A Tale of Two Canyons
By Matt Marine
A Tale of Two Canyons
Two canyons. Two different experiences. The first has a dramatic backdrop of sheer rock walls painted red, orange and black as if Jackson Pollock went a little crazy with his splatter brush. The second has crumbling grey colored walls made of a sand and rock conglomerate which makes you feel as though you’ve walked into an oversized sandbox. While the first fills you with a sense of wonderment with its overwhelming beauty, the second canyon yearns for adventure – a test of your ruggedness.
Both have clear water flowing through their narrow walls. The same water. You see, these two canyons are actually the same canyon, only separated by 2 miles of water flow. Yet they are so different they may as well be in separate continents. I recently spent a weekend exploring each one, reveling in their uniqueness and getting to know their personalities. Each has wonders that will make your heart skip a beat, fill you with a sense of wonder and leave you with unforgettable memories.
Upper Parker Creek Canyon
When canyoneers talk about Parker Creek Canyon, this is the portion of this canyon they refer to. Parker Creek Canyon is one of the premier canyons in Arizona for canyoneering. If you don’t know what canyoneering is, it’s a sport that combines a bit of rock climbing with hiking. Essentially, canyoneers hike through canyons using rock climbing gear and techniques to navigate the obstacles within the canyon walls. They repel down waterfalls, swim through deep pools and scale large boulders. And Upper Parker Creek Canyon has it all.
But you don’t have to be a canyoneer or experienced rock climber to get a sense of this beautiful canyon. A wonderful segment of the upper portion of Parker Creek Canyon can be accessed by most hikers who don’t have any experience canyoneering, though that doesn’t mean you may not get your feet wet or feel a tinge of danger.
There are a few different ways you can access Upper Parker Creek Canyon. If you have a 4WD vehicle, you can drive the short distance down a forest road to a small parking area and begin your hike from there. This route provides you that quickest access to the canyon. If you don’t have a 4WD vehicle, you can park along route 288 and walk the road (or along the creek).
Although I felt the urge to hike the creek as we drove over the single lane bridge immediately after leaving highway 288, we decided to drive the ¾ of a mile to the parking area to get into the canyon as quickly as possible.
It was lunchtime when we parked the Jeeps and we had a quick bite to eat before our hike. We knew we were going to need the energy for later. After lunch we noticed two canyoneers walking down the road. They were geared up with ropes, harnesses and equipment for their adventure. We talked to them for a few minutes before wishing them good luck. Little did we know that we would be in for a big surprise a few hours later when we would see them again.
From the parking area, the hiking trail immediately turns into a rocky wash which angles down toward the canyon. To our surprise, a small ribbon of water flowed along this normally dry wash making the smooth rocks extremely slippery, especially if your shoes were wet. Cat-dog wasn’t expecting it and as she went for a hard stop on a flat, smooth section of a rock it looked as though she was skating on ice. This provided us with a a quick laugh. And a warning of what was yet to come.
Some rocks in this area had a waxy sheen to them and when touched felt as though they were indeed covered in a thin wax film. About half way down to the canyon we came to a place I call the “Stairway to Heaven”. It’s a narrow and steep stairway made of tree roots and rock ledges that lead to Parker Creek Canyon. It was through a sense of awe that I followed Mike and Angel down into the land of deep shadows.
The Stairway to Heaven reaches Parker Creek Canyon at the base of a small dam. Sparkling water spilled from the top and I watched it disappear into the narrows below. There are some old wooden steps and a collapsed building up on a ledge. Given other structures and dates found in the area, I am guessing these date back to the 1930s and were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps for the purpose of monitoring water flow in the canyon.
I climbed up the rock face to inspect the building and saw there was another dam one hundred feet upstream. Water cascaded into a small pool surrounded by ankle twisting vines (personally experienced). I went back to the first dam and found Mike and Angel studying the rocks. I can’t remember when I’ve seen such striking colors: Mother Nature had painted them with bright red and orange streaks in crazy, beautiful designs.
We continued to hike downstream and within a short distance came to a third dam, the largest of the three. The water streaming over this dam was coming from Pocket Creek and joined the Parker Creek’s water at the confluence below the dam. There’s another collapsed shed and water gauge near the top of the dam. On a nearby rock ledge, you can see the “CCC” written in concrete and the foundations of what appears to have been a walkway over the canyon.
Looking downstream, you get a sense of what is yet to come: A vertical, narrow canyon filled with boulders, water and trees. Amazing. As we continued to hike into the canyon, the walls kept getting taller and the obstacles more challenging. We managed to keep our feet dry, but had to work for it. Much of the rock was very slippery and we had to be careful not to fall on our butts.
After less than a half mile from the starting point, we came to a small waterfall, followed by a much larger waterfall. The canyoneers we’d met earlier were no where to be seen, having already traversed the two falls. Although I would have liked to continue, we could not negotiate these without special equipment or training and had to turn around. But I was not too disappointed. What we had been able to hike was well worth the trip. We slowly made our way back up the canyon and like most of these narrow canyons, the reverse trip has a totally different view and feel. It was almost like being in another canyon.
