What a wonderful soreness a strenuous hike brings! I love it but have a sneaking suspicion that Saja doesn’t share my feeling! She’s exhausted after our weekend romp and slept most of the day today. I can’t blame her. Climbing out of the canyon was the toughest mile I’ve hiked in a long time. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Redfield Canyon Wilderness lies at the southern foot of the Galiuro Mountains some thirty odd miles east of Tucson. The wilderness is part of the Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area which is a jointly run by Coronado National Forest, the BLM, and the Nature Conservancy. These beautiful canyons offer not just stunning vistas but the most precious Arizona treasure of all–running water. I’ve tried several times to reach Redfield Canyon, but in the southwest distance is deceiving and thirty miles may as well be ten thousand over jeep trails. The Galiuro Mountains and Redfield Canyon Wilderness are remote not due to distance but due to access, and this surely will be their salvation.
I opted for the “shorter” western approach and the 42 mile drive took 2 1/2 hours, with half that time spent traversing the last 7 1/2 miles. All but the first 4 miles were over dirt roads and the final stretch was strictly off road vehicles only. From Reddington Road south on San Pedro Road there are two trails into the Redfield Canyon. The first, just north of where San Pedro Road crosses the Redfield Wash, is currently gated and locked. The second, 3 1/2 miles south, is the route I took. The trail is not overly challenging but it is rough and the rocks force you to keep the speed down. Most cars can travel the initial section until the trail criss crosses and merges with a dried stream bed. From this point on your really want a high clearance vehicle and complete disregard for your paint job and undercarriage. I put another nice dent in my front skid plate when I misjudged the approach angle climbing out of the stream. Eventually the trail climbs out of the stream onto the plateau south of Redfield Canyon. Here the rocks get larger and the grades steeper. I finally had to park about a mile east of my planned trailhead when I encountered a down grade that was just a bit too hairy for a solo driver miles from nowhere.
For reference, the eastern approach is through the town of Wilcox, another 30 miles of “maintained” dirt roads to the Muleshoe Ranch Visitors Center, and then over a 14 mile of jeep trail to Jackson Cabin. I may try that route next time.
The drive was longer than I had anticipated and it was almost 11:00 by the time I was ready to set off. I wanted to give myself two hours of sunlight for the drive out, so I had six hours to hike. Three in and three out. There are no trails into the canyon and I had selected a feeder valley a mile to the east for the descent. It was easy going for the first half mile but then the channel became steeper and deeper. With little ground cover, the dirt was loose and the underlying rock was rotten. There were a few treacherous sections but Saja and I were fresh and we made our way to the bottom without incident. The vegetation changed as we dropped towards the canyon floor and we began to see, much to Saja’s delight, pools and even running water! The stream disappeared but we finished our descent at a most unusual landmark, a rock wall. Why or when the wall was built, I have no idea. Perhaps it was meant to dam the stream we’d followed. Arizona is full of these little surprises that remind us how little we know of our land and our predecessors.
We had a quick lunch and set off again. It was cool in the valley due to the moisture and shade, no more than 90 or 95º, so it was an enjoyable walk. Saja took off after the occasional ground squirrel and I listened to the birds and the wind. A perfect day. We began to encounter water again as we moved upstream, but I only had to lift my eyes to be reminded of the harsh land that surrounded this little oasis.
I’ve said before that anyone who chooses to venture into the wilderness must learn to use a map and compass. That is especially true in canyon lands where restricted sky views render a GPS all but useless. These canyons are a maze and it would be all too easy to lose one’s way.
As we hiked deeper into the canyon, the vegetation grew thicker and suddenly we came across a real stream. Flowing water and even fish! Not a typical sight during a desert hike, but certainly a welcome one.
Regrettably, all good things come to an end and shortly after passing these amazing bluffs it was time to head for home.
I wasn’t too keen on climbing back out the way we came, but I didn’t have a lot of good choices. The canyon walls rose 400 feet or more in most places and we were hardly equipped for a technical climb on crumbling rock. I had passed another feeder valley a mile east of where we came in and decided to try it. It was considerably longer and shallower according to the map, but I was soon to be reminded that you can hide a lot in a 40 foot contour interval! I won’t bore you with the interminable climb, the dead ends, and the scratching thorns. It was a tough climb and Saja earned her day of rest! At one point, as I lifted her onto a crumbly, one foot ledge, I’m sure she questioned my sanity, but the only way out was up. So up we went. The picture below was taken about half way out, but doesn’t really do justice to the climb. The drainage had clogged up and we were forced to tackle the slope. Not fun at all.
Fortunately, thunderstorms to the north had spread their clouds overhead and we were spared the worst of the sun. Even so, by the time we reached the top we were both exhausted. After a little siesta under a mesquite tree, we made the final slog along the jeep trail to the car. In all we covered about seven miles in six and a half hours. Hard work? Yes, but well worth it. I’ll be visiting Redfield Canyon again for a multiday trip.
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About the Author: Tucson, AZ Realtor & Investor. My true passions however are hiking and whisky (although generally not at the same time). If you have a question about any of these just drop me a line!