Conquering Middle Parker Creek Canyon
Part II – Into the Grotto
By Matt Marine, with Todd and Kenlynn Rijken, and Angel and Mike Lineberger
Out of the Swamps
Watching Mike disappear into the narrow canyon with nothing more than a handheld radio and Bowie knife, made me question the decision to send him out alone. Five of us (Mike, Angel, Todd, Kenlynn and I) were in the throes of a hiking adventure through Middle Parker Creek Canyon. And we had gotten in a little over our heads. Almost figuratively. A few minutes ago, Mike had repelled down a small waterfall into a pool of water that almost head deep. Now, he was scouting out the canyon ahead of us for any obstacles we couldn’t negotiate.
“What’s it look like up there?” I called on the radio after a few minutes.
“Not too bad,” he called back. “I’ll keep going for a bit.”
I took out my GPS and used it to calculate the distance to the Sleeping Dog’s Grotto, our destination and a place I had been before. I knew if we made it there, we could exit from the canyon. My Magellan told me we had 964 feet to our destination. Two things bothered me about this number: one, it was as the “crow flies” and 964 feet in this canyon was a long distance and could hide many dangerous obstacles. Two, my GPS was having trouble getting a lock in the narrow canyon and I wasn’t even sure the distance it was giving me was correct.
Mike was gone for about 20 minutes before he radioed back that he’d come to another waterfall, this one with a pool that was over six feet deep at the bottom. I didn’t think we wanted to swim for it yet, so we began looking for an alternate route. Luckily, we found a rare spot we could climb out of the canyon and make our way around. Mike met us on a shelf about halfway up out of the canyon and we climbed around the first waterfall, then climbed back down into the canyon and found an easy way around the second waterfall. If that wasn’t great enough, it appeared we had finally come to the end of the reeds and swampy sections of the canyon.
We were surrounded by vertical rock walls that stretched toward the sky. At more than 100 feet tall, they seemed to go on forever. Made of a conglomerate of rock and compacted soil, the walls arced in wonderful hourglass shapes making all the difficulties we’d had worth the visit. This was what we had come to see. We began to boulder hop down the canyon, wading through the water and finding our way around the canyon’s winding curves.
Walking through the water in the canyon
The water was flowing better in this part of the canyon too, but was only about ¼ of the amount we had experienced just a month ago. Although I think there’s some water here year-round, my guess is without any additional rain, it would be nasty in a week or two. It was right on the edge during this trip.
It was faster going now and we quickly made it to the waterfall that had obstructed our progress a month ago. We stopped to survey the situation. The drop down to the water was 10 feet high and the pool beneath it looked to be at least chest high in depth. We discussed our options: We could go back the way we came, but that meant at least another three hours of fighting our way back through the reeds and cattails. And we were just starting the most interesting part of the canyon. We all shook our heads. It was going to take more than this to stop us now.
Down the Waterfall
As usual, Mike volunteered to go first and “test the water”. He climbed down the right side of a large boulder that sat in the middle of the falls and jumped into the numbingly cold water. He made a quick survey of the pool’s bottom with his feet to check for hidden rocks that could twist an ankle. Finding it sandy and fairly level, he announced it all clear.
Mike goes down the waterfall
Next came Todd. He handed Mike his backpack, climbed only partially down and jumped into the water like a seasoned Bear Grylls.
Todd jumps down into the water
With Mike and Todd down, they created a bucket brigade to move backpacks, cameras and most other non-water proof equipment to a dry area past the pool. I’d hand it to Mike below the falls, Mike would walk half way out of the pool and hand it to Todd, who would then walk them out and place each item on dry rocks. Once our equipment was safely dry, it was time for Kenlynn and Angel to make a go of it.
Kenlynn is the shortest of the group and so this was a little more intimidating for her than the rest of us. Chest deep for Mike was neck deep for Kenlynn. For those of you who have never done this before, I want to take a moment to tell you about the courage and determination it takes to do something like this.
We were out in the middle of BFE nowhere. We were tired after more than three hours of grueling hiking to this point. We had battled mud, rocks, reeds, choking cattails, spiders, steep canyon walls and numbingly cold water. Only Mike, Angel and I knew what was ahead of us (sort of, since we were planning on taking a side canyon out that we’de never been on). Climbing down a slippery waterfall, jumping into cold and murky water (from all the foot traffic), not knowing the exact depth, with the realization that there was no way to climb back up if we got stuck downstream takes a lot of courage and grim determination.
Kenlynn carefully made her way down the narrow crack in between the canyon’s wall and boulder, and with Mike’s help, slid into the neck deep cold water.
Kenlynn conquers the falls
Next came Angel. She started her way down the crack while Mike positioned himself below her to help and make sure she didn’t slip off the wall. At this point, we were all becoming concerned about Mike. He had been in the water for at least five minutes and was visibly shaking from the cold. How much longer could he go before he started to become hypothermic?
