Sycamore Canyon from one end to the other. And back.

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Trip Report
Arizona, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Oct 22, 2011
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Sycamore Canyon from one end to the other.  And back.
Created On: Oct 29, 2011
Last Edited On: Nov 1, 2011

There and Back Again

3 miles on Friday, 22 miles (17 cross country) Saturday, 30 miles on Sunday.
7,000 feet of elevation change
View of the inner Canyon

Let me start by saying that this was a definite learning experience for me, as it was my first time on a major trek in the desert. Of course I set the bar very high, as is my way.
I started planning this trip on a whim, after watching Cowboy's and Aliens. After seeing the movie I just had to get to the desert, so I researched flights and found they were quite cheap into Phoenix! The date was set, guidebooks and maps were purchased. And then I pretty much forgot about the trip until about 2 weeks out.
I arrived at the Trailhead at 7:30 PM Friday night. It was of course full dark already. I donned my headlamp, and set off down the trail, planning on hiking the 3 miles to trails end where I could water in the morning. On the way I passed quite a few skunks, dealt with a few creek crossings (the trail ended at the spring that fed this little creek, beyond that there was no more running water), and startled 4 cattle in the night. It was a beautiful clear night, with lots of visible stars.
Dry Wash Sample

I was up and moving at 5:20 am, and had camp broken down and ready to go at 6:30. It was first light. I had 9 miles of boulder hopping up a dry wash through what would be an impassable river in spring time or after heavy rains. It was actually a lot of fun, but tons of work. I made it through this section, and arrived at the start of the only trail for the day by 11:20. This whole section was part of the inner canyon that was between 30 and 100 yards wide, with 400' high walls. After leaving my campsite, I didn't see a single water source the entire day. Regardless, I really enjoyed all the different rocks, and often saw small fossils in some of the rocks that were clearly there from when this area was part of the ocean.
Opening up of the inner Canyon

I covered the next 5 miles of trail in 2 hours, continuing my habit of moving for a solid 50 minutes, followed by a 10 minute break during which I checked the map, re-hydrated, and consumed at minimum 200 calories, often more like 400. This section of trail is where the Flora began to catch up with me. I had previously taken off my pants legs, continuing on with just my half gaiters. I quickly found out that one should be clothed head to foot in thick clothing when traveling on remote little used trails in the desert. The Flora there is quite vindictive and carnivorous! I carried on though, and arrived back at the dry wash by 1:20, where I started another 5-mile cross-country journey further up Canyon.
More Drywash

By 5:40, I had reached the point to cut out of the Canyon, and head up towards the Rim. There was supposed to be a trail, but given that it was getting dark, and I was passed the time cut off for when I should have found the trail, I decided to give up looking for it, and just head east to where I would find the secondary trail in the morning. It took me about an hour and a half to climb a 1,000 feet, where I found a sweet little level spot on the otherwise steep terrain. I rolled out my groundsheet and sleeping bag, and slept under the stars! During the night I caught view of quite a few shooting stars! I finished my last cup of water upon lying down, and prayed I was where I thought I was, and that I would find water within an hour or two of getting started the next morning.
I got up and started moving at 5:20 while it was still pitch black (without having had breakfast due to lack of water. Y'all know how cranky that would normally make me, but for some reason it didn't bother me on this trip). Within 45 minutes I'd found the trail I was looking for despite the darkness and merrily took a right hand turn. Now though this is where I started noticing that my map wasn't actually accurate. I hadn't really used the map in such a way as to notice since I hadn't been on much trail to this point. But here I was traveling on the only trail for miles around, heading due east. However there wasn't a single spot on the map that showed the trail heading due east. I held my determination and kept going though, knowing that whether or not I was on the right trail, I was heading in a direction that lead to water. 30 minutes later the trail finally made that turn to the south, and I was happy once again to be heading in the right direction. By 6:45 I'd arrived at Winter Cabin Springs, the water source was I waiting for! The sun had just risen, and it was a beautiful morning. Upon arriving at the spring however, I found it dry. Dry as a bone. So I turned around on the side trail, and on my way back to the main trail found a lovely pool of water! Imagine my relief! This meant that I wouldn't have to hike 3 more miles without water to the next, more reliable, source! I stopped here for 30 minutes and prepared breakfast and downed 2 liters of water before filling up again.
Rock Chute
Coconino Sandstone Cliffs

