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Hiking in the Upper Hassayampa River

by Allan Hall and Lee Pearson

As the warm season approaches, most people abandon the idea of hiking in the mountains and gulches surrounding Wickenburg; preferring to wait until at least October to resume such activities. If you have never hiked the upper Hassayampa River between Williams Ranch and Buckskin Canyon, you will be pleasantly surprised to learn that this is a relatively easy hike which takes you through a rich riparian habitat full of interesting vegetation and wildlife. For a “warm season” hiker, there is the added advantage that the change in elevation (from start to finish) is less than 90 feet, even though each leg of the hike is about 2.7 miles. Naturally, the cooler season between October – April can be an enjoyable time to hike this area. Just understand that the lush foliage will give way to bare limbs from late November to March [1].

We (Lee and Allan) hiked this area in mid-May, but you can make the hike any time during the warmer months if you get an early morning start.

Background Information

This hike lies within the Hassayampa River Canyon Wilderness area. It is comprised of 11,840-acres of land administered by the Bureau of Land Management [2]. The watershed is made up of 1470 square miles of territory, with some portion of this lying between Wickenburg and the confluence of the Gila River to the south [3]. Only a small portion of the Hassayampa River is classified as riparian, but its importance to the survival of wildlife is impossible to overstate. For example, a study titled “Arizona’s Wildlife Linkages Assessment” provides the following observation:

Riparian areas in Arizona are small relative to other vegetative community types. Perennial streams constitute less than 0.4 percent of the total land area of the state (Valencia et al. 1993). However, they possess a disproportionate importance and biological value compared to their area. It has been estimated that 75 percent or more of Arizona’s wildlife species depend on riparian communities during some portion of their life cycle. In addition, riparian areas are critical to the persistence of approximately 60 percent of the fish and wildlife species currently in jeopardy of extirpation from the state (Minckley and Brown 1994).

During years of low rainfall, the Hassayampa can become “subsurface” in many locations downstream from the Williams Ranch. This is particularly true from May until the start of the monsoon season in mid-July. Heavy monsoon downpours can quickly alter this situation. There is good news, however! A very short distance (roughly 200 yards) upstream from Williams Ranch, you will encounter the point where the river drops below the surface. From this point forward you will be treated with a perennial flow of water and you will be crossing the stream frequently. During periods of increased runoff some of these crossings could become much wider than normal.

Getting Started

If you are familiar with Constellation Road, drive toward the Williams Family Ranch – a distance of approximately 13.8 miles from the Blue Tank Wash fork. As you near the ranch you will see a sign posted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that directs you to the right into a parking area. There is a metal “sign-in” box at this spot where you can register as a visitor in the area. Please sign in. Doing so will help ensure that grading of Constellation Road continues on at least a semi-regular basis.

This section of the Hassayampa River is completely closed to all vehicular traffic by the BLM and is administered as a wilderness area. It is fenced off at the lower and upper ends of this river segment, and there is an intermediate fence across the riverbed as well.

The Hike

Upon entering the riverbed, proceed upstream in a northeasterly direction to the BLM fence. There are no gates so it will be necessary to pass through the fence between the barbed wire strands to continue. It’s recommended that you pass through on the left (north) side of the fence line, just above the riverbed. This section of wire appears to have been “stretched” sufficiently to permit a relatively easy passage.

Just beyond the fence you will encounter the perennial stream flow and the lower margin of riparian vegetation. You will be in a portion of the river that slowly meanders in a reverse “S” pattern. See the map in Figure 11. At the point where the river turns to the northwest you will see where past floods have cut into the right bank to a height of fifteen to eighteen feet.

Hassayampa River
Figure 1: Hassayampa River above Williams Ranch

As you continue to follow the river, the density of vegetation steadily increases and, at times, you may feel that you are threading your way through a narrow, lush corridor of green (Figure 1). There will be several deep, clear pools of water that reach bedrock where the river makes a sharp bend. At these locations you may see waterfowl, such as a Great Blue Heron.

After passing through the middle (second) BLM fence the riverbanks will be quite dense with vegetation (Figure 2). The majority of trees that line the river are one or more species of willow. We found no Salt Cedar or Cottonwoods in this 2.7-mile stretch of the Hassayampa.

