.

Trail Description

NOTE: Trail has been closed off at Private Property.

Note: This trail is scheduled to be "Decommissioned" by the Coronado National Forest when they publish their new Motor Vehicle Use Map (MVUM). Please see their website for further information. Did you know that the new MVUMs released by the Forest Service will be closing more than 50% of the forest roads in Arizona? I would also recommend you voice your opinion on these closures. After all the discarded backpacks along the trail, I believe most of the traffic this trail receives is from illegal immigrants, not the 4WD community, and closure will not significantly reduce the environmental impact to the area.

Peña Blanca Canyon is a wonderful 4WD trail, that if you time your trip just right, it will be as though you're traveling through portions of the Amazon rain forest.

We got lucky on the day we made this trip. The area received about 3/4 to 1 inch of rain early that morning, roughly two hours before we got there. The wash was flowing nicely along its entire length on our drive to the waterfalls. Streams from side canyons created mini-waterfalls, pools and watery playgrounds for us to explore. The road was laden with water crossings it seemed to be bursting with green foliage, insects, amphibians and other critters. All of this made this adventure one of the best I've had in recent years.

One our way out (at about 1:30 pm), almost all the water in the first half of the trail was gone. Given this, I would rate the adventure 5 stars, but I also understand that not everyone will be that lucky. My guess is that on a "normal" day this would probably rate 3.5 out of 5 stars.

95% of the trail is super-easy 4WD (except for any deep water crossings you may encounter if traveling after significant rain accumulation).

"... as I felt the nose of my Jeep tip down into a deep hole in the creek I was crossing, all I could think to say to myself was, stupid, stupid, stupid!”

For the full story (including additional pictures and video) of our trip to Peña Blanca Canyon on Labor Day, 2013, go to the Peña Blanca Canyon Trip Report on the Feature Page.

General Information and History

Peña Blanca Canyon is a small canyon in the Pajarito Mountain foothills about 10 miles north of our border with Mexico and the city of Nogales. The canyon runs north-south and is broken up by Peña Blanca Lake.

Peña Blanca Lake takes up about 50 acres of Peña Blanca Canyon and was created in 1957 by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. It's a beautiful desert oasis surrounded by grassy, oak-dotted hills and bluffs of limestone. Peña Blanca Lake is a popular recreation and fishing spot and can be crowded on the weekends in the summer.

The lake was drained in 2009 due to chemical contamination and to remove non-native plants and wildlife, It has been refilled and a new boat ramp installed. The new ramp is 48 feet long and 22 feet wide. It can be used to launch motor-powered boats, but boaters are restricted to one electric motor or one gasoline motor of 10 horsepower or less.

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The Trail

NOTE: Trail has been closed off at Private Property

The trail from Waypoint 001 to Waypoint 006 was easy 4WD when we went and should be navigatable by most 4WD vehicles without any problems. This may not be true if there's lots of water in the canyon or if it's been recently washed out.

From the trail head start at Waypoint 001, take a left onto the dirt track leading down into the wash (red track). I believe you can also continue down the Camino Agua Fria Road for about another 1/2 mile before heading into the wash (yellow track).

This part of the canyon is wide open and easy going. The trail crisscrossed the water when we were there and it was a lot of fun. Continue driving in the wash for about another 1/2 mile and you will see some large concrete ruins on your right. Not sure what this was. During our visit, there were about 20-30 vultures crowded in a few of the trees.

They didn't seem to care that we were there and looked very content just sitting in the trees. I was able to get within 10 feet of them before they would reluctantly fly off to the nearest tree. I wondered why they were behaving so strangely. It was almost like they were stoned. As we left, we found the cleanly picked remains of a cow nearby. Now I knew why the vultures were acting like that. They were fat and lazy from what must have been something like a Thanksgiving dinner.

After another 1/4 of a mile, you'll reach the National Forest boundary (Waypoint 002A) and see a road to the right (yellow track). Keep going straight down the wash. Drive about another 1/2 mile until you reach Waypoint 003. Bear right at either the first or second trail (both take you into the correct canyon). You can see the gasline road heading out of the canyon on your left.

It is at this point that the Forest Service will be closing the road in the future. The track on the right leads through Walker Canyon (FR 223), which looks like it will be kept open. I have not taken this road yet.

Keep on the red track for another third of a mile and you will come to a fence line and a gate (Waypoint 004). Go through the gate and continue up the canyon for another third of a mile until you reach Waypoint 005. There's a nice camping spot on a high area and a small canyon that can be explored on foot on your right.

After you're done exploring, continue up the canyon. After a nice rain, you will see a small waterfall coming off the side of the canyon a few hundred feet from the camping spot.

Continue up the canyon for another 1.75 miles until you reach Waypoint 006. There are a few other small side canyons you can explore on foot and some beautiful spots along the way. Enjoy!

There's a large parking area (4-5 vehicles can pack in tightly) under a shady tree at Waypoint 006. You will also note some shallow caves across the creek. It's obvious that illegal immigrants use this spot fairly often for shelter and a rest. We saw lots of discarded backpacks, water bottles and other trash in the area. But, it's still a beautiful spot.

Up to this point, it's been a very easy 4WD trail. You can continue down the rest of the road (which is less than 1/4 of a mile) if you like, though it's more difficult than the previous section. It's not too challenging, except if there's lot of water and then it can get really deep here. A few hundred feet up from Waypoint 006 was the deep water crossing where the water went up to the middle of my doors.

Although it was fun driving the little bit of trail left, I probably would stop here in the future and walk the rest of the way, only because I like this area better for lunch!

Walk or drive the 0.15 miles to Waypoint 007. This is the end of the road. Again, you can park a few vehicles here if you would like.

To get to the waterfalls, you must hike the next 0.15 miles. It's probably almost twice that distance if you consider the amount of times you need to crisscross the creek.

The waterfall is awesome (Waypoint 008). We saw a great deal of wildlife along the way: bright red and orange dragonflies, HUGE and colorful spiders, butterflies, small fish in the ponds and squirrels. The water comes from Peña Blanca lake not very far from the waterfall. I don't know for sure, by my guess is the water here is perennial.

When you're done enjoying the waterfall, head back the way you came in. Wasn't that awesome?

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