My first and only visit to Coyote Buttes and The Wave was in June 2004. A coworker had permits for two back-to-back days but was unable to use them. The BLM permit system was quite different then from what it is now. Getting multiple-day permits was not unusual. Nowadays, getting a permit at all requires a fair bit of luck and perseverance. I consider myself fortunate to have had a chance to visit this amazing location.
We arrived at the trailhead in mid-day with temperatures, as I recall, in the upper ’90s. It was mid-June and the North American Monsoon and rainy season had not started. Even so, there were clouds and a few rain showers in the area.
We hiked out to the rocks and made good time arriving in the late afternoon. There were a few other visitors but they left after a short time and we had the place to ourselves for the next several hours. Really—there was no one else there. Hard to believe!
We wandered around for hours taking photographs and picnicking and enjoying the solitude. For a few brief moments, one of the rain showers produced a rainbow but I was too slow to move the camera gear and get the shot.
As the sun dropped in the west and temperatures began to cool we finally left and began the hike back to the car. Somewhere along the way we realized we were on a different trail—or perhaps no trail at all—but our starting point was still obvious and we continued on.
The next morning we decided we did not want or need to hike out there again so we did not use our 2nd day permit. Instead, we travelled down Buckskin Gulch—a place we had heard about but not yet had a chance to explore. It was a great hike and we did not regret our choice.
Here are photographs (shot on Fuji Provia slide film and recently scanned) from the afternoon that we spent at Coyote Buttes and The Wave.
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!