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Monday, February 4, 2019

Copper Falls Trail

Copper Falls Trail
Copper Falls cascade over stony shelves.
Chasing winter waterfalls is sort of an unofficial rite of passage for Arizona hikers.
With a few blaring exceptions (hello, Havasupai) most of our state’s waterfalls don’t flow continually.  Experienced hikers know that dark-stained cliffs and jumbled drainages visible along trails hold the potential for spectacular waterworks following episodes of rain and snow melt. Some trekkers even adjust their agendas to sync with the rhythm of the rains.
A rustic corral on the Camp Verde Trail section of the hike.
The spur trail to the falls is a bit of a scramble.
Timing is key to catch the transient desert founts at their best. Pick a day after a storm but pay attention to weather reports and road closures as torrential downpours come with a real threat of potentially deadly flooding.
The tiered flow of Copper Falls.
The fugitive waterworks aren’t hard to find.  
Copper Falls Trail traces a ridge above an ancient lake bed. 
A few famous ones like Encinoso Falls in Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon, Massacre Falls in the Superstition Wilderness, Grand Falls north of Flagstaff, Bridal Wreath Falls in Tucson and the miles of cascades in Barnhardt Canyon flow reliably along established trails during peak conditions. Others though, reside where you’d least expect them.
One such cascade is the crux of Copper Falls Trail No. 504.  Tucked into a pocket of colorfully-layered sediments that separate the Verde River from Interstate 17, this non-motorized route is the result of grass-roots efforts driven by the residents of nearby Camp Verde.
Following years of working together with Prescott National Forest, the Copper Canyon trailhead project came to fruition with the support of donated materials and volunteer labor.  The roomy, well-outfitted recreation hub officially opened in February 2012.
The new site anchors a popular recreation area south of State Route 260 that’s known for its ATV routes and river-access for fishing and paddling.  Trail No. 504 explores above and within a bowl-like depression of an ancient lake bed where limestone and siltstone deposits disrupted by faults and other geological events have eroded into oddly-sculpted buttes, ridges and gullies.
The trailhead & Verde Valley seen from the switchbacks.
Storm clouds obscure views of Sedona to the northwest.
The 4.1-mile, moderate loop hike begins at a gate in the northwest corner of the trailhead.  Hike a few yards then veer left at a pair of generic trail signs where the route begins a mild 300-foot climb to a crest of a ridge. This scenic segment ascends through a bone-dry landscape dominated by Crucifixion-thorn bushes and acres of cacti.
Crucifixtion-thorn shrubs are common along the trail.
Views of the gaping Verde Valley and the emerald river course backed by the hills surrounding West Clear Creek Wilderness roll out to the north and east. A mile in, the trail tops out on a grassy mesa littered with chalky white stones, a fringe of yuccas and patchy forests of junipers, scrub oaks and pinion pines. 
Water from Copper Falls trickles beside the trail.
The muffled rumble of vehicles traveling on Interstate 17 and views of Sedona’s red rocks mark the beginning of an edgy traverse of the oblong mesa above a deeply furrowed basin.  The airy walk ends with a swift descent on long switchbacks that end at a drainage area where a slim footpath heads into a secluded, stonewalled gorge that hides Copper Falls.
Arizona sycamores thrive in the runoff from Copper Falls.
The 0.2-mile one-way path follows an ephemeral creek cluttered with sycamores, willows, log jams and boulders. Some minor route-finding and scrambling are needed to work your way through to the head of the dead-end canyon where tiered cascades tumble over blocky shelves into shallow drop pools.  
A sycamore leaf floats in a drop pool near Copper Falls.
This leafy oasis stands in stark contrast to the arid high desert that surrounds it.
The return leg of the loop passes through mesquite rangeland
The trailhead officially opened in Feb. 2012.
The trail then briefly traces the fall’s trickling issue before meeting the Camp Verde Trail No. 545. 
Water at the base of Copper Falls.
At the junction that’s marked with only a “504” sign, continue straight ahead passing some old native stone foundations. Soon, the terrain transitions into mesquite-covered rangeland with a rickety corral bolstered by ashen limestone embankments.  Just beyond the corral at the 3.9-mile point, another junction marks the final decision point of the hike.
A plaque at the trailhead recognizes contributors.
Head left for a slightly longer return trip to the trailhead or veer right onto the Saloon Trail No. 9833 (not signed) for a shortcut.
MacDougal's Biscuitroot bloom near the trail.
LENGTH: 4.1-mile loop
RATING: moderate
ELEVATION: 3190 – 3533 feet
From Interstate 17 in Camp Verde, take the State Route 260 exit 287. Go 1.6 miles east (toward Payson) on SR 260 to Oasis Drive, turn right (south) and continue 0.3-mile to Forest Road 136, turn right again and go 0.8-mile to the trailhead on the right. FR 136 is washboard-rough dirt but is passable by passenger vehicles.
There are picnic ramadas with grills and a restroom at the trailhead.
The trailhead is open year round from dawn to dusk for day-use only. No fees.
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