As we reached our Jeeps, we heard some voices coming from further down the road. It was the canyoneers we’d met earlier. It was good to see them safe and sound. And we were all amazed that we’d met in the same place, hours apart. If either one of us would have been two or three minutes earlier or later, we’d have missed each other on both side of the hike. What a coincidence!
Now, we were off to camp at the edge of the canyon and get ready to hike Lower Parker Creek Canyon the next day.
Lower Parker Creek Canyon
We arrived at the Lower Parker Creek Canyon trail head at around 9 am, eager for another adventure. You can see the mouth of the canyon from the parking area. Water flowed along the bottom like a serpent’s tongue. A large flat area near the mouth of the canyon was bright green, the grass thick and vibrant from the recent winter rains. It looked like a mini-desert oasis.
We quickly made our way down the trail to the creek bed. On our way into the canyon, we skirted the creek and followed a faint trail to the grassy area. The canyon narrows dramatically beyond this point and it looked as though we were entering the belly of a winding snake. This canyon is dramatically different than the section we hiked the day before. In lieu of sharp vertical rock walls, this section of the canyon consisted of more rounded conglomerate walls made up of sand, rock and gravel. Don’t get me wrong, some of the walls were indeed vertical, but everything was rounded instead of sharp.
In the strict sense of the word, the lower section is not as beautiful as the upper section. But it is very beautiful, in a rough and textured way. Think of it this way: the upper section is a super model, the lower section a rough, but handsome cowboy. Each amazingly beautiful in its own way.
Once again, we attempted to keep our feet dry as long as possible. The good news: the rocks were not nearly as slippery. The bad news: the canyon was much more narrow in places and did not offer as many bypasses as the day before. It wasn’t long before we surrendered to the water and our feet were wet.
Even with our feet wet, negotiating the obstacles was challenging. But super fun. Then we came to a spot where we were going to get more than our feet wet. We had a decision to make: continue onward, not knowing how deep the pool was and how wet we were going to get, or turn around. Before the hike, I had decided that I was willing to go chest deep if need be, but I wasn’t sure about Mike and Angel. Mike is usually game for anything and although Angel is fairly adventurous, the water was cold and she gets cold easily. I was a little surprised when she said to continue on without much hesitation.
The only one who gave it a second thought was Cammie. She doesn’t swim. Never has. She is half cat after all. There was no way for her to go around. Either she’d have to swim or be carried. She wasn’t a fan of either. Since she wouldn’t swim, Angel did the first of the “Cammie Carries” for the day. Cammie wasn’t impressed, but she forgave us as we continued upstream.
The canyon continued to narrow and it became harder and harder to navigate our way through. The pools became deeper and longer. Cammie was a little leery of me when I came to get her for the second Cammie Carry. Then it took me ten minutes to convince her to get close enough for me to grab her for the third. By the time we’d made it to the fourth, she wasn’t having any of it. She wouldn’t let anyone get near her.
We finally gave up and I stayed behind with her while Mike and Angle went to explore what looked like the most beautiful part of the canyon so far. And we were right. Directly in front of us was what I call, “The Sleeping Dog Grotto”. I named it after one of the rocks that looks like a sleeping dog. As Mike and Angel explored the canyon, I kept hearing exclamations of excitement from them. I could barely control my excitement as I waited. After they were done, Angel came back and said, “You NEED to see this.” She offered to sit with Cat-dog while Mike and I took a look. She would take the time to sun herself since her feet and legs were a little numb from standing in the cold water.
To get to the grotto, you have to wade through almost waist deep water or have long enough legs to straddle from wall to wall. The grotto is where the water has eroded away a corner of the canyon leaving a hollowed out section with an overhang. The canyon is very narrow (a tree at the top spans the walls from side to side). Water flows down the walls leaving interesting designs and what appears to be the beginnings of stalactites. Ferns hang off the edge from above. It is almost like being in a small cave with a stream flowing through it. Unbelievable. As I stated numerous times in the video, “holy crap!”
Mike and I climbed up a small falls past the grotto to see what lay beyond: a very narrow and long pool that ended at an eight foot waterfall. We had no idea how deep the water was below the falls. But even if we could have convinced Cammie to get to this point, there was no way we were going to get her up the waterfall. We turned around and went back for Angel and Cammie. We would have to conquer that another day.
As I passed under the grotto’s overhang, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to experience everything we had this weekend. Two very different canyons along the same creek. Hiking them was a totally different experience, each with their own unique beauty and thrills. I can’t say which one I enjoyed more, only that I will never forget either one.
Watch for the upcoming photo galleries and details on hiking and four-wheeling in and around these two canyons. If you like hiking, four-wheeling, camping combined with breathtakingly beautiful scenery, these adventures shouldn't be missed.
Click here for details on the Upper Parker Creek Canyon 4WD Adventure
Click here for details on the Upper Parker Creek Canyon Hiking Adventure
Click here for details on the Lower Parker Creek Canyon 4WD Loop Adventure
Click here for details on the Lower Parker Creek Canyon Hiking Adventure
Have you been on this adventure? What did you think? Comments and updates welcome by clicking here.
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