If you live in here in Arizona then you know that without good A/C and a swimming pool, it’s just too hot! Even though temperatures may be sizzling here in the desert region of the state, you can still get out and enjoy nature and the outdoors. More any other state in the U.S., Arizona is famous for its many beautiful canyons and gorges, many of which can be reached in as little as a few hours drive from the Phoenix metropolitan area. If you’re ready for a real outdoors adventure, and a great summer day trip & hike into one of Arizona’s gorgeous mountain canyons, then check out Christopher Creek’s Box Canyon & the Ellison Creek Cascades, and discover the adventure of Arizona Canyoneering!
Through a local hiking group I joined called the TLC Hiking Group, led and organized by Eric Kinneman, I saw that there was a really interesting water hike scheduled, rated easy to moderate, which sounded like a lot of fun. Though I have hiked and camped in Arizona’s beautiful Mogollon Rim area for many years and recently visited the Christopher Creek area a couple months ago too, I had never heard of Box Canyon or the Ellison Creek Cascades before. But I always enjoy hiking, getting outdoors and exploring new places to go in Arizona so I was excited to sign up for this day hike.
I met up with Eric Kinneman and the TLC Hiking Group early on a Saturday morning, and by 7:45 am, we left the Fort McDowell Casino, heading north on Rt 87, aka the Beeline Highway. The drive up on Route 87 to Payson is one of my personal favorites. Absolutely gorgeous mountain scenery all the way! We arrived in Payson in about 1.5 hours, then made a right onto Route 260 east and drove 30 minutes and another 19 miles to Christopher Creek, arriving by 9:30am. Because there was no official parking for this hike and with the road construction that was going on that day, Eric advised us to park at the Christopher Creek Campground’s day use area. So for a small fee of $6, which was strictly enforced, and with ample space available, we all parked our cars there.
Starting out from the Christopher Creek Campground, we hiked about a mile along the shoulder on the south side of Route 260, where just next door to the right of the Boy Scout Camp, we passed through a fence, collected the group, then set out on our descent down into Box Canyon. The trail was not real well marked at the beginning but we quickly found our bearings then trekked our way through the beautiful pines and forest vegetation and after only a short ways, maybe about a mile, we arrived at the top of Box Canyon. Wow, what an incredible view looking down into the canyon. Absolutely gorgeous! After stopping to take a few photos, we then followed the trail steeply down to the creek bottom below.
Once everyone had made it safely to the water’s edge at the top of the creek, Eric quickly jumped into the water and began guiding the group down stream, swimming and scrambling from one waterfall and pool to another until roughly about 1/4 to 1/3 mile down they reached a 35 foot waterfall which could only be safely attempted by rappeling. With this being my first experience “canyoneering”, I took it at a much slower pace and lost most of the group! After taking the plunge into my first swimming hole, I found the water to be cool, but surprisingly very refreshing. So one waterfall after another, each one seeming larger than the next, I slowly kept swimming, scrambling, jumping into pool after pool, trying to see if I could reach the group. I had just jumped down a 10 foot waterfall, dropping completely into a deep pool of water, then continued on a little ways further when I started to notice feeling cold and my feet and hands feeling really numb. That’s when I knew I had reached my limit and the point where I couldn’t go on any further. Christopher Creek Gorge is a beautiful and popular place for canyoneering in Arizona because of its many small waterfalls and pools. However, be aware that the water temperature is cool, especially if you’ve been in it for awhile and if you don’t have a wet suit, getting hypothermia is a possibility and one of the hazards of canyoneering. But I made it back safely with the help of a few people along the way who helped pull me back up onto the rocks. Once I had arrived back, it only took a few minutes to warm back up in the hot sun at the top of the cliff and I was okay again.
It was by this time that Eric had returned, with the rest of the group coming in one by one behind him. After a few minutes collecting the group again, we started our hike back and arrived at the Christopher Creek Campground and our cars by 12:30-12:45pm. As soon as everyone had safely returned again, it was time to journey on to the 2nd water hike of the day, the Ellison Creek Cascades, just north east of Payson. By 1pm we got back into our cars and drove route 260 west back to Payson, then hung a right onto Route 87 north for a couple of miles until we reached the Houston Mesa Campground, then turned right onto Houston Mesa Road, aka FR 199.
It was a very beautiful and scenic drive out Houston Mesa Road, though some signs were still evident of the devastating Water Wheel Fire in 2009. It was about 8 miles later and shortly after crossing the East Verde River that we turned off into a small parking area on the right at the Cold Springs Campground. We parked, got out there, passed through the gate and began the short hike, roughly about a mile down the dirt road trail, FR 420, then hung a right down into Ellison Creek. The views along FR 420 of the surrounding Tonto National Forest area were really spectacular!
The temperatures on this August day were by now pretty warm, about the low 90’s, so there were a lot of people already there at Ellison Creek as it’s a very popular and well known swimming hole during the summer months. Once down at the creek, I hopped across the rocks and boulders until I caught sight of Eric and the group at the swimming hole next to the falls. Everyone that day was having a great time because next to the water fall there was a large tree that had steps carved into it like stairs so that you could climb up and jump off into the water pool below. Wow, that looked like fun!
After spending a couple of afternoon hours relaxing and enjoying the cool water at Ellison Creek, it was time to head back home again. We started our hike at around 4pm, making the trek back up the hot dirt road but feeling much cooler and refreshed now! We returned to our cars and the parking lot by 4:30pm, drove it back to Payson, then headed on down to Phoenix where we arrived back at the Fort McDowell Casino by 6pm.