..........................................................Arizona Jones Outdoors: Hiking, Backpacking, Mountain Biking, and more!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

West Clear Creek Wilderness, AZ

I started this blog with a small piece about a backpack trip into West Clear Creek Wilderness in Arizona. But that is just a small part of what there is to see in this remarkable place. West Clear Creek Wilderness Area is a deep entrenched canyon with a year round stream flowing through it. This canyon runs east to west from near Happy Jack up on the Mogollon Rim down to near Camp Verde. It is very remote and wild with deep pools of water and red sandstone cliffs. The traveling in this canyon is rugged and difficult with few trails and much of the time you are in the water wading or swimming and the rest of the time boulder hopping. Travel in this canyon should be done with care because there is no easy way to get help. The monsoon season should be avoided due to flash flood danger and the winter it is too cold to swim. The Canyon is more than thirty miles long and some sources say as much as forty.
The canyon has four parts divided by upper, bottom half of the upper, middle and lower.
Upper: The upper part of West Clear Creek is a wide canyon, and very beautiful. There are not the significant narrow parts, but the upper part has large Coconino Sandstone cliffs with a nice forest of large trees.
The pools are often large but not as deep as in the middle section and you can navigate with just getting your feet wet in most cases. Expect to do a little wading in this part of the canyon, but no real swimming is required. There are several access points to the upper section.
You can access from the north side of the canyon at both Maxwell Trail and Tramway Trail that are the ends of FR 81E that forks near the end. These trails switch back down into the canyon from the rim and are steep but are well maintained Forest Service trails. You can also enter from the south at FR 142E which is a little steeper and more rugged trail. There are some pictographs on the north side of the canyon just downstream from the Maxwell trail that are interesting to visit.
This upper part of the canyon is a great day hike destination to get a feel for what this place is like. The travel in this upper section is much easier than the the middle section of the canyon
The bottom half of the upper canyon: This part is accessed by two trails from the south side of the canyon. One is the Calloway Trail at the end of FR 142B and the other is an unnamed trail at the end of FR 142A. the Calloway Trail is a steep switch back decent from the rim down into the canyon but the trail is maintained and well built. The trail at the end of FR 142A is more of a scramble in places and pretty steep. This bottom half of the upper canyon is more difficult to travel. In the canyon between these two entrances are some places you will have to swim to get past. In one place there are two large deep pools right under some power lines that cross over the canyon. These pools have steep white cliffs on both sides.
This is a great place to go for a day hike and swim on a hot day to get a feel for what West Clear Creek is all about.

If you go farther down stream toward FR 142 A there is a place that was hard to get past with another large pool where I just jumped into the water instead of trying to climb around it. Some people make a long loop by going down Calloway trail at FR 142B and then go down the canyon and come out at FR 142A. this could be an overnight trip or a very very long day.
The middle: this part of the canyon is from FR 142A down to where trail #17 comes down off the rim. To my knowledge there are no access point in this whole section (unless you rock climb). For me this is what West Clear Creek is all about. Remote solitude, with deep still pools reflecting canyon walls. This part of the canyon the travel is rugged and difficult and will test even the most fit outdoor enthusiast.

To travel into this part of the canyon it is pretty much an overnight affair. It took me three long days to get from FR 142A down to Bull Pen Ranch. And in this middle section you are going to get wet. There are many places where you have to swim to get past the large pools where sandstone cliffs come directly out of the water on both sides.