About 1.5 miles later I exited the Canyon and Wilderness onto a forest service road, which would take me 5 miles south to the next trail. It was only on this one short section of road, outside of the wilderness, that I saw the only people I would see the entire trip. I made very quick work of this section and quickly turned west to begin the descent back into the Canyon, where I would cross over to the other side and walk a Mesa back to the mouth of the Canyon.
About 3.5 miles into the descent, I came to the only water for miles around. A little mini tank set back on a shelf, which was surrounded by solid stone walls on all sides. I had to climb up a 10' chimney to get to it, and walk back "into" the rock for about 15' until I came to a pool of water about the size of a coffee table. This water was NASTY! Lots of floating insects and the bottom was chocked with rotting debris. But worst of all was the 100's of wasps flying around and settled on all the various surfaces. I very nearly lost my nerve before I even started, knowing that if I made one false move and got the wasps agitated, I would literally have to fight for my life as I slowly and calmly climbed down a chimney, all the while getting stung by wasps. But I persevered. I very slowly and calmly filled the first water bottle. After which my filter was nearly clogged and was pumping pitifully slow. I looked to get my second bottle, and found 3 wasps crawling around the mouth of the bottle, which I had set on the ground. So I very slowly picked up the bottle, and gently blew on the wasps, which worked! They flew away. I looked down at my legs, and there were at least 6 wasps crawling around on me. Again, I very nearly lost my nerve, but practicality spoke, so I downed the 1/2 liter still in my second bottle, then began the slow process of refilling it. Having completed this task, there was now more than a dozen wasps crawling on my person, including my bare skin, but I very slowly and gracefully began to back away from the tank and towards the chimney. By the time I'd gotten to the chimney, all the wasps had flown back to the water, and I was able to climb down safely.
What a rush I got when that was done with. Of course I didn't have time to enjoy it, but quickly loaded up and went on my way. At this point I had calculated my estimated finish, and realized that it wouldn't be 6 pm as I'd hoped, but closer to 8, so I had no time to Dawdle! I just tucked in and went as fast as I could, which was not as fast as I'd hoped because the trail was so faint, and kept disappearing. I just hoped that it would improve once I got on the other side. I at the least knew that I had 5 miles of decent trail though, because I was going back down the same 5 mile section I'd covered the day before, which I covered in a little better than 2 hours going the other direction.
I finished this section, and got started across Packard Mesa on the Packard mesa Trail at 3:30. I had 2.5 hours of daylight left, and I thought at this point that I could get back to the trailhead by 7:30, if I made 3 miles per hour until dark, and then managed 1.5 miles per hour thereafter. Those hopes seemed to be far fetched though, as I got onto the mesa onto a very soft and red soil, the trail became as faint or more faint than it had the entire trip. In fact there were game trails crisscrossing the mesa that were often more visible than the trail I was on. Thanks to Cairns spaced about 1/4 mile apart, and a good instinct, I managed to stay on it, and eked out a speed nearly what I had hoped for. It was also neat through here for all the dozens of scorpion holes in evidence. And since I was high in elevation, I was treated to some really amazing views of the entire valley!
Sandstone Castle

So since I was not making quite the time I wanted, I for the first time deviated from my rest plan, and only made one stop between 3:30 and dark. It was actually a bit fun racing the sun down the horizon. I had hopes of making the end of the Mesa where the 2-mile decent to the trailhead would begin (and where I hoped to find better trail since the terrain would change) by Sundown. And you know what, I did it. I took my break at the top of the descent at about the very moment it was dark enough for me to need the headlamp. It was a cool accomplishment, and confirmed that I would indeed make it out on time to get to the airport. And to top it off, as I had theorized the trail became nearly instantly better once the descent began. The problem at this point was that the feet were toast. Because I'd maintained such a grueling pace over already tired feet in boots, they were starting to hurt. I managed to turn off those pain receptors though, and continue on my way.
Now, you should no that there are few things in life more invigorating than descending a steep cliff face in the pitch black, with mountain walls raising above, and steep drops off below! What a fantastic way to spend an evening! I made terrific time down the mountain, and arrived at the canyon bottom at 7:20, where the trail (according to the map) was supposed to make a right hand turn .3 miles from the trailhead. Of course it looked like it did, but 50 yards later the trail just disappeared. No big deal I thought, as I'd been dealing with this off and on all day long. I just kept going in the right direction, cutting over to the riverbank, looking for the Cairn that would show where the trail crossed the river. I went for perhaps 5 minutes, realized I'd passed the trail, and decided to just cross the river and try for the trail on the other side, which I knew would be at a right angle to the River.
And here is where I got into trouble. I didn't realize I'd come down so far as to the bend in the river (really only a little creek about 10' wide this time of year), so instead of heading due east, I was actually heading southeast, towards a big band of cliffs. Upon reaching said cliffs, I pulled out the compass and realized my mistake. I immediately headed back to the river, and it took much longer than it should have, meaning I'd traveled farther than I thought, meaning I couldn't be exactly sure of where I was. It was now 8 pm. Past the time I would be able to make it to the airport, and only an hour from having the rescue services called. It was decision time. Do I continue trying to find my way in the dark (I was confident I could, but the only way to do it with a measure of success was to follow the river back north for a mile until a different trail crossed it. The problem with this was that it was pitch dark and given I was in a canyon bottom, it was hard to know what the condition of the riverbank might be like), or do I stay put. The pros of moving were obvious: a hotel and FOOD!, not getting rescue services called, but most important, eliminating the worry of a lot of friends. The con's of course were the very real possibility of getting hurt, along with the potential hours it would take to find my way safely. The pros of staying were of course staying safe, and knowing that it would only take 5 minutes to find may way once the sun came up.

So I stayed. I filtered and drank 2 more liters of water and ate the last of my food, then pitched my tent, and fell asleep 10 minutes later. I woke up and got packed. And then the sun came up. I looked up on the hill where I thought the trailhead would be, and sure enough I could see it exactly where I thought it would be.

All in all this was one incredible journey. i covered 3 miles Friday night, 22 miles on Saturday, 17 of which were cross country, and 30 miles on Sunday. This journey tested my skills in orienteering, my nerve in dealing with wildlife and the ability to stay calm in tough conditions. It tested my endurance. For me, it was the ultimate wilderness experience!
Rock Formations

Link to the full photo album:
Link to a video I took of the inner canyon:


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Sycamore Canyon from one end to the other. And back.

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