It was clear Angel didn’t want to get wet up to her neck and Mike offered to have her stand on his shoulders as he walked her out. That’s a sign of true love! And that’s what she did. She climbed down as far as she could, then stepped on his shoulders. Mike walked out as Angel moved her hands along the canyon wall to stabilize herself. Angel grabbed the log and Mike walked out from under her. Angel dangled there for a few moments, still not wanting to get all the way into the cold water. So Mike came under her again, scooped her up in his arms and carried her out of the deep water. Ahhhh, to be newlyweds again.
Angel cheats the cold water (well, most of it)
Now, it was my turn. Saving the best (worst) for last. I climbed down to the small four inch ledge just about the water line. Mike offered to help, but I had a plan. I love watching American Ninja Warriors and fantasize that I could run the course. One obstacle that causes tons of falls is the Jumping Spider. Contestants jump off a mini-trampoline and try to wedge themselves between two narrow walls only using their legs and arms for support. I was going to my own version of the Jumping Spider, Experience Arizona style.
I put all my weight on my right foot and thrust my left toward the opposite canyon wall just a few feet away. I thought I was going to make it right up until the point my foot came up about 3 inches short of the wall. I had been so sure up to this point that I was taken completely by surprise as I hit the cold water an instant later.
I am not a ninja
It was so freakin’ cold. My breath escaped me and my chest tightened. I hit the bottom and instinctively sprang upward in a useless effort to flee the cold water. I walked out of the pool as quickly as I could hoping my sister had videoed my spectacular failure. Luckily, she had.
With everyone down the falls, we quickly gathered our gear and walked the 20 feet to the Sleeping Dog Grotto, which was met by “Ohhhhs” and “Ahhhs” by all. This had been the payoff we had all been wanting and fighting to get to over the last few hours. We didn’t spend too much time there as we were wet, cold and hungry. Just downstream, I knew of a place we could thaw out in the sunshine, rest and have a snack.
The canyon opens up slightly just downstream of Sleeping Dog Grotto and we climbed up onto a narrow ledge that was exposed to the warm sun. Unfortunately, just after we got there, the clouds moved in and blocked out most of the sun. Shirts were changed, wet shoes and socks were taken off, numb feet were rubbed. When the sun peaked out from behind a cloud, we would all moan in satisfaction and relish in its warmth. We drank water, ate some energy bars and gathered our strength. We weren’t done yet.
More clouds moved in, some heavy with moisture. It was beginning to look like the sun was going to be hidden more than not and we decided we would be better off moving than trying to get warm from a shy sun. We quickly hiked down stream, now in familiar territory. I knew the side canyon I wanted to take on our way back wasn’t too far away.
Bees – Nowhere to Hide
As we neared the intersection, we heard a tremendous buzzing sound. Bees. Lots of them. A huge hive was thriving in the canyon wall some twenty feet above our heads. For me, this was the scariest part of the trip. We had to get by them, and if they attacked, we had no where to run. We all quickly got by the hive without being stung and made it to the side canyon. We were now headed upstream, back toward the Jeeps on territory I had never been on before.
This smaller canyon narrowed considerably very quickly and we soon found a couple of nice pools filled with crawfish. As we would enter the water, they would skitter into the shadows and under the rocks. This was very cool since I believe the crawfish meant that these pools had water in them year round. As I was looking for the famed Arizona Killer Crawdad that's rumored to swim the Black River waters (click here for video), Todd took the lead and continued upstream.
As I was still fishing around the pools, I heard Todd exclaim, “We’re not getting past this!”
A beautiful dead end
I hurried toward the sound of his voice, climbing through a narrow chute into a much larger opening in the canyon. I saw Todd. He was standing in front of a 15 foot circular pool below a 35 foot waterfall, now known as "Crawdad Falls". The walls in the opening were totally vertical, with no chance of climbing out.
We’d hit a dead end.
"The obstacles, canyon hill climbing, swap hiking, and beehive dodging were all worth it to see the sleeping dog of the Grotto and Crawdad Falls. We were transported to another location where all sense of Arizona was lost."
Click here for Part I
Click here for PartIII
Click here for Lower Parker Creek Canyon Adventure
Click here for Upper Parker Creek Canyon Adventure
Click here for Tale of Two Canyons feature story
Additional and Full-Sized Pictures From the Trip
Todd and Kenlynn going up the "bypass"
A nice spot to sit for a spell
Beautiful clear pool in the narrows
A picture of Kenlynn taking pictures
Walking through water
Walls and water
A nice photo op
"This place is awesome!"
Footing could be extremely treacherous under the water
Sometimes long legs gave you an advantage
Sometimes you have to get wet
We never knew what was going to be around these corners
Time for a photo!
Lift those feet up
Todd going down the waterfall
Kenlynn making her way down the waterfall
Making our way through "The Chute" to the 35 foot waterfall
Kenlynn about ready to climb up "The Chute"
Nope. We're not getting past that
Wet, cold and hungry, but smiling
A beautiful dead end
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
No member comments yet.