Box Canyon is a popular destination for many Wickenburg residents who want to do a little 4-wheeling. It’s especially popular in the summertime, when desert temperatures soar. We take out-of-town visitors to the canyon quite often, but this November, we also took along the digital camera to record our trip for wickenburg-az.com.
Getting to Box Canyon is relatively easy — if you have a 4-wheel drive vehicle. Take 93 (North Tegner) north out of town. Turn right on Rincon road. Follow this dirt road across the riverbed where it becomes paved again. Continue following it to cross the riverbed a second time. The pavement ends again. Continue until you get to the remains of a mine, complete with black tailings. There’s an intersection there, with a double-wide manufactured home and some other structures on the right. Rincon Road continues up and to the left, but you want to go straight and then to the left. This will take you on a rough road that goes right down to the river. (You could also just drive up the river bed from either of the two Rincon Road crossings, but this way is a bit faster because you spend more time on improved roads.)
In the river bed, follow the tracks made by other vehicles. Unless the river has flooded recently, there should be plenty of tracks to follow. There is no “right way” to go. The “wrong way” is where other vehicles have not driven — driving on soft sand is a good way to discover quicksand and get stuck.
At most times of the year, the point at which you enter the riverbed should be dry. If water is flowing there, however, the water is likely to be flowing even harder upstream. This may make it impossible to reach Box Canyon. Proceed with caution. If you get stuck, it’ll cost $150 or more to get a tow out. (We know this from experience; we once tried to cross the river when it was at least 100 feet wide and almost made it.)
The riverbed is a mixture of sandy spots and rocky spots, with some vegetation. Don’t be surprised to see cattle roaming the area. You may also see roadrunners, javelina, and coyote. As for human wildlife, you’re likely to see other 4-wheelers, including jeeps, ATVs, and dune buggies. The Wickenburg Jeep Tours often go to Box Canyon; more on that later. You may also see hikers and horseback riders. When driving past hikers with loose dogs or horseback riders, be sure to drive slowly and give them plenty of space.
The Hassasampa River
If you didn’t see water in the riverbed when you entered it, after a while, you should begin seeing it. It usually starts as a wet area of sand. As you continue upstream, the wetness turns to a trickle of water. Then a steam. The farther upstream you travel, the more water you’ll see.
Now this is completely opposite to what folks in non-desert areas expect to see. Normally, the farther upstream you go, the less water there is. But the Hassayampa is different. It’s riverbed is mostly sandy, so the water seeps underground. That’s why it’s dry where it “flows” under the bridge on East Wickenburg Way in town. But in rocky areas, such as the Box Canyon and Hassayampa River Preserve areas, the water can’t travel beneath the surface, so it comes to the ground. As you travel up the river towards Box Canyon, you’re seeing where the water seeps back into the ground.
After a while and several river crossings, you’ll arrive at Box Canyon. The entrance is marked with a number of large salt cedar trees. If you go on a weekend, there may be campers in this area. The box is beyond them.
If you’re on the right side of the river as you travel upstream, cross the river and park your vehicle. From there, it’s short stroll to the box.
To those of you unfamiliar with the term “box canyon,” a box canyon is a canyon closed in on three sides. If you can walk into the box, you’ll soon find yourself at a dead end. You’ll see a chute where floodwaters coming down from the desert above enter the canyon. It’s those waters that have carved out the box.
When I first started touring Box Canyon, we could walk all the way into the box. A number of party members even climbed up the chute to the canyon above. But during the summer of 1999, heavy rainstorms sent a lot of water into the box. The water collected there and, since it could not seem through the rock below, formed a pool of muddy water. By our November 1999 visit, the water had receded a bit, mostly through evaporation. But it was still impossible to walk to the back of the box without getting knee-deep in muddy water. Hopefully, the box will dry out soon so it can receive visitors again.
The flooding during the summer of 1999 also washed away much of the soil around the roots of the huge trees at the mouth of Box Canyon. The area beyond the trees remains a good camping spot. Near the river, you’ll also find the foundation of a home or cabin that once stood on the spot.
Unfortunately, many campers leave their trash behind. Although the folks who run the Wickenburg Jeep Tours often carry out the trash of these inconsiderate people, don’t be surprised if you see trash there. If you decide to camp or picnic at Box Canyon, please take out whatever you brought in. And, if you have a few spare moments, consider picking up some of the trash left behind by others. The Box Canyon area is privately owned; if abuse continues, the owner may close the area to all visitors. It would be a shame to lose such a special place because of the thoughlessness of a few selfish individuals.
