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Monday, December 7, 2020

Lower First Water Creek


The rugged course of First Water Creek near Canyon Lake

In the ragged wilderness below Canyon Lake, the gorge of First Water Creek embodies an otherworldly character that’s somewhere between Tolkien’s Middle- earth and the surface of an asteroid.  The raw, craggy waterway doesn’t spill its wonders easily—it takes work to get into the heart of the remote, obstacle-ridden north end of the creek that flows between the lake and the Garden Valley area in the Superstition Wilderness near Apache Junction.  But once inside, the journey serves as a sort of gateway adventure to technical canyoneering.

Water lingers in a cove south of Canyon Lake

Inside the narrows of First Water Canyon

While this hike doesn’t require climbing gear (at least in dry conditions), it does require a fair amount of scrambling and route-finding.  Right from the start, it’s a challenge.  At the parking area located on State Route 88, the trail begins by the wood power line pole at the south end of the dirt lot.  Cluttered with brush and loose rock, the first few yards can be difficult to find. After that though, the well-worn route that drops 400 feet to the creek becomes easier to follow.  A few sections of slick rock and some minor down-climbing are interspersed with easy passages and drainage jumps. 

A hiker admires jasper band embedded in volcanic rock

A pair of good nubby boots, long pants, a hiking stick and the composure to spot your moves are all that’s needed to get through without a scratch.

At the half-mile point, the route passes a barbed wire fence that marks the wilderness boundary just a few drainage hops above the creek bed.

Desert tobacco blooms year round in the creek bed

A group of massive, round boulders mark the entryway to the creek.  The house-high volcanic globs that are replete with foreign rock inclusions and cavities, signal the start of a two-part exploratory trek that’s rich in geological interest.

Water pools in a rock cavity in First Water Creek

The first part is a short hike to a cove at the south edge of Canyon Lake. Head north (go left from the entry point) and hike 0.2-mile through a wide corridor of sand and cobbles surrounded by pillars of tuff--compressed volcanic ash flows.  Underfoot, look for colorful bands of jasper that fill cracks in the tuff and “lithic waves” of white ash worn smooth by millions of years of exposure and running water.  As the route snakes its way to the cove, the cliffs abruptly close in to contain a tiny green oasis where cottonwood, mesquite and ash trees, hackberry shrubs and buffalo bur soak up moisture from the ebb and flow of lake water that seeps into the damp box canyon. 

Inside the narrows of First Water Canyon

How far hikers can get into the stony lagoon depends on the season.  Dark stains and tell-tale wear on the vertical cliff faces record how water levels fluctuate over time in this finger inlet.  Make the last walkable sand bar your turnaround point and double back to the entryway big boulders. 
The hike into the canyon follows a sketchy route

The hike into and out of the canyon requires some scrambling

Part two of the hike is more challenging.  Head south following the creek bed into an imposing slot canyon and get ready to pick your way through a quagmire of stone.  From the entry point, it’s possible for experienced hikers to follow the creek bed south for 6 miles, give or take depending on workarounds, to where it comes out near Hackberry Spring at the horse trailer parking lot on Forest Road 78 (First Water Road).  But don’t be fooled by the short length. With continually changing conditions that require creative path finding and hand-over-foot maneuvers on an extremely rocky base, the full trek takes all day.  Know what you’re getting into and head out fit and prepared.  For a less arduous day hike, just go as far as you feel able and turnaround before the intimidating route overwhelms.

"Picture rocks" are among the hike's many points of interest

A hiker finds a workaround in the narrows of First Water Canyon

Within a few yards of entering the slot, the scrambling begins with a crawl over a six-foot boulder jam that lands above a scoured drop pool that usually has some water.  It’s slow going for the next half-mile where the creek course is completely bound by soaring columns of jointed volcanic stone, crusty, lichen-covered pillars, acres of rock slabs, flood debris and scattered “picture rocks”--boulders laced with brilliant inclusions that have been tossed and tumbled into gem-like specimens. 
The route goes south to the Hackberry Spring area

There's nteresting geology throughout the hike

Exiting the cove box canyon

Finding a route through the narrows is tricky

Cottonwood trees at the cove entry

Wildflowers like desert pea, desert tobacco and lavender add spots of purple and green to the rough, buff-and-russet colored gorge.  

Buffalo bur grows from the sandy creek bed

Regardless of how far you end up hiking along this fractured, fabulous desert creek, the stunning beauty born from tumultuous volcanic eruptions makes for a memorable trip.
Mounds of volcanic tuff line the course of First Water Creek

Huge boulders at the beginning of the creek hike



LENGTH:  3 miles roundtrip as described here or 6 miles one way to the First Water horse lot.

RATING: moderate-difficult

ELEVATION: 1,983 – 1,582 feet as described here or 2,300 to the horse lot.


North end: Canyon Overlook Trailhead as described here:

From Phoenix, go east on U.S. 60 to the Idaho Road exit 196. Turn left at the bottom of the off ramp and go 12 miles on State Route 88 (Apache Trail) to the Canyon Overlook trailhead at milepost 208.

There are no signs or facilities at the trailhead.  Roads are 100% paved. 

South end: First Water horse lot:

From Phoenix, go east on U.S. 60 to the Idaho Road exit 196. Turn left at the bottom of the off ramp and follow State Route 88 to First Water Road (Forest Road 78) which is just past Lost Dutchman State Park between mileposts 201 and 202 on the right.

Follow FR78 for just over 2 miles to the horse parking lot (NOT the First Water trailhead) on the left and park there.  From the lot, hike 0.1 mile up FR78 to an unmarked dirt road on the left where there’s a closed gate. Pass through the gate and continue down into First Water Canyon and the corral area. From the corral, hike east (straight ahead) along the informal paths that lead to First Water Creek. Hike north in the creek bed. FR78 is maintained dirt with a few rough spots but suitable for all carefully-driven vehicles.







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