November 12, 2012

West Clear Creek Wilderness, Arizona

With temperatures dropping into the 30's (teens at night) at 7,000 feet this weekend, we decided to descend in elevation and see what was happening in the Verde Valley at 3,000 feet. We went up into the West Clear Creek Wilderness. West Clear Creek cuts a deep canyon some 20 miles long and 1,000 feet deep into the Mogollon Rim. Most of it is only about 1 mile wide.

Back in 2006, the Arizona Department of Fish and Game reintroduced Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep into the wilderness as part of their greater efforts to restore bighorn sheep to the state after nearly the entire population was extirpated in the early 20th century. We saw two of them on the rocky slopes along the way.

To access the trail, take Hwy 260 east out of Camp Verde for 5 miles. Just before the Clear Creek Campground, look for a forest service road heading off to the left. There is a sign for Bull Pen and Beaver Creek. Drive down this road for 2 miles and then look for FR 215 branching right. Follow this rough dirt road until it ends at a fence under the canopy of sycamores.

The trail starts out in an open mesquite-juniper shrubland just on the bench above the creek's bottomland riparian forest of Arizona sycamores, alders, and ash. There are magnificent views of the cliffs on the opposite side of the canyon. Seeps flow where the volcanic rocks meet the limestone layers below and deciduous trees hang from the cliff face like some tropical vision. After about a mile the trail will approach a redrock cliff and descend down to the creekside itself.

Eventually, after following the creek for a short distance, you will reach the first crossing. There really is no way to get across without getting wet. We tried many different approaches, but the boulders were always just a bit too far apart. So, we just waded into the foot deep water.

After a short distance on the cobbles of the old river bed, it was back across yet again toward the redrock cliff. The trail then climbs out of the bottomland and back up onto the mesquite flats. The views are spectacular up and down the canyon.

At about two miles you will reach creek crossing #3. The trail will then climb up a hill into the juniper stand. There are tantalizing glimpses down the canyon, but no completely open views due to the canopy cover.

Eventually the trail crosses for a fourth time before eventually heading steeply upslope to the canyon rim. We didn't go that far, turning back just before the fourth crossing. West Clear Creek is a great place to go in the heat of the summer to cool down under the shade of the riparian trees and take a cool dip in the deep pools along the cliff faces. In November, the temperatures have finally dropped into the 70s and the trees are just beginning to change color.

While the colors are not quite as spectacular as Sycamore Canyon or West Fork Oak Creek Canyon, there is a different quality here. The bronze of the sycamores, the orange/brown hues of the ash and walnut, the subtle yellows and pale greens of the alders and netleaf hackberries give it a calm late fall glow.

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