Trail Report: Peña Blanca Canyon
September 8, 2013
By Matt Marine
Sometimes I do stupid things. What makes it even worse is that I know better. The week prior to my latest stupid thing I had been commenting on a popular Arizona forum about being cautious and making sure to check water depth prior to making a crossing. This past Labor Day, I failed to heed my own advice and 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!”
About a week prior to my misadventure, I had received an email from a new subscriber and pictures of his lifted Tacoma truck (nice). In one of the pictures, he’s in a narrow canyon with flowing water. This is fairly unusual for southern Arizona and I didn’t recognize the canyon. I shot him an email and he told me that it was along a trail that led to a waterfall in Peña Blanca Canyon. He also sent a few more pictures, including one of the waterfall. Those who know me understand that those pictures set about an inevitable set of events and less than a week later, I was putting my Jeep into 4-low on my way to visit those waterfalls.
My friend and I loaded up Cat-dog and pulled out of my driveway at 7:30 am on Labor Day, meeting up with another friend and his family along the way. It was a cloudy, cool and rainy morning. We crossed our fingers that the unusual rainy weather would result in an awesome experience. We got a little more than we asked for.
We did not head out without due warning from my wife. “Have you seen the weather radar?” She called to tell me before we left. “I think there’s a storm brewing down near Nogales and there’s a flash flood watch for the area.”
I had. And she was right. It did look like a big storm was rolling through the area. “No problem,” I joked. “We’re only going to be in a narrow canyon, next to a waterfall on a trail I’ve never been on before. That’s the best place to be during a monsoon, right?”
She told me I was an idiot and to be careful. I agreed to both.
It rained off and on the entire trip from Tucson to Rio Rico. After we exited the highway, we began to hit some big puddles on Camino Agua Fria Road. A short time later, we hit dirt … or more precisely mud. It wasn’t too bad, just a thin layer on top of the road. As we pulled up next to a large concrete tank, it appeared that the road was a moving carpet.
“What the …?”
I pulled off to the side of the road and found thousand, if not millions, of little frogs. They were only about ½ to an inch long and were hopping everywhere. It was if the road and grass fields were suddenly turned into a frog popcorn machine. Along with the frogs, there was about the same out of tiny grasshoppers hopping about which made it an interesting stop. I climbed back into the Jeep and tried my best not to run over any of them as they hopped to get out of my way.
We made it out of the frog’s lair after a few hundred yards and although we would continue to see some frogs on the rest of the trip, none would be in this density.
We pulled off the graded dirt road and the trail dipped down into a large open wash with a nice little stream running down the center. We stopped to let Cat-dog and the kids play in the shallow water for a few minutes. As they played, I noticed a vulture on top of an old power pole. I got my camera and began walking toward him to see if I could get close enough for a good picture. He didn’t seem concerned about me and let me get extremely close before he flew off to a nearby tree. It was then that I noticed that there were about 20-30 vultures roosting in these trees.
“What the …?” I murmured for the second time that day.
They let me get within 10 feet of them before they would begin to fly off. The presence of so many vultures got me thinking. Were they warning me of something? Why did they seem so lazy? Were they stoned?
We drove away and not 100 feet down the wash I had my answer. Cow bones, newly stripped of their flesh laid out on a flat, grassy meadow. The vultures had what looked like a Thanksgiving feast and were just fat and lazy from overeating.
The trail crisscrosses the stream numerous times and we all had a great time splashing through the water. As the canyon narrowed, the water became deeper and more prevalent. If I couldn’t tell how deep the water was, I would stop and check on foot. The greenery was intense. Trees, grass and vines were growing on both sides of the canyon. It didn’t look like the Sonoran desert to me.
We stopped by a nice camping spot next to a side canyon where the recent rains had created a mini-waterfall. I’m a sucker for waterfalls, no matter the size and we decided to investigate. The canyon narrowed quickly and you could hear the sound of water falling as it echoed off the stone walls. I found myself entranced by the sights and sounds here. If this would have been the end of the road, I would have left satisfied. But there was more, a lot more, to come.
