Planning the Trip
In late Fall 2017, just a few weeks after hiking across Zion, the itch to go backpacking again was already coming back. If I don’t have some sort of trip on the radar, I start to go a little crazy. I messaged a tight-knit group of friends and proposed a winter backpacking trip to the desert.
There were a few concerns voiced about the likelihood of cold temperatures, so I picked the Superstition Mountains (a rugged range east of Phoenix), as our destination. I expected our daytime highs to be in the 60s and 70s, with nighttime lows in the 40s. Using Topo Maps+, I plotted a 28-mile loop that would take us up Boulder Canyon and down La Barge Canyon.
Change of Plans
We agreed to do the hike in early January, but a dry spell left Phoenix without measurable rain for 103 days. I grew concerned about water availability and decided to change things up. I scoured the web for a new location and found stunning photos of the Little Colorado River. I was beguiled by magnificent turquoise waters set in a deep gorge.
I continued to research the area and discovered a non-technical route in Salt Trail Canyon that gets you down to the bottom of the Little Colorado River Gorge. Backcountry permits were easy to obtain. The cost was $12 per person per night and available online from the Navajo Nation Parks website.
To prepare for the trip, I used Gaia GPS to download topographical maps of the area and read as much as I could about the trail itself. Information proved to be rather sparse, but I was able to find some valuable tidbits in Michael Kelsey’s Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau.
I also posted to an Arizona hiking group on Facebook to see if anyone else had been there. There, I was referred to some dated trip logs. If nothing else, they helped inspire confidence.
By the time of our trip in early January, two of my friends were still committed to joining me for the adventure. Jason, who lives full time out of his van, drove out from Santa Barbara, California. He would meet us in Cameron, a dusty Arizona town on the Navajo Nation. Jason gets outside a lot and shoots beautiful landscapes.
Clay, the biggest music geek you’ll ever meet, flew out from Austin, Texas. I picked him up from Phoenix Sky Harbor and we made our way north. We stopped to pick up some last minute supplies at the REI Flagstaff Store and by the time we met up with Jason, the sun was low in the sky.
Getting to the Trailhead
Our plan was to camp at the trailhead and we had never been on the quagmire of dirt roads that one takes to get there. Navigating the unknown would be more difficult in the dark, so we rushed to make it before sunset. In my haste, I failed to communicate with Jason and we turned off US 89 at different locations.
I managed to make it there first and was treated to a colorful sunset with a spectacular view of Salt Trail Canyon. As luck would have it, I found cell phone reception and texted Jason, who was not far behind. We happily reconvened, set up camp, and cooked brats. Without a proper fire, it was cold out there on the high plateau, but we made the most of it.
The next morning, we assembled our backpacks and made our way down the trail. The first set of switchbacks was gradual, but things got hairy in a hurry. All of a sudden, the route dropped down a steep, narrow, and heavily eroded section. That particular section was the most challenging, but it was similarly difficult all the way to the bottom, with Class 2-3 scrambles throughout.
To my surprise, route finding was not too involved thanks to plentiful cairns, but there were still a couple tricky spots. At one point, we found ourselves at the edge of a 30-foot cliff with seemingly no way around it. After a few minutes of poking around, we found footprints leading uphill to the right. Sure enough, there was a way up and around.
It took us nearly four hours to reach the Little Colorado River, where we set up camp and marveled at the water’s distinct color. We had descended 3,152 feet over 3.3 miles and felt ready to eat, hydrate, and relax.
Of course, we were well aware of the fact that the Little Colorado is fed by springs filled with calcium carbonate and copper sulfate. Because of that, it tastes terrible and it is not recommended that you drink it for extended periods. Still, we failed to bring enough water to go without it. Part of me hoped the reports were exaggerated, but I can now attest to the water’s foulness.
On a fruitless morning walk to find better water, Jason and Clay determined that our hopes to visit the confluence of The Colorado and Little Colorado would be squelched. The sheer river embankments did not seem like a feasible route to take all the way there. As a result, we decided to hike out that day.
It was a grueling three-and-a-half hour ascent, but when we exited the canyon we were greeted by a herd of wild horses. I can’t imagine a better reward for our efforts.
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