West Fear Creek
Bald Hill Trail to Nowhere
May 26-27, 2007
We always knew there was a back entrance to West Clear Creek from the mesa just north of the canyon. It's actually an extension of trail #17, which begins at Bull Pen Campground near Camp Verde. Nearly all sources refer back to the Coconino National Forest description of #17 as a 7.5 mile "day hike". Two years ago, we hiked #17 from Bull Pen to the a wonderful red rock campsite at the point where the trail crosses the stream one last time before climbing 1800 feet to the top of the mesa. The measured distance to this point is 4.5 miles. So in theory, it's only another three miles to the upper trailhead, right?
Wrong, wrong and wrong again! And there were many more "surprises" to follow.
Knowing we'd have a long, difficult descent in +90-degree weather, we headed north Friday night and camped at the beginning of the 4WD road. Next morning, we hit the trail just after 8:00 a.m., calculating that even with backpacks and our normal snail's pace, we should reach the river in 2-3 hours.
We found the descent to be difficult, but do-able. The trail drops over the lip of the mesa into a steep-walled drainage composed mostly of ruddy basalt with a nice assortment of tortured spires, dikes and rockfalls. The views into red-walled West Clear Creek with its canopy of lime-green cottonwoods were nothing short of stupendous.
The richness of life in the desert always takes me by surprise. There were more lizards than we could count, including this very handsome earless lizard and the largest chuckwalla we'd ever seen. And we were dazzled by the combination of peach and yellow blossoms on this very large prickly pear.
In about two hours, we reached the bench above West Clear Creek. The sight of the bottle green stream tumbling over countless waterfalls made our mouths water! But instead of dropping into the canyon as we expected, the trail stayed high on the bench for another mile. And then it vanished into a very deep gravel drainage. There were many improvised trails leading down to the stream. We took the last one, clinging to tree roots and skidding on our butts down the steep gravel slope. But while the first dip in the creek was a welcome relief, there was no trail in sight. We were stuck in the canyon bottom, with no way out except downstream. We spent the next three hours boulder-hopping in the stream or hacking our way through thick cat's claw and downed trees along the shore. We passed by many gorgeous pools and perfect red rock campsites — including one pool that was at least 70 feet long — but I was too freaked out to stop for photos.
Finally the stream rounded the bend, the south wall closed in, and the terrain began to look familiar. We met the first other human we'd seen all day just a few yards from the fourth stream crossing and the obvious trail. Since there were already three tents at our favorite spot, we backtracked upstream to enjoy another lovely red bench with a long, deep pool and a noisy waterfall. At approximately 7:30, while we watching the moon rise over the stream, the sky was suddenly lit up by an enormous meteor with a big gold tail.
Feeling more than a little apprehensive, we were up before 5:00 and on the trail by 6:00. The trail was well-marked and we made good use of the cool morning air. And then the trail suddenly veered to the right and degenerated into a little-used scramble down to the streambed. Someone had taken great care to build a number of cairns at this spot, but we knew from experience that there was no trail at the bottom of the cliff. We backtracked and picked up the faint original trail, but it ran out in the same spot as before, on the opposite side of a steep gravel drainage.
We were determined not to go back to the stream, but the sheer pea-gravel walls made it extremely difficult to cross the drainage.
Now we understood why the trail detours around this spot. However, hikers should keep in mind that bushwhacking along the stream adds considerable time and difficulty. Once you drop into the creek, you may not be able to make your way back up, so pack a GPS, topo map, extra food, a water filter, and be prepared to spend the night.
Once we got past the washout, the return hike was no more difficult than the descent, and despite broiling sun and clouds of no-seeums, we made it back to the trailhead before 11:00. I was so glad to see the Taco Ma that I practically kissed her dusty little fenders. A cowboy shower and a cold beer later, all I remembered were the warm fingers of the sun reaching over the red rock walls of West Clear Creek.