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West Clear Creek - Coconino National Forest

Summary: A remote and wet hike with swimming and wading through a Coconino Sandstone canyon.
Directions: From Phoenix take I-17 north to Camp Verde to exit 285.  Turn right (east) onto Highway 260. 
Lower: Follow 260 for about 7 miles.  Between mile posts 226 & 227, turn left (north) onto Forest Road (FR) 618 following the signs for Bull Pen Ranch.  After about 2 miles turn right onto FR 215 and follow an additional 2 miles to the end.
Upper: Continue on Highway 260 to it's end.  Turn left onto Highway 87.   After a couple miles look for a paved road (FR 149) on the left as you come up a low rise (there is a large fenced in gravel pile just inside the entrance to this road.   Turn left onto FR 149 which quickly becomes well graded dirt.  Follow this road to the end and a 'T' with FR 142.  Turn right onto FR 142 and follow it one mile to FR 142E on the left.  Turn left on FR 142E and continue 2.7 miles to the end.
Middle: Follow the above directions onto Fr 149 to the 'T' junction with FR 142.   Turn left onto FR 142.  After passing right branching FR 142C the road begins to get deeply rutted.  Turn right onto the unsigned FR 142A which is located after the stock fence on the right (if you pass under the power lines, you have gone to far).   Follow FR 142A (4-Wheel Drive recommended) to it's end (staying right at any branches) and park.
Road Conditions: Upper and Lower - Passenger car if the roads are dry
Middle - Four Wheel Drive
Note: these roads become a muddy mess when wet and may be difficult to negotiate.
Navigation: Easy - follow the stream
Length: Upper (142E to headwaters and back): 6.5 miles
Middle (142E to 142A): ~7 miles in the stream, at least another 9 for the road walk back
Lower: (142A to Bull Pen Ranch): ~21 miles
Date Hiked: May, 2000
Weather Conditions: Warm in the sun, the water was fairly cool (wet suits advised this time of year).
Required Skills:
Hike Description: Upper: The upper section of West Clear Creek is wide, but pretty.  There are no significant narrow parts, but the Coconino Sandstone with the trees and water make for a scenic walk.   Expect to do some wading in this section, but no swimming is required.  From the car park at the end of FR 142E, walk due north down hill to the Forest Service Register.  After signing in begin the very steep decent on a well worn use trail into the canyon.  Once at the bottom turn right and head upstream - you'll have to cross the stream right away, so don't bother trying to keep your feet dry.  There is often a trail on one side of the stream or the other, making for easier travel.  About 0.3 miles from your entry point there is a short, but interesting side canyon on stream left (the left side of the stream if you are facing the direction that the water is flowing).   Look like it may have a nice waterfall during certain times of the year, but was dry when the author was there.  Expect to do some wading and a little bush whacking when the trail fades in front of you.  About 2 miles from the entry point, located on a prominent use trail on stream right, you will pass a large petroglyph panel (sort of interesting) but like most petroglyphs in popular areas, this one has been damaged by vandals.  Another mile will bring you to the confluence of Clover and Willow Valley Creeks at a rocky gravel bar.  You can turn around here, or continue exploring up either one of these drainages, though the canyon is rather wide and uninteresting at this point.
Middle: Pretty much a continuation of the hike above.  There were two spots that required swimming when the author was there (which was during a dry period), and probably many more at other times of the year.  Come prepared to get wet (the author and his wife wore shorty wet suits for warmth (needed) and carried toy floats to keep packs and cameras dry.  Begin walking/wading and rock hopping your way downstream.   There are a few use trails on the sides of the canyon, but much of the time you'll be walking in the stream.  After 1.2 miles you'll come to a large rock pillar sitting on the right side of the stream.  Continuing on it's more of the same - after a few miles there will be cairns on the left side of the stream marking trail #33 which leads up to FR 142B.  Exit here or continue onward.  Eventually you'll arrive at a long swim through a section of narrows which passes under a large set of power lines.  A few hundred yards beyond, look on stream left for a use trail leading out of the canyon.   The use trail climbs up from the stream to a grassy bench then bends right and up the rocky slope to FR 142A.  Either have a shuttle car or mountain bike waiting or road walk back to your car at 142E.
Lower: Items that will prove useful in completing this hike:
Walking stick - for keeping balance during the frequent stream crossings over slippery rocks
Pool float toy - for ferrying your pack through the many deep pools that require swimming
Wet suit - the water is quite cool; unless the weather is extremely hot, a wet suit makes the morning swims more bearable
Passable swimming ability
High tolerance for pain and cold
Other words of advice: for the most part, camp sites are spaced at moderate intervals through out this hike, though they are noticeably lacking in others. The two areas with few to no spots to pitch a tent are: directly below the entrance point and the section below the first stretch of red sandstone narrows. If this makes no sense to you, don't sweat it. Just be flexible in where and when you set up camp, you probably won't want to be wandering around after dark trying to locate a flat dry spot to sleep.

