Canyonlands: Tales from Narrow Places

Too long since canyoneering on the Mogollon Rim – Immaculate Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on August 22, 2016

Immaculate 08

Immaculate Canyon, 3BIII
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Fork of Oak Creek


It has been too long since experiencing this place between narrow walls. It was October 22, 2012, in fact, when Eric and I made a beautiful autumn descent of Barney Spring Canyon. This was the last time I descended a technical canyon on the Mogollon Rim. Over 8- years ago, in these sandstone slots hidden in this 200- mile long escarpment I fell in love with canyoneering. In 2012, around the same time that I last got on rope on the Mogollon Rim, Mark and Brian made a first descent of a canyon just next door to Barney Spring Canyon. They were in fact searching for a canyon posted by canyon guru Tom Jones called “Obfuscation Canyon”. It was posted with not much more than a few dramatic photos and a “Flagstaff, Arizona” location tag. Brian should have looked up the definition of obfuscation first, but he was on the hunt for canyons in the Flagstaff area. Instead of finding what he was looking for, he found and pioneered a first descent of a canyon that might just be better. Four years later Mark was back for the first time since that first descent, and I was back for my first time in too long in this magical place.

Immaculate 13

We begin the descent on a muggy, bug infested, Sunday morning. I am not feeling my best after a late night of too many Red Bull and vodkas while making an extended appearance at friend and fellow canyoneers, Chris Ngo’s party to christen his magnificent new pool. The party adding an hour’s drive was well worth it, but got us in late and starting the canyon a little off kilter as we negotiate thick vegetation making our way into the canyon. The dirty approach is short and the first drop comes in quick. As rope slides through my hands and device, my feet gingerly scamper down the vertical electric green moss covered walls. The magic of this place washes over me and the bugs, humidity and hangover disappear. Challenging rappel situations ensue requiring good technique to avoid sticking ropes and managing multi-pitch. “What a find!” I comment to Mark.

Immaculate 17

The canyon relents and we make use of a recently publicized sneak exit that allows us to escape from the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon complex just minutes from the last rappel. It will save us hours and miles not having to circumvent around the entire system. The sneak is dirty and steep. Signs of the 2014 Slide Fire are everywhere with charred trees lined like burnt matchsticks overlooking the rim in all directions. It is slow going but direct and in under an hour we top out on the rim. We move through the remains of trees that stand over a carpet of green growing out of the scorched earth. The burned over area ends and we are back into the shade of the untouched Ponderosa Pines. Hello my old friends. Good to see you again. It is not that I haven’t spent time in the last four years on the Mogollon Rim or in Arizona’s massive Ponderosa Pine forest. To the contrary I have done numerous hikes and camping trips in this magical place in the last four years. For some reason it feels a little different walking under these trees after completing a canyon descent in the hidden slots below these majestic sentinels. Like I said before, it has been too long.

– David




Peak foliage in Barney Spring Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on December 31, 2012

Beautiful fall colors in a pool in Barney Spring Canyon.

Barney Spring Canyon, 4BIVR
Coconino National Forest


Fall is a special time. As a child it represents the start of a new year of challenges and experiences. Growing up in the northeastern United Sates, autumn would peak in an explosion of colors. As an adult that feeling of newness that comes around in September and October has faded somewhat and living in the midst of urban sprawl in the heart of the Sonoran Desert you don’t see much in the way of Autumnal colors.

Eric had been lobbying for a descent of Barney Spring Canyon for a while. It is a classic Mogollon Rim canyon that wasn’t yet part of his resume. I had descended the canyon with Laura shortly after I had begun canyoneering five summers ago. My recollection is that it was the first canyon descent during which time I was thinking this is really intense from both a physical and technical perspective. I also remember it being a long day, but despite my photographs its aesthetic qualities had left little impression on my memory.

Timing for a descent has finally lined up. Eric and I are driving along the washboard road deep into the forest in the late afternoon sun. The previous day we had descended Garden Creek in the Grand Canyon. Our legs are feeling that 4,000 feet of vertical. My belly is fully of wings and my head a little cloudy from beer  after spending much of the day resting in a Flagstaff sports bar and watching football. As the road crosses a drainage and its numerous deciduous trees amongst the surrounding pines I am struck by the intense Fall colors.

As temperatures plummet after the sun goes down we huddle around the fire. We awake well before the return of the sun and begin hiking from our camp in the dark. A descent of Barney is normally completed by hiking down the West Fork of Oak Creek at its confluence with Barney followed by a long car shuttle. Our plan is to skip the car shuttle by hiking up the West Fork until we can find a place to escape the canyon and then navigate across the rim back to our vehicle. We know it is going to be a very long and exhausting day.

