Backpacking the Desert Oasis of Aravaipa Canyon

By Michael Lanza

In strong, cool gusts of wind competing against a blazing desert sun, we descend a dusty trail flanked by tall, muscular saguaro and countless small cacti aiming thousands of sharp needles at the legs of anyone who wanders too close to the trail’s edge. Just minutes from the trailhead, we reach the bottom of southern Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon, splashing across Aravaipa Creek in several strides—the first of scores of crossings we’ll make of this calf-deep, crystal-clear, and cool but not numbing little desert waterway over the next three days.

White puffs of downy pollen float downward like snowflakes from the tall cottonwood trees lining both creek banks, bigger and more abundant than I’ve seen in most Southwest canyons, stretching their thick branches skyward and out over the chattering water. But the cottonwoods represent only the most prominent trees in the dense forest they share with sycamores, ash, and willows as well as ground-level flora here.

A backpacker hiking up Aravaipa Canyon in southern Arizona.
Todd Arndt backpacking up Aravaipa Canyon in southern Arizona.

I’ve come here in early April for three days of backpacking into Aravaipa Canyon, a 12-mile-long defile this creek has carved into the high desert. From the west trailhead at 2,630 feet, my friends Pam and Mark Solon, Mark Fenton, and Todd Arndt and I will backpack almost halfway up the canyon, set up a base camp for two nights, and spend the middle day exploring farther upstream toward the canyon’s upper end.

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Backpackers dayhiking up Arizona's Aravaipa Canyon from a camp lower in the canyon.
Dayhiking up Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon on our trip’s middle day.

With no maintained trail in the canyon, the five of us and all backpackers and dayhikers here follow whatever user trails get beaten into the sandy ground—or, more often than not, hike directly in the creek, splashing through water that ranges from not too cold to chilly. Heading up the canyon, we alternately walk in the soft sand of user paths and cross or wade against the shallow current.

Flowing out of the Galiuro Mountains, southeast of Phoenix and north of Tucson, this perennial stream creates an oddity in the Grand Canyon state, where most creek beds remain dry washes most of the year: Aravaipa Creek waters a desert oasis.

The lush greenery contrasts starkly against a backdrop of redrock walls that rise as much as 700 feet above the creek. But on the canyon walls and up the often-dry side canyons, the environment shifts abruptly to that of the surrounding, vast Sonoran Desert, with saguaro occupying the numerous cliff ledges like thousands of spectators watching us in a strangely steep-sided, long, narrow, and winding stadium.

This combination creates the rare kind of Southwest oasis where those two very different environments blend green forest and red walls, reminiscent of Zion’s Narrows, southern Utah’s Coyote Gulch, and some tributaries of the Grand Canyon, like Tapeats and Deer creeks on the Thunder River-Deer Creek Loop and Royal Arch Canyon and Elves Chasm on the Royal Arch Loop.

About five miles up the canyon, we stop at one of a few large, sandy campsites in the forest near the mouth of Horse Camp Canyon, pitch our tents; and after dinner, sit around a campfire while night slowly spreads throughout this quiet canyon. Eventually, the stars emerge, first slowly and then rapidly, until thousands of specks liberally salt the ink-black sky. 

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A Tiny Wilderness Oasis in the Sonoran Desert

A backpacker dayhiking up Arizona's Aravaipa Canyon from a camp lower in the canyon.
Todd Arndt dayhiking up Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon on our trip’s middle day.

“Ara-what?” That was my reaction when I first heard about this place from a friend—whose advice to go there I wisely followed. (Thanks, John.) Aravaipa is an Apache name (some say Pima, others say Papago) and the commonly accepted meaning is ”laughing waters”—a fact I learned when an online search for that answer turned up a New York Times article from 1982 written by none other than America’s desert sage, Ed Abbey.

Although tiny compared to many more-famous federal wilderness areas, the 19,410-acre Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness, managed by the Bureau of Land Management in southeast Arizona, stands out as an anomalous oasis in the hyper-arid Sonoran Desert. Aravaipa Creek flows strongly year-round, nurturing tall cottonwood, sycamore, ash, and willow trees in the canyon bottom, while saguaro and other cacti desert flora grow on the canyon walls and rims.

With easy, nearly flat hiking often in the shallow river, none of the hazards or obstacles typical of Southwest desert backpacking trips, like flash floods or pour-offs found in tighter canyons, abundant water and shade, the low elevation and the southern Arizona climate, Aravaipa offers a pretty casual and beautiful adventure in spring and fall—with a season that extends longer than that of many Southwest canyon hikes, from March into May and late September through November. Fall paints the canyon in brilliant hues of red and gold.

Exploring Aravaipa Canyon

In the morning, we awaken to very strong and frigid wind hurtling down the canyon, buffeting our tents and threatening to carry off anything not weighted down—and the sun’s warmth won’t reach our camp in the canyon bottom until mid-morning. We all pull on fat down jackets (and I’m particularly happy to have brought a wearable sleeping bag)—except for Mark Fenton, who brought an insulated jacket that looks at least 20 years old and has virtually no loft left. Mark calls this former puffy jacket—now essentially nothing more than an overweight wind shell—his “flatty.”