So to do this you must have all your stuff in dry bags and float your pack. From the trail at FR 142A you head down stream and right away you encounter a deep slot with large white cliffs on both sides with the water going from cliff to cliff. This is called The White Box. You must swim this to get further and its a good swim of 40 yards or more. When I did it there were large tree trunks stuck between the cliffs 15 to 20 feet above the water. This tells you of the danger of flash floods in this canyon.
After you negotiate the White Box the canyon opens up again and travel is boulder hopping along the creek. The next major landmark in the middle section is a hanging spring. This is one of the most beautiful spots in the canyon. A spring coming out of the south wall of the canyon drops water like a shower right into the middle of the stream. Often this spring is covered with yellow columbine flowers to add to the effect. There are some good camping sites that can be found near this spring.
Farther down stream the canyon narrows again and this time the cliffs are red and there is a series of tight slots with big pools of water you must swim. This is called the Red Box.
The Red box has more pools than the White Box and is a longer section but none of it's pools are as big or as long as the one big one in the White Box.
This red Box section has beautiful red cliffs and pool after pool of still water. There are pretty much no safe camp sites in this area where you can get up above the creek in case of floods
So camp before this section if you get to it late in the day or you will have to rush through one of the best parts of the canyon in order to set up a safe camp while there is still day light. After the Red Box again the canyon opens up and you are back to boulder hopping and fighting through brush. By now you will be a pro at this type of travel. Then again the canyon closes back in for some more swimming. You will find hopping from boulder to boulder with wet feet and a water logged pack (heavy) will wear you out. and you will sleep well each night from sheer exhaustion.
The next major feature or landmark is the water fall. This is my favorite spot in the whole canyon. It has a big pool at the base of the falls to swim in and it is a great place to stay the night. We camped here on our second night coming down the canyon from FR 142A.
To get past this obstacle (waterfall) you need to climb up and around on the south side. This place has some flat rock benches or ledges up above the creek that are good campsites. I have come in from the rim on trail #17 and stayed here overnight several times now. Often staying two nights just to enjoy this spot and explore and swim for the day without the weight of a pack. Oh and did I tell you this creek is full of trout and many of the pools in the middle section are rarely fished. After a day of fun and rest at the falls I then head back out. Once you are at the falls you can get out in one day. Down stream from the falls there are at least two or three more swims and then the canyon opens back up the rest of the way down to Bull Pen Ranch.
The Lower: This part of the canyon is a wide canyon with a well traveled trail (Trail #17) coming up from Bull Pen Ranch. This is the most visited part of the canyon and also the hottest and most uninteresting in my view. In many cases the trail takes you away from the creek and it only crosses four or five times in five miles.
Items that I feel are essential for completing a backpack of the middle section:
Walking stick - for keeping balance during the frequent stream crossings over slippery rocks
Air mattress or pool float toy - for ferrying your pack through the many deep pools that require swimming. Dry bags - to keep your sleeping bag and other things dry. Very sturdy shoes - don't think some water sandals will cut it. If you bring a tent a free standing type is a must because often you will camp on flat rock.
Some use a wet suit because the water is cool. I never have. I usually go when it's hot so the cold water feels good. Oh yea, you need to be able to swim. And bring some endurance and a high tolerance for pain.
Camp sites are just here and there through this backpack trip, in some places there just aren't any. The two areas with very few spots to pitch a tent are: directly below the entrance point at FR 142A and the section below the first stretch of red sandstone narrows. don't start looking for a camp sight as it gets dark, give yourself time. Oh, and try to camp up away from the creek. A flash flood in this canyon can raise the water level 15 to 20 feet.
To find trail heads I recommend the National Forest Service map of the Coconino National Forest. This map has has served me well.
Here is some more on this great canyon if this was not enough for you.


  1. By reading your great blog and looking at all these beautiful pictures I can only say:YOU MUST LIVE IN A GREAT PLACE !!
    If I can make it to the States again(after being in NY in 1978) I HAVE to visit all those great places in AZ.
    All the best from Germany

  2. Eberhard. Thanks for visiting my blog. Arizona is a fantasic place. I'm sure that Germany has some great wild places too. Go out where ever you are and connect with Gods creation. It's good for you.

  3. I have been to Clear Creek Canyon before, once when I was about 18. I still remember it like it was yesterday. I love it very much, and would love to go back. I did once with a cousin of mine, but he could only make it one night, so it wasnt a huge thing like I did for 4 nights when I was 18. I remember we ran into a mountain lion, which was kind of freaky! Have you ever encountered a mountain lion in Clear Creek?
    If you have some time to talk in depth about this subject, I would love to talk with you about it over the phone, or in person if I can take you out for a coffee or a drink! I want to pick your mind a little!! :)

  4. Hey Trent love the fact that you have experienced West Clear Creek. The mountain Lion thing is a bit strange. Seeing one is rare they don't show themselves and are rarely taken by suprise. I'm certain there are mountain lions in the Clear Creek Wilderness as there are in most wild places in the western U.S. But contact with people is rare.

  5. Yes, I agree... My brother was supposedly its prey. It was up in a tree, and was about to pounce when he turned and saw him, the Mountain Lion jumped down from the tree and ran straight up the side of the cliff. Pretty amazing! So, if you would be willing... I would love to take the time to ask you some questions about the place sometime. I would like to make the Canyon one of my staple places to go visit. Would you be willing to talk with me someitme?

