Return to the Sierra Ancha Wilderness: Cold Spring Canyon…

I’ve been up since 3AM.  I’m sitting in my truck in the pre-dawn darkness at a far corner of a Walmart parking lot sipping black coffee…waiting.  Waiting for the rest of the group.  Waiting to take the long ride out to Cherry Creek.  Waiting to continue an adventure we started two years ago…

The main part of the trail into Cold Springs Canyon was easy enough.  We started from the same old mining road we used to access Pueblo Canyon a couple years prior, about 23 miles down a seldom used 4×4 back road along Cherry Creek.  This time with a more suitable vehicle, we 4-wheeled our way up the mining road to a small, level clearing once used as a camp.  From here it was supposed to be less than two miles in to Cold Springs Canyon to the Crack House.

Crossing Cherry Creek in the Range Rover - by Jabon Eagar - Sierra Ancha Wilderness

Crack House is the nickname given to the 700 year old Salado Culture cliff house ruins we were after.  When you see the site, the name is obvious.  This cliff dwelling is literally built into a naturally occurring crevice at the base of a 600 ft shear canyon wall.  The 3-story mud, rock and timber dwelling was discovered in the 1930s and documented by Dr. Emil W. Haury as part of the Gila Pueblo Project.

Long view of the Crack House at Cold Spring Canyon from the trail - by Wilderness Dave - Sierra Ancha WildernessAbout a mile up the main trail you get a glimpse of the Crack House…if you’re lucky.  You’ve really got to be looking for it and luckily, some of us had better eyes than the others.  Jabon Eager and Mike Sorensen were with me again on this hike, the same guys I hiked Pueblo Canyon with.  The only one missing from the original Pueblo Canyon party was my (now) wife, Merelyn.  As the three of us hiked deeper into the canyon looking for the side trail that would lead us to the site, Jabon was the one who managed to spot the distinctive black square hole in the cliff face that marked the entrance to our ruins.  Now, with a frame of reference, we excitedly continued forward.

Wilderness Dave stopping for photographs along Cold Spring Canyon Trail - by Jabon Eagar - Sierra Ancha WildernessEven the primary trail is nothing more than a narrow ribbon of roughly flat ground wrapped tightly against the steeply descending canyon walls.  It’s a seldom used trail that had become overgrown in some areas and we were looking for an even more obscure side trail to guide us up to the ruins.  We followed the path until we were standing below the cliff ledge where we had seen the entrance to the Crack House.  None of us had discovered any sign of a side trail, but as we stood below the cliffs there was what could only have been a drainage path or a rough game-trail leading straight up.  Could this be the trail?  Jabon consulted his print out of the Trail Description he’d found online as I consulted my topographic map.  “This section is nothing short of NASTY”, is what the report says.

“Nasty” is a very subjective description.  To some, a “nasty” trail is any trail without asphalt or concrete.  So with little to go on, we eyed this barely discernible clearing heading straight up the steep slope with trepidation and doubt.  It certainly looked “NASTY”.  We decided to give it a shot.

I took point and scrambled up the slope, unsuccessful.  Jabon followed close behind and when I ledged out, he took another path to the left with the same result.  We both moved laterally toward the cliffs to find something – anything – that looked like a trail.  We found many, followed some, and one-by-one discovered they led to nowhere.  As we crawled along our imaginary trails, glancing up occasionally in an attempt to orient ourselves, I spotted a crack, high in the cliff, carefully filled in with stacked rock.  Far too small to be our Crack House, it must have been an old granary.  Granaries were often created high out of reach and used to store food for the Winter.  This meant we were close.

Mike retreated early, probably getting tired of dodging the numerous geological samples I was generously sending his direction.  Jabon and I retreated next and as I followed Jabon back down slope I lost my footing and my bad knee gave out, crumpling completely under my weight.  Aside from the intense pain and initial fear that I had crippled myself, the fall wasn’t bad and after a short rest I was able to continue on my own.  Jabon backtracked looking for another possible trail and returned later having been unsuccessful.

Mike had had enough and decided not to join in the fight for the prize after our first attempt and failure.  Jabon and I had a little more gumption in us and agreed on a second attempt after having talked through our options.  When Jabon had backtracked he was also able to locate the ruin again visually and note where it was in relationship to where we had been climbing.  We were directly below it at one point and could not find a route.  But now we had our bearings and we knew it was directly above us…

The Punch Bowl below the ruins in Cold Spring Canyon - by Jabon Eagar - Sierra Ancha Wilderness

This meant there had to be a trail above us as well, we just had to find it.  Jabon and I were not leaving this canyon until we’d found the Crack House.  For Jabon and I, this trip had been simmering in the back of our minds for two years now, since Pueblo Canyon.  We were here, no more than 100 feet below the site we’d read about and we were not going to walk away now.