Pam shouts and points at a clearing near our camp, where a pair of javelinas sprint through the forest. Pig-like in appearance, although they’re actually ungulates that live in the deep Southwest, javelinas can grow to about 175 pounds, although the two we glimpse briefly look more the size of small but very well-fed dogs. Before this day’s out, we’ll also see wild turkeys, several deer, and a great blue heron that takes flight at our slow approach but keeps returning to our vicinity, as if guiding us back to our camp.

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A backpacker dayhiking up Arizona's Aravaipa Canyon from a camp lower in the canyon.
Mark Solon dayhiking up Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon on our trip’s middle day.

Setting out to dayhike up the canyon, we first try exploring a side canyon, Horse Camp, located across the creek from our camp. But big rocks that have fallen off the cliffs overhead and thick desert flora clog its mouth, leaving it virtually impassable—at least short of clambering over massive boulders of indeterminate stability and shredding our clothes and skin bushwhacking through the thorny brush, an adventure holding zero appeal to any of us.

It doesn’t matter. Simply hiking up Aravaipa Canyon delivers a full experience of this special place. Plus, the main canyon offers shade from the hot desert sun and the constantly cooling effect of walking in the creek—not to mention much more interesting and denser flora growing along the creek—while many of the side canyons are often dry, with little or no shade.

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Backpackers camped near Horse Camp Canyon in Arizona's Aravaipa Canyon.
Our camp near Horse Camp Canyon in Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon.

In the upper canyon, not far from the East Trailhead, the cliffs rise taller and more vertiginous; the forest also opens up, giving us more constant, broad vistas. We walk in the shallow river much of the time, where big cottonwoods often extend their canopies over the river, forming a sort of green tunnel. It’s one of Aravaipa’s nicest sections.

A great blue heron lifts off from the creek shallows by one bank and glides almost effortlessly upstream, setting down again a distance from us. We approach it more slowly, hoping not to spook the magnificent bird. As we watch, it grows as still as a statue for several minutes, not making even a twitch or slight turn of its head; if we had not seen where it landed, it would have blended entirely into the background, disappearing from our sight. Then, suddenly, the heron snaps out of its motionlessness, lunging head-first into the creek and emerging with a fish in its beak, gulping it down in an instant.

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Hiking Out, It’s All New Again

On our last morning, we pack up and leave camp at 9 a.m., just as morning light floods the canyon, lending it contrast and depth that brightens all the colors and makes our surroundings look deeper, broader, and taller.

Although we’re now backtracking the five miles we hiked in on day one, in a way, it all seems new because the canyon takes so many twists and turns and changes so much—especially with the light completely different now, in the morning, compared to when we hiked up the canyon on our first afternoon. We recall very few spots while walking the same terrain a second time. We all repeatedly just shuffle slowly along or stop and spin in a slow circle, gaping.

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Backpackers in Aravaipa Canyon, Arizona.
Backpacking out to the West Trailhead on our last day in Aravaipa Canyon, Arizona. Click photo to learn how I can help you plan your trip.

I point out to my friends that I haven’t really broken a sweat on this entire hike: We’ve had very pleasant daytime temperatures ranging from around 50 to 70 Fahrenheit—except for our one windy and chilly morning with a low in the 30s in camp—plus a lovely breeze in this first week of April.

It’s small and may seem like a short hike, especially if you’re traveling some distance to get here. But there’s much to like about Aravaipa Canyon.

Mark Solon says, “I give this hike a 10 plus a bullet—an 11.”

On the same Southwest trip that we backpacked in Aravaipa Canyon in early April, three of us from that group also backpacked one of the finest three-day sections of the Arizona Trail, Passage 16, during a wildflower superbloom. See my story about that surprisingly beautiful hike.

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4 thoughts on “Backpacking the Desert Oasis of Aravaipa Canyon”

  1. Michael, your story brought back many fond memories of our adventure in Aravaipa (and thank you for the acknowledgement). It really is a gem full of many surprises. One of the most memorable occurred early on our third day of exploring as we were cutting across a large bend in the river. I was leading and had bent over squeezing under a leaning tree when I suddenly realized the stick on the trail was in fact a rattlesnake. Fortunately it was a cool November morning and the snake was lethargic. We gently moved it off the trail with our hiking poles and carried on.

    Another memory is when we met two grizzled veterans of the canyon who had been exploring the canyon and the myriad side canyons for 20 plus years and claimed they still had much more to see. As you noted the main canyon is only 12 miles long but the side canyons seem endless but mostly dry except for those rain events that can turn them into dangerous places. We spent a full day following one hoping to find a place to pop out of the canyon. While we were occasionally teased with success in our quest the next corner took us deeper once again.

    Thank you for sharing another adventure with us! You do it better than anyone.

    • Thanks, George. We all wore any kind of footwear that offered good traction and fit and protected our feet completely, including toes. I offer more details on that in the planning tips at the bottom of the story (which subscribers who are logged in can read).