West Clear Creek Bushwhack Backpack

April 5-7, 2013

When a trip to the Gila Wilderness had to be canceled, David and Rogil leapt to the rescue with a proposal to hike down into West Clear Creek from the top of the mesa. It took a bit of persuading, since I still have scars from third-degree gnat bites sustained during our last adventure. But hey, it's David and Rogil!

In record time we repacked our bags and headed out Friday morning, hoping to make it all the way to the canyon bottom before sunset. We caravaned north from Black Canyon City, retracing much of our route from a Tucson Backpackers trip two weeks ago.

We found the road very much as we remembered it, a treacherous tangle of tree roots and tire-biting blocks of basalt. The large sign at the trailhead was totally blank (and therefore quite informative). From the mesa top, a rough trail drops 1800 feet into the canyon. The trail is notoriously steep, arcing above a steep canyon and then skirting a massive washout.

The trail dissolves on a bench about 200 feet above the stream as the dazzling red walls of West Clear Creek leap into view. We picked our way along the edge until we came to another washout, where our guides proposed we use a line to negotiate the final drop into the canyon.

The line was surprisingly effective, and in minutes we were down and dancing across a shelf of deep red Supai siltstone. We set up camp and enjoyed a peaceful evening next to a bottle-green pool.

With all the elk, big cat and owl exhaust on the trail, we hoped we might spot some large mammals, but the the evening's wildlife sightings were all of the insect persuasion. After dark, we found the cracks in the sandstone cliff behind our tents were full of scorpions — more than I had seen in my my life up to this point — and an equal number of whopping big black widow spiders.

The sun crept slowly down the face of the cliff on Saturday morning, and we emerged from our cocoons to pack our gear into dry sacks for the trek upstream. There are no trails at all from this point on, and working your way upstream requires wading, boulder-hopping, and crawling under rocks and over lots of downed trees. But the canyon becomes more and more beautiful the further you venture into it.

By our second lunch, about three hours into the hike, we had covered no more than one "raven mile". We decided to press on, aiming for a series of small waterfalls with a remarkable natural water slide. Just a bit farther upstream, we reached a narrows with a very deep pool with a mandatory swim for those who wish to continue upstream. This section of the stream is particularly lovely, with a nearly flat stone bottom and crystal clear water almost entirely free of the green algae that clothes the lower sections of the stream.

While skittering across a boulder field on our way back to camp, I suddenly found myself upended in the rocks, and moments later I flipped over again and landed on my back. Lots of bruises, but fortunately no broken bones. It was a wake-up call about the importance of making sure we have a way to call for help on a multi-day adventure such as this.

Another blissful night beside the stream, and we reluctantly took down the tents and packed our gear for the big climb up and out of the canyon.

It was a fantastic trip, and we are so grateful to David and Rogil for their convincing us to give this trail another try, for making it possible, and for their delightful companionship, as always.