Hiking Pumphouse Wash

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.

Canyon walls are reflected in a pool in Pumphouse Wash.
Canyon walls are reflected in a pool in Pumphouse Wash.

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.

A shady location for a lunch break in Pumphouse Wash.
A shady location for a lunch break in Pumphouse Wash.
Upper section of the narrows in Pumphouse Wash.
Upper section of the narrows in Pumphouse Wash.
The narrows in Pumphouse Wash.
The narrows in Pumphouse Wash.
Lower section of the narrows in Pumphouse Wash.
Lower section of the narrows in Pumphouse Wash.

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.

Columbines in the deep shadows of Pumphouse Wash.
Columbines in the deep shadows of Pumphouse Wash.

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.

Clear, blue skies are reflected in the waters of a pool in the canyon.
Clear, blue skies are reflected in the waters of a pool in the canyon.

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.

Light reflected from the canyon walls onto a small pool in the canyon.
Light reflected from the canyon walls onto a small pool in the canyon.

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.

A Variety of Winter Weather

Flagstaff’s February weather has been very active with rain and/or snow recorded on seven days out of the first fifteen. Several days of snow on the Kachina Peaks covered the trees with a thick coating of rime ice and lots of new snow on the slopes.

Rime covered trees in the Kachina Peaks.
Rime covered trees in the Kachina Peaks.
"Flying Dutchman." It's steeper than it looks.
“Flying Dutchman.” It’s steeper than it looks.
"Allison Clay."
“Allison Clay.”
Weeds in the snow.
Weeds in the snow.

And then we had an “atmospheric river” that produced a significant amount of winter rain with about 1.5 inches falling in the Flagstaff area. The runoff in Oak Creek and its tributaries was impressive.

Pumphouse Wash—a normally dry wash—running at high volume.
Pumphouse Wash—a normally dry wash—running at high volume.
Oak Creek at Grasshopper Point: a popular swimming hole when quieter water prevails.
Oak Creek at Grasshopper Point: a popular swimming hole when quieter water prevails.

And the forecast for the next week or so is a continuation of stormy weather with lots of snow for the higher elevations. I believe the long-anticipated El Niño has finally arrived.

Early winter ice and snow in Pumphouse Wash

Not too far south of Flagstaff lies Pumphouse Wash, a beautiful and narrow canyon that cuts through the Kaibab limestone and Coconino sandstone. The canyon drains from the upper elevations of the Mogollon Rim into the headwaters of Oak Creek. Most of the time Pumphouse Wash is dry with occasional pools but it can run very full during the spring snow melt and after heavy summer thunderstorms.

Shortly after a light snowfall in late November I took a walk up the wash hoping for some interesting photographic possibilities with snow and ice. I wasn’t disappointed. The first image shows a small pothole scoured by the erosive actions of the occasional flood waters. It was filled nearly to the brim with rain and snow melt, perfectly blended with leaves and pine needles, and then frozen in time.

A mixture of rain and snow melt with leaves and pine needles all frozen in time.
A mixture of rain and snow melt with leaves and pine needles all frozen in time.

Elsewhere in the canyon a sycamore tree had shed its leaves among the boulders of the wash and upon these leaves some snow was still in place.

Snow atop fallen sycamore leaves in Pumphouse Wash.
Snow atop fallen sycamore leaves in Pumphouse Wash.

Although it was a sunny day in northern Arizona very little of that sun was able to penetrate into the confined narrows of Pumphouse Wash. And I had the canyon to myself that day.