Surrounded by stunning foliage on the final rappel.

The sun is up but it is still brisk as we drop into the upper reaches of Barney. The foliage is magnificent. Reds, yellows and oranges are abundant. I say it is peak. Eric says maybe just past. The canyon narrows. We are surround by muted beige sandstone covered in a thin layer of vibrant green moss with a canopy of technicolor above us. It is spectacular.

The canyon is still challenging with its numerous awkward- start rappels but my experience in the last four plus years have dulled the edges of intensity I experienced the last time. Eric leads the way and we are down-climbing obstacles I would have never thought possible during the first descent. The monster keeper pothole that gave us so much trouble the last time is almost full and Eric beach whales out on his own out and then assists me to the lip. From our perch atop the final rappel we peer over a thick canopy of vibrant and saturated yellows. It is a visual experience that will leave a lasting impression.

A short brushy walk and we reach the confluence of the West Fork of Oak Creek. More colors. We spend the next six hours hiking, trudging, rock hopping, climbing  up West Fork. We do the best we can to stay dry but some of the narrows do not cooperate. In the upper reaches of the West Fork the canyon branches into multiple arms. We take a branch whose terrain we are unfamiliar with but will put us closer to our vehicle. We hope to not be stopped in our tracks by a dryfall before we can escape the canyon bottom for the rim. A minor gamble but we are confident. We are faced with several spicy climbs including one over a deep keeper filled with icy cold water that if we both fell into would be a mouse trap of the most dire circumstances. As we climb further up this canyon arm the walls begin to recede and we make our break. Upon reaching the rim as we navigate through the Ponderosa Pines back to our vehicle I am completely exhausted, satisfied and connected to this autumnal experience.


Thinking about our forests and fire in Casner Cabin Draw

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on August 6, 2012

Casner Cabin Draw, 3BIII
9.5 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Fork of Oak Creek


Stretching from the Grand Canyon to the White Mountains, Arizona is home to the largest continuous Ponderosa Pine stand on the continent. Within this stand hide dozens upon dozens of slot canyons chronicled in this blog. Weakened by drought, insects, climate change and well intentioned but perhaps misguided forest management, over 25 percent of Arizona’s Ponderosa Pines, including the aforementioned stand have been ravaged in the last decade from monster fires including the Rodeo-Chediski and last year’s Wallow Fire. The latter being the largest in state history burning over half a million acres.

Arizona Republic environmental reporter Shaun McKinnon writes about the importance of a long term plan to protect our forests from future wildfires in his June 17, 2012 article, ” Fear of the Next Fire”

” The cost of failure is as steep as the pine- covered canyons at stake: forests that are the irresistible lure for tourists and desert dwellers and home to tens of thousands of people, trees that shelter a diverse array of wildlife and protect an irreplaceable source of water that fills the reservoirs above Phoenix. If the trees die, they may not return for thousands of years, if at all.”

During a recent summer day, this desert dweller, escaped the heat into the iconic Ponderosa Pines for a solo descent of Casner Cabin Draw. With my only company being the towering trees I had plenty of time to think about McKinnon’s article which was published just the day before.

To summarize, for tens of thousands of years the Ponderosa Pines could tolerate the dry conditions and regular fires that stayed low to the ground and prevented the forests from growing too dense. As settlers began arriving in large numbers in the mid 19th century their livestock began grazing the vegetation more aggressively than the native deer and elk, allowing the Ponderosas to fill the void and grow more densely. At the same time the settlers were also suppressing natural lightning fires which also prevent the forests from becoming too dense. This policy continued for generations.

“At that time our understanding was fires were the enemy of the forest, just as wolves and mountain lions were the enemy of the deer herds: No one really realized at the time how important they were as self regulatory mechanism for the ecosystem,”

says Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute of Northern Arizona University, in McKinnon’s article. Before the settlers the forests contained 30 trees per acre while today’s fire protected forests contain up to 1,000 trees per acre. When these dense forests do burn it is so all-consuming and hot that the trees, soil and habitat may never recover. The United States Forest Service working with a private company as part of the White Mountain Stewardship Project have thinned sections of super dense Ponderosas in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. According to the White Mountain Stewardship Project these areas did not burn as aggressively during the Wallow Fire and many of these trees survived.

Every year the fires come. It is a nerve racking time. In part this is because I am often spending many days photographing these wildfires on assignment for the Arizona Republic, but it is also stressful because I find myself waiting to see what wilderness will be next. So far the forests that are home to many of the canyons we cherish have been spared.

To read McKinnon’s story and other’s from his series on Arizona’s forests and wildfires click here.