  6. I like your post. I'm from Colorado and my girlfriend and I have been looking for places to go to help me get my fix of adventure. You're pictures make it look amazing. I was hoping you could answer a few questions about it if you didn't mind...How many miles/mph were you hiking for the 3 day time frame? Is there a way to shuttle/park cars at both points? Also do you think November would be a good time to go or would it be to late in the season? Do you think we would run into anybody in the middle? And did you just filter and drink the pool water or did you pack in water?
    Thanks in advance,

  7. Tyler. November is too cold for the swimming parts. Hypothermia for sure. I filter the water from the creek. MPH? don't know. But They were all long hard days of hiking, wading, swimming, boulder hopping, and fighting through brush. Car shuttle? Well My friend left his car and then we drove mine up to the top. There are no services (like at Paria Canyon in Utah)that supply car shuttle if you are asking that. Hope that helps.

  8. When we lived off clear creak near the original happy jack logging camp back when there was still logging, we drank water directly from the creak. Last time we went back 25 years ago it was still crisp and clean, best water I ever had. City water is poison!! Would love to go back. Very unforgettable!!

  9. Hows the beginning of March to go in this area?

  10. The water will be very cold in March. Hypothermia could be a problem. Wait till late April, May, June.

  11. Great site...I am from NC but have done canyoneering trips from upper to Bull Pen 6 years running...It has to be my favorite destination so far in this life...As to best time- we often vary- In early June you can expect water temps in the 50's and nighttime lows in the 40's.... Bring your toasties!

  12. Thanks so much for posting this info and the great pics! I am planning a three day/two night trip through Clear Creek Canyon in the near future. I was planning to drop down Calloway and come out through Bullpen, but reading your post, that sounds too ambitious. I would like to use the trail at the end of 142a but need better directions to find this road and trailhead. Any chance you could help? Thanks so much!

  13. Still ambitious. Hope you are in good shape. Take FR 144 east from highway 260. After a short while you will turn left at FR 149. Then at a major intersection turn left on FR 142. The side roads off this are 142c 142B and finally 142A. The road is good until just before 142B. If there has been wet weather it can be muddy past there. 142A is a real rocky road. 4X4 only I would say. I have never driven the whole way. As I recall at the end of the road, and it has been a while, there is no real trail but sort of a track with loose scree in places. Be careful and make sure you are not in that canyon during a monsoon storm. You could die. Flash floods can happen fast in that canyon and often there will be no escape if you are in the narrow areas. Also it can take a full day for the water to calm down.

  14. Thanks again for the info and the quick reply. I moved to Cottonwood two years ago and have been eying this hike for awhile. Perhaps I'll see you on a trail sometime!


  15. I will be doing this trip on the 26th and I was hoping that you might still watch this post and be able to answer some questions for me. My trip is similar to the last post. I have 3 days and 2 nights, and I'm trying to figure out where to start and where to stop. I am a wilderness guide from Alaska and our group is tough and in good shape, but may be mentally warn out from life before we even start walking. I was thinking of descending on 142B, and I'm looking for suggestions on where to stop. Can you hike up trail #17 and skip the boring bottom part to bull pen ranch? Is it any easier to do this? It seems that we agree on which parts of the canyon are interesting, do you have any other suggestions? One last thing: it is impossible to find a good map of the roads around this canyon. Google maps (but the terrain map, not the satellite or map setting)is good for route finding, but it is terrible with all the roads that branch off of FR 142. As is the National Geographic TOPO map i have of AZ. Over endless reading, i think i have figured out which forks off of 142 are A-E, but if you knew of a good map, I would really appreciate it. This is a sweet posting, thanks for the good, well written information.

  16. Tyler, you may find that even in late April the water is very cold. Hypothermia could be an issue because you will be wet a lot of the time. The ideal window is May/June but before July due to monsoon floods that can be dangerous. I used the Coconino National Forest maps and was able to discern which dirt road was which. 142B entry has a forest service log in book and might still have a trail sign. I think it's called Calloway Trail. The Forset service web site may have some info about this trail. When I do a thru trip I entered at 142A and skipped the part between 142B and 142A. You will find this to be the best parts of the canyon.

    Yes you can exit up trail 17 but finding the exit point is difficult and you may pass it. I did many day hikes to have knowledge before my first longer several day trip so I knew the entry and exit points.

  17. Hey Arizona, so glad to have found your site! I'm a fellow Verde Valley-er heading to Clear Creek tomorrow with a gaggle of kids - little ones, too. I know most of your hikes are not going to be kid friendly, but I'm curious if you know of any dispersed camping spots up in the woods there - we don't need the campground and I'd rather be up stream? Any way you think we could inch up into the amazingness you shared at least with the kiddos? Thanks!