Dense Vegetation
Figure 2: Dense Vegetation in the Upper Hassayampa River Wilderness

During the course of this hike you will only hear the chirping of birds, babbling of the river in places where it tumbles over and around rocks, and your own footsteps; a sense of solitude and peacefulness pervades the area. Some locations along the hike evoke a quiet beauty that simply forces you to stop and “take it in” (Figures 3 and 4).

Scenes
Figure 3

Shortly before you reach the terminus of this hike you will encounter the third and final BLM fence. After you pass through the fence you will approach the confluence of Buckskin Canyon, off to your right, and the Hassayampa River. Buckskin Canyon leads in a southeasterly direction to Roberts Camp, located in Grid #24 of the Morgan Butte Quad map, but it is not within the scope of this article.

Volcanic Extrusion
Figure 4, Volcanic Extrusion Dike

Flowering Plants

Reference literature [5] on the Moth Mullein (Figure 5) says this flower grows at an elevation of 6,000 to 7,000 feet and blooms in August-September. Nevertheless, this flower was doing quite well at an elevation of 2,800 feet and, as you can see, was flowering in May! It is likely that this plant is more widely established than realized. It has at least found a favorable environment in the Hassayampa River wilderness.

Moth Mullein
Figure 5, Moth Mullein (Verbascum blattaria)

Unlike the Moth Mullein, Buckley’s Centaury in Figure 6 is quite at home along moist meadows and streams. This plant will have an extended blooming season in protected, lower elevation areas such as the Hassayampa River Wilderness. Absent these favorable conditions it blooms April-June.

Image
Figure 6, Buckley’s Centaury (Centaurium calycosum)

There are more than three-dozen species of Penstemon in Arizona. It is probable that the flower in Figure 7 is one of several subspecies of the Eatoni Penstemon. Further research will be required to confirm this. We found these growing within a few feet of the riverbank where the soil remained moist.

Penstemon
Figure 7, Penstemon species

The flowering plant in Figure 8 is one of three species of Goodding’s Verbena. This plant is found below 5,000 feet elevation and blooms between February and October.

Gooding's Verbena
Figure 8, Gooding’s Verbena (Verbena gooddingii)

Wildlife

The riverbed and grassy banks are thick with wildlife and you can expect to see sign of javelina, mountain lions, coyotes and waterfowl such as Great Blue Herons. We saw fresh tracks of several groups of javelina. In one instance, the group was moving so quickly that they threw wet mud and sand in front of their prints, so we were very close. At a later point in the hike we found an area where javelina had bedded down on a grassy bank. These animals possess keen senses of hearing and smell; so if your goal is to photograph them, you will need to move more slowly and quietly along the river than we did!

Because this area is quite dense with trees and undergrowth, you will see many varieties of birds. In addition to the Great Blue Heron, we encountered mallards, cardinals (Figure 9), quail and many other species that we were not equipped to identify.

Northern Cardinal
Figure 9, Northern Cardinal (Cardinal cardinalis)

The river is home to many small fish, as evidenced in Figure 10. Thanks to the kind assistance of The Nature Conservancy and the BLM, we tentatively identified these fish as “Longfin Dace.” The identity was subsequently confirmed in correspondence with Kimberly Bodary of the Arizona Game and Fish Dept who reported their biologist, Chris Cantrell, was recently on the river doing surveys and that is all they caught. Longfin Dace are also found in the Hassayampa River Preserve south of Wickenburg as well as other river drainages in Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico.

The river was full of these hardy minnows, the larger of which appeared to be about two and one-half inches long. They feed primarily on detritus and on aquatic invertebrates and algae. Spawning can take place throughout the year but primarily from December to July.

With the onset of flooding, the Longfin Dace move to the edges of the flow then return into the main channel when the flooding decreases. Likewise, they are quick to reestablish their population in previously dry riverbeds when stream flow returns.

Predation is a serious problem in a number of areas. To ensure the long-term survival of native species such as the Longfin Dace, it is necessary to remove non-native species. However, this appears not to be a problem in this area of the Hassayampa River. The only predator we saw was a heron but unfortunately we weren’t able to get close enough to observe its feeding activity. [6].

