Pumphouse Wash is a canyon that is ignored by most of the people who drive past it every day. It is located in the upper reaches of Oak Creek Canyon right at the bottom of the well-known switchbacks. No matter—its best quality is that very few people hike it.
During heavy rains and snow melt there will be water flowing down the canyon. Otherwise it’s a dry wash with a series of pools. The canyon is narrow with steep walls. It’s full of boulders strewn in the stream bed that have been washed down in great floods. The plethora of boulders makes hiking in this canyon a slow, arduous process. One must hop from rock to rock for miles.
But the rewards are worth the effort. You won’t encounter many other hikers. Maybe even none. And there are beautiful pools and narrows if you travel far enough up the canyon. Late in the spring the pools are still deep and clear and inviting enough for swimming. By early summer, however, they have warmed and filled with algae and, maybe, not so inviting. Timing is important.
So we recently hiked up from the bottom of the switchbacks up to the confluence with a small side canyon that comes in from the east. No name is given on the maps for this feature—not to be confused with James Canyon farther upcanyon. This is about 2 ¼ miles from the start and it took us about 2 ½ hours. That’s less than one mile per hour. There was no one else around—although we could hear hikers farther downstream owing to the echoes off the canyon walls. We stopped in the shade and had a leisurely lunch followed by a swim in one of the deeper pools. And then back in the shade for more lounging.
But eventually it was time to go. It was now mid afternoon and the sun had moved around to the northwest leaving us in shade for most of the trip down canyon. Good thing, too, because it had been sunny and hot on the way up and we were worried about running out of drinking water. Also, with the canyon floor in the shade it was easier to take photos of the pools of water and the short section of narrows.
And, then, there was that magical moment when the light created a perfect situation. The sun lit up a section of the canyon floor which was reflected upwards to an overhang. The reflected light on this overhang was beautiful—but this illuminated overhang was reflected in a pool of water surrounded by deep shadows. Amazing! Move a little closer and the pool and reflection did not line up. Move a little farther away—same thing. Just one spot—and it was perfect.
Most of the time when we hike West Fork Oak Creek we do it from the bottom up. Only once before have we done top-to-bottom and that was back in 1999. We were new to northern Arizona and had read (Tyler Williams, Canyoneering Arizona) that this could be done in very long, hard day. He was right about the long and hard. We have since referred to that epic day as our bootcamp hike.
The passage of time can dim the memories of how hard and unpleasant things were. So here we were in 2019, twenty years later, and we wanted to do this hike again but with some modifications. We were not planning on hiking the entire length of the canyon. Instead, we would simply head down canyon and turn around when we had enough.
It didn’t take long to realize that even this would be a challenge. There is no maintained trail—and not even much of any hint of a trail at all. The vegetation was so thick we had to bushwhack our way through it. Remember that the Slide Fire in 2014 burned through this area (mostly low intensity) and this thick vegetation may be the result of the burn and regrowth. And there was lots of poison ivy. After the first few attempts to get around it we gave up and just plowed through it.
It took us about 2 1/2 hours to reach the first set of narrows about 3 miles down canyon. Just below the narrows is the confluence with Casner Cabin Draw—which ended up being our turnaround spot. We had some commitments that evening so we did not have unlimited time for exploration. Maybe that was a good thing!
I had just been looking at some old photographs from that 1999 hike so I remembered a few locations and took new photographs in the same spots. The tree on the right has grown substantially in 20 years.
We did not encounter any water in the stream bed until the narrows and even then it was a small pool only a few inches deep and a few feet wide.
I’ve also included a photo (a scanned Kodachrome slide) from that 1999 hike showing one of the “must swim” cold pools of water.
We enjoyed the quiet and solitude of the upper canyon.
In early July we invited some friends to join us for a hike up West Fork Oak Creek. This is a hike we used to do almost every year until the Slide Fire in 2014 . We made a short trip up the canyon when it reopened and were pleased that the canyon had not burned but saddened by all the silt and ash that had clogged the deep pools.
Earlier this year we did our first hike up the canyon in many years. Our main interest was to learn if the heavy rains of this past winter had successfully flushed out the silt and ash from the 2014 Slide Fire. As reported in a previous article here, the heavy rains had done a fine job of returning the canyon to its former pristine condition.
Now, with warm weather and sunny skies, it was time to hike as far up West Fork as time would permit. In the past, we have made it up and just beyond the “Camping Permitted” point which is around six miles up canyon. Years ago, we also did an end-to-end starting at Woody Mountain Road and hiking the entire length in a day. But since that “boot camp” day back in 1999, we have only hiked up from the bottom. This day was no different—except that we traveled farther up the canyon than any of our previous hikes. That’s a successful day. We spent about six hours hiking up and returned in about five hours.
Our friends were not able to commit as much time so they turned around after about 3.5 miles (i.e., after the “End of Trail” and just a bit beyond the first narrows).
The wildflowers were great. There were masses of Monkshood and Monkey Flowers—so I was motivated to get a photograph of both “monks*” in one shot. Nope. Apparently, they prefer slightly different conditions and while they would sometimes be close, they were never clustered together. Columbines were also in great abundance. And there were a few flowers we could not immediately identify but could certainly enjoy.