We both chose different lines and committed to them.  He blazed up the left side of the trail we had originally attempted and I crawled up the precarious slope on the right.  My knee was sore from my earlier fall and Jabon was making better progress.

I keep losing my footing.  The steep canyons out here in the Sierra Anchas are in an extreme state of erosion and nothing is stable.  I am constantly worrying about my bad knee as I hoist myself up one precarious foothold at a time, following nothing but the whisper of a trail, not able to see my target but knowing that it is up…somewhere up.

After much sweat and swearing Jabon triumphantly called down that he’d found the trail.  This spurred me on and I hacked my way through Prickly Pear cactus and overgrown Cat’s Claw trees in my fight for the trail.  Before long, with sweat dripping from my dusty brow, I had found it as well and quickly set off in pursuit of Jabon and the Ruins.

The real path to the ruins wasn’t much better than the trail we’d been forced to blaze.  It simply had the benefit of being an actual recognizable trail.  It still amazes me that so much vegetation can cling to the steep, eroded slopes of these desert canyons.  I found myself crawling through brush and vines, sliding under tree branches and carefully dancing around cacti, yuccas and agaves.  Finally, after a near vertical scramble, I reached the rocky shelf that led to the Crack House.

The photos say more than I can about the impressiveness of this cliff dwelling.  Both of us have studied enough about the archaeology of the area to approach the site with cautious awe and respectful curiosity.  Because of its protected location, the floor structures are in fantastic shape.  The crack which this structure was built in cuts clear through the cliff.  The main room, which is on the third floor, makes a sharp left turn about halfway through and presents visitors with a balcony window framing an amazing view of the valley to the southeast.  Jabon photographed the interior of the ruin creating some of the most detailed interior shots of this site ever taken.  We stayed for a short while, soaking it in, quietly reveling in our triumph.

For me, there is an addictive nature to this sort of hiking.  These canyons are littered with sites like this.  Not all of them are as dramatic or as well preserved, but they are here.  Most of these sites see so few visitors that trail descriptions are few and far between, pictures are rare, and the academic documentation incomplete.  Finding them takes work.  That, for me, is what draws me to these kinds of hikes.  I like the research, the exploration and the satisfaction of discovery.  Even though this hike was probably no more than 2 or 3 total miles of hiking, it was far more gratifying than many longer hikes I’ve been on.

We concluded this hike on a high, excited to have had the experience.  Our conversations inevitably revolved around where we would go next.  There are rumors of more ruins in Cooper’s Fork, the canyon to the east across the creek.  Another rare site in rugged, inhospitable territory with no established trail and minimal documentation…sounds like a fun trip!

Photo Gallery

To see more Jabon’s fantastic work, check him out on Facebook.

These archaeological sites are in the condition they are in because of the rarity of visitors.  I have deliberately left out a trail map and directions in hopes that these sites do remain undisturbed by the general public.  Like most protected areas, their inaccessibility is their salvation.  One of the lessons learned from other important archaeological sites that have turned in to tourist attractions is that people are inherently destructive.  If you do visit some of these historic structures, treat them with respect.

Pueblo Canyon Hike and Ruins

Pueblo Canyon Cliff Dwellings

Pueblo Canyon Cliff Dwellings Ruins – Photo by Jabon Eagar

One of the main attributes of back country hiking that intrigues me the most is visiting places that very few people will ever see with their own eyes.  There is something special about being one of just a handful of people to have personally witnessed some of the more magical parts of this planet.  I had originally set out to do this hike on my own, but considering how remote the area is I had second thoughts.  I invited some friends to come along and also found another group (led by photographer Jabon Eagar) planning the exact same hike and contacted them to see if we could hike together.  I began planning my trip and convinced several people to come along, but that fell through as, one-by-one, they all cancelled.  The same thing happened with Jabon’s group and we both decided to push the trip off.  I wouldn’t let this one go, so earlier this year my fiance and I joined up with Jabon to hike Pueblo Canyon.

Pueblo Canyon Cherry Creek Valley

Pueblo Canyon Cherry Creek Valley – Photo by Dave Creech

Pueblo Canyon is a very remote, obscure, rarely used trail on the east side of the Sierra Anchas (Spanish, “Broad Range”).  The Sierra Ancha Wilderness lies about 100 miles east of the Phoenix Metro area and north of Globe.  It’s 32 square miles are some of the most rugged and inaccessible wilderness in Arizona.  Established in 1933 as a “primitive area” and later absorbed into Tonto National Forest, it was originally shared by several Native American Tribes but was last occupied by the Salado Culture over 700 years ago.  It’s said that the remains of Salado cliff dwellings and other signs of habitation can be found in nearly every south facing canyon wall in this area.  Pueblo Canyon itself has 3 main sites and rumors of more further along the cliff.  Many of the main Ruins in this area, including Pueblo Canyon were documented in 1934 by Dr. Emil W. Haury.  As part of the Gila Pueblo Project Expeditions, Dr. Huary explored the area from 1930 to 1934 led by local Rancher Dewey Peterson.  Peterson owned and operated a ranch at Aztec Peak, just above the canyons where the ruins were found.