A few hundred yards beyond the narrow canyon, water spilled off one of the tall canyon walls creating a 30 foot waterfall. Nice!
After almost two miles of traversing the canyon, we came to a large parking area under some nice shady trees. I thought this was the spot the road ended and we’d have to walk the rest of the way to the waterfall. We got out of the vehicles and began to walk. The first thing we noticed was a series of shallow caves on the far side of the canyon. Inside were lots of discarded backpacks and water bottles from illegal immigrant traffic.
Note: we saw a lot of trash from illegal immigrant traffic on this trip. Not only are they an eye sore, but they should serve as a warning. Be careful. Travel in groups. Stay clear of illegals. The coyotes (human traffickers) can be very dangerous and ruthless.
Although it had appeared the road had stopped at this point, it was clear that we were walking on a rocky road and we decided to go back and drive as far as we could. This portion of the trail is more challenging than the first section of the trail. This was evident within 100 yards as we had to navigate a large pool. For some unknown reason, I decided not to get out and check the depth. I think I knew we were so close to the end of the road and all I had checked previously were okay. Bottom line: I was lazy and it almost came back to bite me ... hard.
I just went for it. Halfway through, I felt my Jeep tip forward and nose into the water. “Oh, crap,” I said to myself. “This one’s really deep.” I probably should have stopped right there, but I didn’t know if I stopped whether I could get going again. So I gave her just a little more gas. The back tires went into the hole and the Jeep paused and faltered for just a second. My breath caught in my throat, then the nose lifted up and we were out.
My friend called me on the CB to let me know my back bumper had disappeared under the water and it had come up to about mid-height on my doors. I silently thanked Poseidon for not taking my Jeep to a watery grave that day.
Unbelievably, Scott followed with his 4Runner. His 4Runner sits a little higher than my Jeep and shouldn’t have a problem. I got out to take a video, but was so excited and nervous, I pressed the wrong button and nothing got recorded.
Afterwards, we saw there was a bypass to this hole. Another slap to the side of my head. We drove the remaining 200 yards to the true end of the road. For a second time, we set off on foot to find the waterfall. The going is tough, crisscrossing the stream, hopping from boulder to boulder, trying to stay dry. We had one casualty. My friend’s seven-year-old son took an unexpected dip in the water. Cat-dog was having a great time wading in the water and playing on the rocks.
I heard the falls from quite a distance away. A low rumble, not too powerful. And then it came into view. Awesome! We’d made it. It was amazing. Water flowed down pock marked black rock into a pool below. You just don’t see this very often in Arizona.
We spent some time enjoying the falls before heading back. We took it a little slower on our return trip, noticing the wildlife along the stream. Brightly colored dragonflies zipped about. Spiders, some as big as my hand, bathed in the sun as they waited for their lunchtime meal. It was like being in the Amazon rainforest.
We had lunch by our own at the vehicles, then headed home about 1 pm. My friend took the bypass at the deep water crossing, while I decided to take a slightly different line. Only my right two tires went into the hole (and not the deepest part) and it was much easier this time.
It wasn’t long before we began to see that the water was beginning to recede. Pools that had been full a few hours ago were low or dry on the return trip. We hardly saw any water along the trail near the beginning. No water rolled out of the side canyon and the mini-waterfall was just mud.
It was then we realized how lucky we had been. We had timed this perfectly. Any earlier and we may have been in trouble with too much water in the canyon. Any later and we would not have been able to enjoy the copious amounts of water we had in the morning.
All in all, it had to be one of the best 4WD trips I’ve had in a long time.
The final tally for this trip: I had to change the fluid in my rear differential. Not sure if it was due to water getting in there (I wouldn't be surprised), but it just didn't look good to me. My friend had water in his differentials, transfer case and transmission. Not good.
For detailed information including maps, GPS coordinates, directions, additional photos and videos of this adventure, go to the Peña Blanca Canyon Adventure Page
What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
None at this time