What’s around the next corner in Crack Addict Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on July 16, 2012

Crack Addict Canyon, 3AIII
approximately 5 miles
Coconino National Forest


“What’s around the next corner,” is one of the more intoxicating aspects of canyoneering. For this reason first descents or perceived first descents (in most cases you can’t know with 100% certainty that you are the first one down) are so exciting and seductive. Almost on par with a first descent is that where you have absolutely no beta on a canyon, but know others have been down before. Such was the case during an early Spring time romp down a Mogollon Rim drainage. We were tipped off by a friend that something was there although he himself had never descended the canyon nor knew a single detail about it. All he knew, directly from those who had actually been down, was where it was and that they called it, Crack Addict.

After nearly getting Kyle’s pick-up stuck in thick mud on the drive up we bedded down on a cool night under Ponderosa Pine trees and bright stars. The following morning, as we finished on foot what we could not continue the night before by vehicle, I couldn’t help but wonder what was in store for us. Would it be a gem or a stinker, easy or hard, dry or wet? Probably best to be prepared, but not expect too much.

With that what we found was a canyon with nearly a dozen rappels, fine sculpted sandstone walls and nearly devoid of water, except in the frozen form as several giant and compacted snow patches filled the canyon bottom at the base of a few rappels. Webbing existed at several drops but with clear signs of Father Time, as in one case a sapling had grown several feet right through a rappel ring.

Crack Addict is not destined to be a rock star or classic as others in the area, but it is a fine canyon indeed. It far surpassed my tempered expectations. Not knowing only enriched the experience. This does make me stop and think how guide books, online beta, forums and blogs, including this one, effect the experience of others. The truth is there is a lot of good, some bad, black, white and a million shades of gray in between that comes with that communication. In the end we live in an era where communication is easier and more aggressive than ever, nobody is stopping this reality and for the most part that is a good thing. Never the less, it feels good when you get the opportunity to get out and see what’s around that corner of the unknown.


Just the two of us in Shamrock Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on September 6, 2011

Shamrock Canyon, 3BIIIR
2.7 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Clear Creek


Laura and I had been trying to get out on a canyon together all summer. With a 9- month old at home our opportunities are few and far between. We had planned on going canyoneering in the middle of the summer but the monsoons kept us at home. A second opportunity presented itself as my parents were out visiting. With a favorable forecast we ventured to Shamrock Canyon. It was wonderful getting to spend some alone time with Laura, particularly in such a beautiful setting. This was Laura’s first descent of Shamrock and my second. The canyon was more challenging than my memory served me, which may have had something to do with the fact that water levels were considerably lower than my previous descent. Never the less we made quick work of the down climbs, rappels, wades and pot hole escapes and reached West Clear Creek all too quickly. The only unpleasant moment during the descent came when Laura had an encounter with some sort of Stinging Nettles species. We relaxed for a while along West Clear Creek before the slog back home. During the hike out Laura and I talked about how few times we have descended technical canyons without the company of others. We could only remember of one previous descent, Stone Donkey. Canyoneering is such a social sport that we cherish that shared time with our friends, but today we were glad it was just the two of us.


Wyatt’s first camping trip – West Clear Creek

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on July 18, 2011

West Clear Creek
Coconino National Forest
07/16/11 – 07/17/11


With Wyatt secured on David’s back we hiked down to West Clear Creek. Along the way we crossed paths with a couple of canyoneers heading back to their car after a descent of Sundance. After a joking conversation on the merits of starting kids canyoneering before they are able to verbally complain we continued down the trail. Once reaching the canyon floor we found a perfect spot for lunch and a swim. Briscoe rolled in the sand as Wyatt babbled at the sandstone walls, looked up at the bright blue sky and examined some grass growing by the banks of the creek. We continued up stream boulder hopping and log crossing into the alcove where the final rappel of Sundance touches down.

We camped on the rim not far from the entrance to Shamrock Canyon. As David set up our monster tent Wyatt looked up at the trees and laughed. Before dinner with Wyatt snuggled and sleeping on David’s chest we took a walk through the forest at twilight. With nobody else around we walked in silence occasionally speaking in hushed tones so to not wake Wyatt. The light glowed softly through the the trees as we got back to camp. As night fell both Briscoe and Wyatt were mesmerized at the flickering campfire.

In the morning, after a night that could have been a lot worse, (Wyatt only woke up twice) we took another walk along the desolate forest roads before packing up and driving back to the Valley. It was the perfect first camping trip for Wyatt and a joy to experience Arizona’s rim country with our child for the first time. The best part is knowing how much the future holds.