Due to how remote this hike is, we had to set out very early in the morning to be able to hit the trail before too late in the day.  We met up with Jabon and his group around 6am in Mesa and then set out on the 3+ hour drive to the trail head.  The drive takes you through some of the most scenic territory in Eastern Arizona.  Beautiful rock formations, canyons and cliffs line the road north of Globe.  The trailhead is a little over 23 miles down Cherry Creek Road.  A dirt road the whole way, Cherry Creek Road is partially maintained and well traveled, but soon becomes a very primitive jeep trail requiring a 4-wheel drive vehicle.  It also crosses Cherry Creek at times and can be hazardous if the creek is up.  We made it to the trailhead without incident only to find that we now had a flat tire, but decided to deal with that upon our return and headed up the trail.

The hike starts where an old mining road intersects Cherry Creek Road.  The road was built in 1954 to service the Big Buck Uranium Mine found near the first set of ruins.  Hiking this first section gets your blood pumping early as it steadily climbs toward the canyon interior and into the Sierra Ancha Wilderness area.  About a half mile or so in, the trail splits.  It was a little tricky to figure out exactly where this split was, continuing to the south would take you to Cold Spring Canyon (there are ruins there also) and taking the trail west would lead you to Pueblo Canyon.  We continued heading toward Pueblo Canyon reaching a landing of sorts that opens up to the Cherry Creek Valley and offers some amazing views to the east.

Pueblo Canyon Cliff Dwelling

Pueblo Canyon Cliff Dwelling – Photo by Jabon Eagar

The trail is very overgrown from here until reaching the ledge at the base of the cliffs.  We found ourselves trudging through overgrown Manzanita and Scrub Oak making route finding difficult at times.  We ascended above the slope and leveled out at a prominent ledge that sits at the base of the massive sheer cliffs that rise above the canyon.  This is where all the action is!  From this point we were at the base of the south canyon wall and could look across the narrow canyon to the north wall and make out the cliff dwellings we were after.  Hiking was easier here, though the vegetation had changed and we were now climbing around Prickly Pear, Yucca and Desert Spoon.

The first set of ruins is very close to the mine site and, therefore, the most disturbed.  Tailings from the mine were dumped in the ruin site and eventually the ruin itself was damaged beyond recognition.  The mine is fairly nondescript and is not very deep.  It was still a good place to stop, set up some photographs and have a snack.  The trail heads further west from here in to the heart of the canyon where a thin, graceful waterfall plunges some 200ft into a small pool.  The ledge trail leads you behind the ribbon falls along some slick, algae covered rock.  We took some time here for photos and carefully navigated the slippery path behind the waterfall to the north wall of the canyon.  After a short walk, building with anticipation, you stumble across the first major set of ruins.

Pueblo Canyon stone walls

Pueblo Canyon Cliff Dwelling – photo by Jabon Eahar

Pueblo Canyon pictographs

Pueblo Canyon pictographs – photo by David Creech

It is a wonder to see each one of the cliff dwellings still left standing on this side of the canyon.  Some the wood and mud roof structures are still partially intact.  Wood beams still rest in place, lodged in the stacked stone walls.  Many of the mud and stone walls still have a primitive stucco finish (mud plaster).  In some places, you can still see the coloring and pictographs that originally decorated the stucco walls.  The back wall of the structures is the cliff face itself.  Parts of the dwellings are multi-story and rock art high on the cliff is still visible, if only slightly.  Some of the rock art on the walls is unlike any I’ve seen in Arizona.  Vibrant pictographs and hand prints in bold reds and whites decorate the cliff.

Pueblo Canyon Collapsed Ruins

Pueblo Canyon Collapsed Ruins – photo by David Creech

Climbing in and around the ruins, careful not to disturb or damage any part of them, we explored the structures for quite some time.  We ate our lunch sitting among the stone walls, looking out over the canyon floor 1,000 feet below us and discussing the history of the Salado Culture.

Hand print pictographs

Hand print pictographs – photo by David Creech

The return hike seemed to pass quickly.  We ran into one section where we seemed to lose the trail, but a little bush-whacking put us on course and we were soon back at the truck and Jabon quickly went to work switching out the flat.  The ride home seemed very, very long and I found myself wishing we had planned an overnight so that we had ample time to explore the adjacent canyons and see more of what the area had to offer.

I will go back some day, there is so much more to see.  I just need to find a few adventurous volunteers brave enough to venture into the wilderness with me.


Pueblo Canyon Cliff Dwelling

Pueblo Canyon Cliff Dwelling – Photo by Jabon Eagar

Click here for more of Jabon’s photos from this hike.  To check out more of Jabon’s beautiful photographs visit his website.