The Slot and Beyond
Up river, beyond Box Canyon, is what I call “the Slot.” This slot canyon normally has the most river flow and makes an excellent place to escape the summer heat.
To folks unfamiliar with the term “slot canyon,” a slot canyon is a narrow canyon carved out by water flow. Some slot canyons are so narrow, you can barely walk through. Our slot canyon is a bit wider; at its narrowest point, it can still fit two cars side by side.
Drive upstream, beyond the flood monitoring device (a metalic tube with ladder and antenna) on the left. You’ll soon enter the slot. It’s about a quarter mile long and usually has sand bars on either side. If possible, find a place to park on the sand, get out your lawn chairs, and relax in the shade. You may get splashed by passing vehicles, but when the temperature exceeds 100 in the shade, you certainly don’t mind.
One thing to keep in mind here; during the summer monsoon season months, heavy rainfalls upstream and in the Bradshaw Mountains make the Box Canyon area — particularly the Slot — a dangerous flash flood area. Don’t enter the slot if it’s raining nearby. Monitor water levels during your stay. If the water levels appear to rise — even a little bit — leave. Be sure to have your departure route planned before visiting the Slot.
Farther upsteam, the canyon opens again and the road gets even rougher. Few visitors get this far, so it you’re looking for a quiet place to spend a Sunday afternoon, this may be it. You’ll need a high clearance vehicle to get over some of the rocks. We found a small waterfall with two pools perfect for soaking our feet. If our visit had been in the summertime, we would have been sitting in the same pools.
After the rocky bit, the road smooths out again. You can continue upstream, but I haven’t been much farther. If I recall correctly, seldom-used roads with quicksand as well as fences stopped us. Remember, much of the riverbed up here is on private property, so you want to obey any “No Tresspassing” signs you see. Also, be sure to close any gate you go through. Much of the land is used to graze cattle and the ranchers depend on fences and closed gates to keep the cows where they belong.
There are actually three good ways to get in and out of the canyon. The first and most often used is the one I already tols you about for getting in.
Another road comes into the canyon between Box Canyon and the Slot. It’s on the left side of the river as you go upstream, right before the canyon starts to narrow. There’s a lot of sand and trees there. The road, which is rocky, climbs up the side of a cliff. Because of erosion, you may find yourself driving dangerously close to the cliff edge. Once on top of the hill, bear left on the narrow dirt road. In less than a quarter mile, you’ll find yourself on a maintained dirt road called Scenic Loop. Make a left and follow that all the way back to 93, a distance of at least 5 miles. Make a left on 93 to go back to Wickenburg. (Note: Folks without 4-wheel drive vehicles who don’t mind hiking, may find this a good entry point for the canyon. Any vehicle can reach the parking area at the top of the hill here.)
A third road comes into the canyon after the slot. It’s also on the left, right where the river area opens up. Take it up a hill, past some ruins. Bear left on the narrow dirt road to get to the maintained Scenic Loop. Make a left and follow that about 6 miles to 93. Make another left to go to Wickenburg.
On our November trip, we were a bit more adventurous. We’d heard there was a jeep road from Constellation Road to the river and we were determined to find it. We went down the river bed, past Box Canyon and past the point where the water seeped into the sand. We found what looked like a road on our left and took it. We soon found ourselves in another canyon with fallen rocks that made treacherous obstacles and desert broom lining the narrow road. At the point where the road climbed a steep, rocky hill, we stopped to check out a smaller box canyon with a sandy bottom. Yellow, orange, and pale green lichen covered the rock walls. It was a pretty spot, shady in the early afternoon.
We continued on our way and the road got worse and worse, until we reached a point where we felt we could not continue. We backtracked and left the riverbed the same way we came. Although we hadn’t found a passable route to Constellation, we felt some satisfaction in our attempt.
And I’m still cleaning fuzzies from the desert broom out of my jeep.
Distance: About 15 miles round trip.
Time: About 2 Hours, including time to get out and walk around
Features: Hassayampa River (with water!), box canyon, slot canyon
Driving Conditions: Half of the trip is on paved or otherwise improved roads. Last few miles is in Hassayampa River bed. 4 wheel drive vehicle required; high clearance recommended.
Equipment: Bring water, shoes you don’t mind getting wet, and your camera. In the summer time, you may want to wear shorts or a swimsuit and bring lawn chairs for sitting in the water. It’s also a great place for a picnic lunch!