About a mile or so above the “camping permitted” sign we began to encounter thickets of brush from one side of the canyon to the other. These made forward travel very difficult. They also brought back memories of how challenging this section was back when we did the entire canyon. And, with that in mind, we declared that location to be our turn-around point.
Springtime! Most of the snow in the high country has melted and has been moving downstream into the lower elevations and the desert. This means that many of the normally dry washes and low-flow streams now have abundant water in them. In addition, the bountiful precipitation this winter has allowed wildflowers to bloom and populate the desert.
We took a day hike down the Badger Springs Trail and then along a section of the Agua Fria River within the boundaries of the Agua Fria National Monument.
Tyler Williams, in his Canyoneering Arizona, has this to say about the canyon:
The Agua Fria is a gem of a desert canyon. The bottom of this canyon is granite, sitting below rocky saguaro-studded slopes beneath a basalt rim. Proceeding downstream, you will be scrambling around, over, and under polished gray and white boulders that surround lovely pools.
We were disappointed in the wildflowers as there were only small patches here and there rather than the full hillsides of flowers I was hoping to see. On the other hand, there was plenty of water in the river creating deep pools and small cascades as the water plunged over the numerous boulders. The water in the river was not particularly cold so crossing or standing in the water was pleasant. If the air temperatures had been just a bit warmer and without breezy winds we might have enjoyed jumping in for a springtime swim.
Beautiful weather, easy hiking, lots of water, and wildflowers. Great day!
Just like our previous trip, this was a spur of the moment decision. Except, this time, there were no campsites available at Capitol Reef National Park. In fact, all campsites were reserved for months in advance. This is quite different from our last visit here in 1988 (a long time ago, I know) when we just rolled in to the campground and grabbed a great site. Those days are long gone, I think.
We did some research online and found a nice Bed & Breakfast located just a few miles outside of the park; we made reservations for three nights at the Sunlit Oasis B&B in Notom, Utah. It’s very nice and we enjoyed our stay there.
We arrived at the B&B in late afternoon and sat down to dinner a few minutes later—then watched the fading light on the eastern hills. With a really nice wraparound deck, we found ourselves outside watching the darkness settle in until it got just a bit too chilly.
The next morning, we were off early for a day of hiking in the park. Our plan was to do a couple of short hikes in different sections of the park. What we did, instead, was one long hike.
We started in Grand Wash—a canyon with some narrows along the short hike. Early morning provided deep shadows in the narrow sections so I spent a fair bit of time shooting photographs. At the upper end of the wash is another trailhead and parking area. Instead of turning around, which was our plan, we continued up the Cassidy Arch Trail. Whereas the Grand Wash Trail has little in the way of elevation gain, Cassidy Arch trail wastes no time in climbing up out of the canyon onto the upper sandstone benches. Apparently, the arch is named after Butch Cassidy who may have had a hideout in these regions.
Along the way, a couple passed us carrying ropes and other technical gear. We learned that they were headed to the arch to start a series of seven rappels into the slot canyons below. Sounds exciting! I managed to get several interesting photos of the two as they descended into the canyon below. Afterwards, we could still hear them as they set up for subsequent rappels but we were unable to see them.
We returned via Grand Wash in mid-afternoon. By this time, the sun was high overhead and there was little in the way of shade or photogenic scenery. After returning to the car, we drove farther into the park and along Capitol Reef Scenic Road towards Capitol Gorge. The last time we visited this park, this road was gravel. It is now paved. Progress!
Our plans for the next day were a bit more ambitious. We found a couple of interesting slot canyons that had their starting points just a short distance from our B&B, then traveled westward and into the park. The middle and upper stretches of these canyons had many narrows and slots. One might even have water in this dry year. We chose Burro Wash which has less water. On this trip, it had none.
The first part of the hike was through dry grasslands and sandy washes but soon enough we entered the confines of the canyon. Several locations had chockstones blocking the route and we had to find ways to climb up and over. Most were pretty easy; some were trickier. The narrows got really narrow. Several times we just barely had enough width for a boot at the bottom and we had to turn our shoulders slightly sideways. On top of that, the slot was actually tilted a few degrees so you could not stand up straight. What fun!
Eventually, we reached a chockstone that was more challenging that the rest. We took a lunch break at this spot. A few minutes later, a younger hiker ambled by and found a way up and over the chockstone. He returned about 15 minutes later and said we JUST HAD TO SEE THE NEXT SECTION! With his help, we ascended the large chockstone and found ourselves in a very narrow, deep, and dark slot. After a short distance it ended in an open area with a large pouroff — and no way to continue. After a short time spent enjoying this spot, we returned to our lunch spot and packs.
Clouds had begun to build. There was no threat of rain reaching the ground — and certainly no threat of a flash flood — but being in a slot canyon with rain nearby is never my idea of a smart thing. Fortunately, the clouds cut down on the intensity of the sun and the hike back out through the grasslands and sandy washes was much more comfortable than it would have been otherwise.
We arrived back at the car and began to put our gear away. I took off my shoes to empty out the sand and was astounded at how much sand was in them. How was it even possible for this much sand and my feet to coexist in the shoes?
We left early the next morning and drove westward through the park and then on Utah 12. It’s been several decades since I’ve been on this road and it was fun to see again. There are some great views from many locations along the highway.
We stopped in the small town of Escalante for lunch and then continued home.