– Laura

A new season in Babes Hole Spring Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on June 1, 2011

Babes Hole Spring Canyon, 3BII
approximately 4 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of Sycamore Canyon


The first Mogollon Rim canyon descent of the season is always special. It is more than descending those beautiful Coconino sandstone slots, more than being towered by the magnificent pine trees and more than breathing the crisp mountain air. That first descent represents another season and another year. Our lives change quickly, but outside a rare natural or manmade disaster, little changes year to year in this magical wilderness.

Babes Hole Spring Canyon was an easy and not terribly exciting technical descent, but the canyon was rather pleasant and the day wonderful as I was joined by my old friend and canyon partner John, and a first timer canyoneer and new friend, Steve. With a recent snow fall, the ground was saturated adding to the springs, resulting in a modest but steady flow through the entire canyon and crystal clear pools. A lethargic Bull Snake laid sprawled out on a rock in the narrows below a beautiful fluted rappel. It did not seem terribly interested or bothered as we moved all around trying to find the right angle to pull our rope that got temporarily stuck. Unlike our Bull Snake friend, a Mojave Green Rattlesnake was extremely irritated as we rock hopped past it. Hundreds of butterflies resembled multi-colored snow flurries and silver colored canyon frogs hopped abound.

My heart beat fast as we aggressively hiked up the Little LO Trail out of the canyon bottom. Feeling the burn I stopped to catch my breath. I tilted my head back and was mesmerized by a towering tree that had long past away. Just a few steps behind me Steve stopped and also stared  up at the magnificent form above us. He  poignantly remarked of the countless organisms that live within the old, dead tree. With that I smiled, took a moment more and continued up the trail.


Nearing the end of a wet monsoon in Shamrock Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on September 15, 2010

Shamrock Canyon, 3BIIIR
2.7 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Clear Creek

The term “monsoon” comes from the Arabic word “mausim” which means “season” or “wind shift”. In Arizona the monsoon is when during the summer months consistently high temperatures create a large swath of low pressure. This low pressure literally sucks moist air from the Sea of Cortez and the Gulf of Mexico creating high winds and violent thunderstorms throughout the southwestern United States. 2010 has been a wet monsoon for Arizona, filling many of the canyons, particularly those on the Mogollon Rim, to the brim with water.

In late August, John and I headed up to West Clear Creek for a descent of Shamrock Canyon. Despite a favorable forecast, interesting clouds hung low and as we made our way higher up the rim on Arizona State Route 87 we became shrouded in the clouds. Approaching Shamrock the lightest sprinkle added moisture to our already sweaty skin from the humid air as we walked down the steep slopes of saturated soil from the many weeks of rain. Entering the canyon, the clouds parted and blues skies took over as we found ourselves surrounded by velvety and electric green moss covered walls. At the first rappel we dropped down alongside the slightest trickle of water. Further down an interesting and challenging triple drop rappel included a normally deep keeper pothole that was unrecognizable as it was filled to the brim with unusually temperate water. One more rappel and a short slog later and we were at a pleasant beach along West Clear Creek enjoying lunch and watching brook trout and crawdads doing their thing in a crystal clear pool of water.


A find in Avocado Canyon

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on August 31, 2010

Avocado Canyon, 3AIII
5.5 miles
Coconino National Forest, tributary of West Clear Creek


We were not sure what we find, but it was fairly obvious on the map. Unlike other side canyons of West Clear Creek that are betaed this one had neither information nor word of a previous descent. With this we thought we would take a peek. What we found was a pleasant wilderness canyon with three clean and sculpted rappels the longest of which was approximately 120-feet. All three raps took natural anchors. Despite the tremendous amount of recent rain saturating the forest, the canyon held nothing more than a few pools of waist deep water. There were no signs of a previous descent or any human presence. I would doubt we were the first to descend the canyon but it felt like we were and that feeling added a very real excitement to the trip. Once reaching West Clear Creek, which was more, overgrown with green vegetation than I ever seen it, we stopped for lunch on a rocky beach where we enjoyed a meaty avocado.


Voodoo Canyon, as nice the second time around

Posted in Northern Arizona & the Mogollon Rim by canyoneering on June 2, 2010

Voodoo Canyon, 3BIII
6.5 miles
Coconino National Forest – tributary of Secret Canyon


At the last minute I decided to join Eric, Kyle and Bird for a romp down Voodoo Canyon. For Bird, who was visiting from Omaha, Neb., it would be his first time canyoneering and rappelling. Not an easy first canyon. For me it would be my second descent down Voodoo, a canyon as beautiful, exciting and fulfilling the second time around, with fun rappels and down climbs and a magical quality of light completely unique to the space found between these sandstone walls. I really enjoy the report from that first descent, so check it out and below you will find some pics from the most recent trip.