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Saturday, December 14, 2019


Hassayampa River, Wickenburg
Red Cliff is a dominant feature along the Hassayampa River
 Striking in its simplicity, the hike to Red Cliff slips through a spare, water-ravaged landscape just a few miles south of the town of Wickenburg.  Surrounded by the oddly formed peaks of the Vulture and Harquahala Mountains, railroad tracks and acres of shadeless plains, the route is a stomping ground for ATV riders, roaming livestock and a disturbingly robust community of turkey vultures.

Flood debris in the Hassayampa River

Nothing about the dirt staging area at the mouth of Little Domingo Wash screams “gateway to an epic hike”.  
Mud flats define the course of the Hassayampa River
A scraggly fringe of spindly willows, mesquite and invasive tamarisk survive among tire tracks, cow pies and horse apples.  

One of many gates beyond Red Cliff help contain cattle
Small aircraft sometimes glide into a nearby backcountry landing strip and occasional 4x4s hauling trailers rumble over a maze of dusty dirt roads that lead to abandoned mines and homesteads. As stark and unpromising as it appears, this is the start point of an interesting walk that explores the anatomy of a major desert waterway.
Lush desert vegetation grows along the river

This section of the Hassayampa River is a recreational hub
Over its 100-mile length, the Hassayampa River flows through a variety of eco-zones and amazing topography. From its humble source in the pine-covered Bradshaw Mountains south of Prescott to where it empties into the Gila River southwest of Phoenix, the river runs through mountain woodlands, gorges, plains and riparian corridors.
Desert marigolds bloom in the dry river bed.
Except in a few places like the Hassayampa River Preserve at Vulture Mountain Recreation Area along U.S. 60 where water flows above ground year-round, the waterway runs underground.   In this area of the river that’s located about 28 miles north of Interstate 10 and roughly 40 miles north of the Gila River, surface water exists in the form of flash floods and fugitive puddles.  
Invasive tamarisk (salt cedar) is common along the river
Volcanic cliffs flank the Hassayampa River bed
Rain water and snowmelt deposits that roar through the river’s wide corridor are quickly absorbed into the porous ground.  Within hours to days, the only signs of recent water works are debris piles and mud flats.  But water has shaped the character of this rugged desert back county for thousands of years. Running water has scoured channels, chiseled cliffs and leached precious minerals from the area’s volcanic and sedimentary rocks thus attracting mining operations and ranchers to this otherwise desolate land 30 miles west of Phoenix.
Water disappears quickly in this desert waterway
The trek begins where Little San Domingo Wash merges with the course of the Hassayampa River.  Because water is constantly altering the terrain, this is a hunt-and-peck sort of hike.  Head left (south) from the wash and follow the riverbed. Although there’s no standard path, it’s 
advisable to dodge your way around the willows and debris and hike close to the cliffs on the west bank of the river.  
Many gates along the way remind that this is cattle country
At roughly the half-mile point, a gate near a huge saguaro marks where a rough dirt road parallels the river, it’s a short but scenic diversion and a nice change from walking in sand and mud.  At the 1.5-mile point, first glimpses of Red Cliff come into view.  
The scoured course of the Hassayampa River

The brilliant red-orange escarpment soars to 2,091 feet--360 feet above the river.  Mesquite, Palo verde and ironwood trees huddle at its base while raptors and vultures roost in its many nooks and shallow caves.
Many dirt roads weave through the hills around the river
Although this stony piece de resistance is the main objective of the hike, the trek may be extended by passing a barbed wire gate at the 2-mile point (the first of several that control the roamings of domestic cattle) and continuing south as far as you like.
Desert trees and shrubs thrive at the base of Red Cliff

LENGTH: 4 miles to Red Cliff and back
RATING: easy
ELEVATION: 1,710 – 1,771 feet
From Phoenix, go north on Interstate 17 to State Route 74 (Carefree Highway).  Take SR 74 west (toward Wickenburg) for 30 miles to U.S. 60. Turn left and go 0.8-mile on U.S. 60 to Gates Road at milepost 121, turn right and continue 2.3 miles to the trailhead at Little Domingo Wash. Do not park within a quarter-mile of the livestock water tank and respect private property in the area. Access roads are paved.

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