  18. Megan. There is dispersed camping on lower Clear Creek at Bull Pen Ranch. It will not have the large pools and dramatic cliffs but still has the water.

  19. I am looking at buying a nice rubber boat to seat my family (2 adults, 2 young kids). I'm looking for a good place to go exploring with it. Any ideas?

  20. David. A rubber boat that fits four won't work in most Arizona creeks. There might be stretches of the Verde or the Salt River that could work but it's not my thing. Or a lake might work for such a thing. I'm not sure what lakes allow boats and which do not. For me when I want to go boating I just rent a boat on Lake Powell. No towing, no storage, no maintenance. But a great boating experience.

  21. Hey Jones Im really interested in making to the waterfall in your post. Is there a shorter route to get to the waterfall without starting at the bullpen? I have 2 small kids and can only leave for 1 night typically. So I would like to spend as much time as possible there. Also do you have any GPS coordinates? thanks in advance. I cant wait to visit this place.

  22. Small kids? How small? This is a very difficult hike. There is no easy way. One full exhausting day to get there, then full day out. Very physical, and must be in warm weather. Hike includes swimming. Before I would take any children I would take the trip myself to understand it. No on the GPS. Don't own one, I'm old school.

  23. I lived in Flagstaff 1975-86 while doing my undergrad and grad degrees at NAU. In '76, a friend turned me on to West Clear Creek and it became my most favorite place to visit as often as I could between May - late September of each year. I shared it with numerous friends. I apologize if I have the FS road number wrong (it was a long-time ago, y'know), but I used FS 122 starting just south of the Long Valley gas station on Hwy. #87. FS 122 went west and eventually you had to take spur 122E. 122E ended on an east-west penisula which jutted out overlooking the creek about 800-1,000 feet below. The south side trail was usually drier with a few cacti mixed in. The north side trail was wooded, much steeper, and usually damp to outright wet, but it came out at the pool where there was a fissure fault sandstone cave on the east wall. That cave easily accommodated 8-10 of my friends at a time. There was a small waterfall just outside the cave entrance and you slept to that wonderful gurgling. Just upstream, there was another fissure fault crack on the east wall which opened up to an amazing natural amphitheater with vines and other greenery clinging to the walls all the way up to the top opening about 800-1000 feet above you. Also, near that amphitheater fault crack, there was a large rectangular boulder that literally percolated on top of a rather powerful cold water spring. Sitting on that boulder and vibrating was a real trip. Several beautiful pools downstream from the cave, there was a hunters' camp in a flat, forested horseshoe bend on the creek. I was disgusted at the two 6 foot plus high piles of cans, bottles, and other garbage that the users of that hunters' camp had left behind over the years. :-( Finally, one night at the cave, some friends and I were sitting around a roaring campfire when we heard this curdling scream over and over again from apparently just above us. My Great Dane puppy's fur stood up on end. The screams sounded like a young boy's temper tantrum. The following week, I encountered my Fish and Game Ranger friend at a favorite swimming hole in Oak Creek Canyon. He listened to my story about the screams and told me that it was a Mountain Lion/Cougar who was telliing us and my dog that we weren't welcomed. BTW, one of the many friends who I shared that West Clear experience with emailed me this link to your blog. She now lives in New York and still has fond, vivid memories of her visit down the that cave and those beautiful aqua blue pools. She also remembers that very steep hike back up the north trail - often having to grab trees to help pull ourselves further up. BTW, I now live in southern NM and wish I could still go visit that cave. Ah, the indignities of old age. -- Michael

  24. Great posting, Jones. We scouted the FS 142 roads yesterday, while looking for dispersered campsites big enough for our 5th wheel. Scouting was done with 4x4 but no trailer in tow. We drove all the way to the end of 142E and found the trailhead. Others said it was 2.5 miles round trip from top to bottom and 1200' changes in elevation. We plan to return over the upcoming Labor Day holiday and do this trail as a day trip. Is there one more recommended than the other for a day trip? 142E looks to be the closest starting starting point.

  25. @Bill and Kathy. Well guys this a very big canyon. Day trips into can be done from Calloway trail at the end of 142B (go downstream for best results) Maxwell Trail on the north rim off of FR 81E. Also At end of 142A to White Box (roads are difficult and not marked well)and I have done the 142E trail as well (a very long time ago) And then there is the Willow Valley loop that can be done in a really hard long day (but you need to scout out the exit at Maxwell before you try this. http://azjonesoutdoor.blogspot.com/2017/02/willow-valley-loop-hike-arizona.html