Let me first say that I have not read a really good description of this hike, and unfortunately this one will probably not be much better. The tough part is that there are not very many landmarks in this canyon, so you never really know quite where you are on the map. In addition, due to the difficulty of the walking conditions, you will proceed very slowly (less than 1 mile per hour). I always felt like I should be further down stream than I actually was!?! Perhaps a hand held GPS would help keep track of actual progress. 

Day 1: From the parking area at the end of FR 142A follow the steep path that leads over the edge of the hill down to the stream bed (there is a tent site right at the bottom). Begin hiking down stream. Most of the time you will be hopping rocks and pushing through brush along the side of the stream, occasionally crossing to find easier walking on the other side. The canyon is fairly wide in this section and not particularly interesting. After about two hours of walking the scenery changes: the walls close in and some nice Coconino sandstone narrows form (Williams {see book reference below} refers to this section as the White Box). You will reach your first of many mandatory swims in this segment. The next few miles of this hike are very nice with the canyon occasionally widening then narrowing to form picturesque narrows. Eventually the rock walls widen somewhat, giving you a rest from the pools as the stream cuts deeper into redder sandstone. After a while some nice (if short) red sandstone narrows are formed. The author and his wife camped on a bench just short of completing these narrows after a total walk time of 9.5 hours.

Day 2: After leaving the narrows, the canyon becomes very wide. This is a good place to deflate your air mattress if you're sick of carrying it around under your arm. After several hours of monotonous trudging, the canyon eventually narrows again and you will pass a nice cascading spring on the left (though evidence of cow prints in this area suggest the water may not be quite as clean as it may appear) and camp site on the right. The canyon then begins to cut deeply into the Supai Formation (the rock type that makes Sedona famous), forming some very picturesque water falls, the last of which is ~25 feet tall (pass this by following the use trail up and around on the left hand side). Not to disappoint you, but the rest of the hike from this point is not terribly exciting. The recipe for this section: follow the boulder fields on one side of the stream or the other until the stream makes a bend and the path ends, push through the underbrush to find the stream, cross the slippery rocks, push through the underbrush on the other side and repeat. A couple hours below the falls you will come to a large rock cairn on the right leading up the slope. Evidently this path leads up to trail #17 which runs along the bench above the stream between Bull Pen Ranch and FR #214A (you may be able to follow this path up to trail #17, however the author did not take this route). It's more of the same as you follow the stream below this turn off. The author camped on a pebble strewn bench after another 9.5 hour day of hiking (an impressive thunder storm provided the evening's entertainment).

Day 3: The stream side hiking was a continuation of the previous evening (rocky boulder hop, push through brush, slippery crossing - you get the picture). After ~1.5 hours a cairned path may be found leading up to the left - this is the continuation of Trail #17. This smooth and well maintained trail provides welcome relief to the stream side trudge. Trail #17 crosses the creek a couple times as it travels the remaining 5 miles to Bull Pen Ranch. Total walk time was 3 hours.
Rating (1-5 stars):
The author and his wife hiked from the entrance at FR 142E down to just past the power lines in 7.5 hours, realizing that we couldn't complete complete the hike in the 2 days we had allotted we exited on the use trail which leads up to FR 142A.  We road walked about half way back to the car that same day, camped off the road and completed the walk the next morning for a total walk time of ~13 hours.  We then left the backpacking gear at the car and day hiked upstream from FR 142E to the headwaters and back in 5 hours.
At a later date, the author and his wife returned with two cars, dropped one of at Bull Pen Ranch, then drove around to the trailhead at the end of 142A. We hiked West Clear Creek back to Bull Pen ranch in 2.5 days with a total walk time of 22 hours. There are some incredibly pretty sections of canyon on this hike, when it's good it's one of the best around. Having said that, let me also add that this is quite a tough hike and often very annoying (unless you happen to like branches and leaves in your face as you attempt to keep your balance on slime covered rocks while gnats swarm your head). We both returned scratched and bruised, but glad we'd done it. Along the way we saw a large black bear, some incredible scenery and endured a torrential thunder storm.
Maps: Coconino National Forest Map
Books: Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau - Michael Kelsey
Canyoneering Arizona - Tyler Williams
Photos: Click picture for larger view, click your browser's 'Back' button to return to this page.

Typical view in
the upper canyon.
Swimming with float toy in
the 'White Box' area.
Another view in
the 'White Box'.
The 'Red Box'.