Longfin Dace
Figure 10, Longfin Dace (Agosia chrysogaster)

This is one of the more enjoyable and rewarding hikes that can be made, especially this time of year. It’s a riparian habitat in a designated wilderness area where you will see flora and fauna that is relatively undisturbed due to its remoteness. Rather than making a day trip, it is suggested that an overnight outing be planned which will give plenty of time to enjoy the full beauty, peace and serenity of the area.

Before You Go

Regardless of the time of year that you choose to hike the upper stretches of the Hassayampa River, there are some fundamental, common sense things you should consider before hiking in this area:

  • Let someone know specifically where you are going before you depart and when you plan to return.
  • Be absolutely certain that your vehicle is in good working condition and that you have sufficient fuel, oil, coolant and good tires.
  • Take plenty of water and energy snacks. Depending on the season that you hike, your need for water could vary greatly. Make sure that you are properly hydrated before you start.
  • Wear appropriate clothing, including hiking shoes with good, firm soles and a hat.
  • Allow a combined travel and hiking time of at least six hours. This includes approximately one hour of driving time each way on Constellation Road plus the time it will take to hike.

Precautions

Some additional notes.

  • From mid-April through September you can expect to see snakes. Be alert.
  • Heavy winter or monsoon rains can temporarily increase the flow in the Hassayampa River to flood stage even after the runoff has subsided in the washes along Constellation Road.
  • Know and understand your own capabilities. If you are a “cool weather” hiker, you may want to defer hiking in the upper Hassayampa River until the October-April time frame.
  • Plan to take photos and leave only footprints. Pack out what you carry in!

Travel & Hiking Coordinates

Coordinates are listed in 1927 North American Datum, (NAD27), which appears on USGS Quad maps.

  1. Distance from the Blue Tank-Constellation Road fork is approximately 13.8 miles.
  2. BLM Parking Area: N 34o 06′ 13″ by W 112o 34′ 18″ (elevation ~2750 ft.) Located in Grid #21 of the Morgan Butte Quad map
  3. Buckskin Canyon at Hassayampa River: N 34o 07′ 04″ by W 112o 32′ 53″ (elevation ~2839 ft.) Located in Grid #14 of the Morgan Butte Quad map

The map image below illustrates the path of our hike.

Map of Hike
Figure 11, Map of Hike

If you have any questions about directions or content of this article, please drop either Lee or Allan a note via the web site. Good hiking!

References

[1] Additional information on the Hassayampa River Canyon Wilderness is available by doing a Google search on these key words.
[2] Bureau of Land Management Web site: http://www.blm.gov/az/rec/hssyampa.htm
[3] http://water.az.gov/dwr/Content/Find_by_Program/Rural_Programs/OutsieAMAs_PDFs_for_web/CentralHighlands/hssayampa_river_watershed.pdf
[4] ARIZONA’S WILDLIFE LINKAGES ASSESSMENT 147. See Section VIII Riparian Habitat/Linkage Zones: http://www.azdot.gov/Highways/OES/AZ_WildLife_Linkages/assessment.asp
[5] A Field Guide to the Plants of Arizona, by Anne Orth Epple. Library of Congress Number 94-78616.
[6] Longfin Dace – http://azgfd.gov/w_c/edits/documents/Agoschch.fo.pdf

Last 5 posts by Allan Hall

3 comments to Hiking in the Upper Hassayampa River

  • Chuck

    I would like to do this hike.

  • I would like to do this hike. I am moving to Morristown, AZ next week. For many years I have lived 2 blocks from the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

  • Allan

    Chuck,
    Thanks for visiting our web site and reading the article. I was in the hike area about three weeks ago, including the old Roberts Camp and Buckskin Canyon. As you may have observed for yourself, this spring produced very few of the wild flowers shown in the article, including a virtually complete absence of Mexican Poppies this year.

    The upper Hassayampa is still flowing (it always does). If you want to combine a pleasant hike with the spring blooming season and comfortable temperatures, I suggest you plan on March or April of 2012.
    Allan