Enjoying The Hassayampa River Canyon Wilderness
It's A Gorgeous Place, Especially When Water Flows
March 1, 2018
The Hassayampa River begins somewhere south of Prescott and flows through Wickenburg before joining the Gila River near Hassayampa, Ariz. It is around 113 miles long, but most of the time the Hassayampa is flowing, but you can't see it - the water is below the surface of the ground and the river looks like a very wide dry wash.
However, near Wickenburg are a couple (or three) places where you can enjoy seeing the waters of the Hassayampa flowing on the surface. The Hassayampa is one of the few undammed rivers in Arizona.
The Box Canyon
We took our new Arctic Cat Wildcat Trail to the Box Canyon of the Hassayampa River the other day and we loved it there. A good deal of the Hassayampa is a bit boring (sorry, but it is) because it's just a very wide sandy wash with very little scenery. But when you enter the places where the river cuts through mountains and makes canyons, it's absolutely gorgeous, especially because the water is flowing.
Follow Highway 93 to just north of Wickenburg, then turn right on Rincon Road. The pavement ends, then it's paved again in a couple of places. You'll cross the river a couple of times, and if you're in a 4WD or an ROV, I suppose you could hop into the riverbed at any point. But we stayed on Rincon until we passed Wagon Box Trail.
The Mountains Move In Closer
Shortly after that, road there is a large staging area on the right. There is plenty of room there for several trailers. A small road takes you right down to the riverbed from there.
For a little while you'll just be in sand and you can make good time. Then the riverbed starts to narrow and the mountains move in closer and you start to see water flowing. It's beautiful.
When you see a break in the bluff on your left with huge trees in it, stop and get out. Walk back there past those trees (the shade is so dense you really can't see back there), and you come to the Box Canyon, almost a slot canyon, really, and at the back there is a waterfall. The waterfall was dry when we were there, but there was still a small pool of water at the base of it.
It was absolutely gorgeous in there. This was the perfect time to go (February) because it was nice and cool.
Farther down (actually, you're going upstream) you start to get into steep-sided canyons where you have to drive through the water. These are fun - shady, cool, and beautiful. There are many trails on the wider parts of the river and lots of places to stop and have a picnic and just enjoy the beauty of the canyon.
I do wish we had brought trash bags though - seems like too many people just throw their cans and bottles on the ground. Next time we go we'll clean up a bit.
There are a couple of roads that lead off on either side, giving you opportunity for further exploring, but on this trip we just kept going upstream until we came to a barbed-wire fence that spanned the entire channel. The surface water was gone by then anyway. We went back the way we came.
Our little adventure took just a couple of hours, and that was with many stops to look around and take photos. You can get a lot farther on the Hassayampa if you keep going downstream once you turn around at the fence. I suggest going on a weekday because even on a Thursday, there were people already settled in at the Box Canyon, and while we were there a group of over 20 ROVs sped past us.
Be Aware When It Rains
When we went, there had been no rain for quite some time. Be aware that conditions will change with rain - it could get very dangerous. Flowing water is powerful, so check before you go. If you are hiking, check maps. The Box Canyon is marked on most maps and you should be able to find a road that will get you in there closer to the Box. Walking through sand is tedious.
Hassayampa River Preserve
Another place where the Hassayampa often flows above ground is on the other side of Wickenburg from the Box Canyon. The address is 49614 U.S. Hwy 60, Wickenburg. It's just north of Allah - when you pass Cooke's Road on your right, watch for the signs - the Preserve is on the left side of the road.
Birds And Other Wildlife
This is a great place to see birds and other wildlife. When we went there it had rained recently and the river was flowing really well. We saw ducks and all kinds of birds, and even a fox. This place has several miles of trails that meander all over, and you can follow the river or strike out for high ground for great views. It covers around 770 acres of gorgeous riparian habitat with huge trees, ponds, and flowing water.
The Nature Conservancy bought the property in 1986 and opened the Preserve to the public in 1987. In 2017, the Nature Conservancy entered into an agreement with Maricopa County to manage the Preserve. Entry fee is $5/person or $3 if you are a member of the Nature Conservancy. This is a super place to bring kids and a great place for strolling around. Most of the trails are easy.
Hassayampa River Canyon Wilderness
This part of the Hassayampa was designated a Wilderness Area in 1990. Since it is a Wilderness Area, there are no motorized or mechanized vehicles allowed. The road to get to the area is a dirt road that requires a high-clearance vehicle at least.
From Wickenburg, you take Constellation Road to Williams Ranch. Access is across private land, so they suggest you ask first. There are detailed directions on many websites. I have not been to this Wilderness Area, but from what I understand there are lots of cows. When the river is running it must be beautiful.
Several Hiking Trails
I have been on Constellation Road and it is a fun drive. We drove down it all the way to the end and saw lots of old mines, ruined buildings, and critters. On Todd's Desert Hiking Guide, it says to take a fork to the right at the three mile point on Constellation, and when you reach 8.5 miles (from when Constellation began) stay straight.
At 13.3 miles, stay right at a split and you'll see a sign that says "BLM Parking". Stay right at the fork and the parking area is just down the road. It's a total of 16 miles from the beginning of Constellation Road.
There are several hiking trails. Remember that this is a desert, so bring your own water and plenty of it. The Wilderness website says to avoid driving the 13 miles in at night. The dark makes it hard to see cliffs, washouts, rocks, and other possible hazards on the road.
Don't Drink The Water
Whatever you do, don't drink the water from the Hassayampa. In addition to being not very clean (remember the cows), legend has it that anyone who drinks from the Hassayampa will never tell the truth again.
Although the Hassayampa is not currently dammed, it was in the past. A gold rush near Wickenburg created a need for water for the miners and for farm fields, so they built a loose rock dam and skimped on the spillway to save money.
The Damn Overflowed
In February of 1890 it rained like crazy in the Bradshaws for three days, and the water soon filled and overflowed the spillway and blocked it with trees and debris. Once the water started going over the dam, it was all over but the shouting.
On February 21, 1890, the dam failed. They say that when it came down the Box Canyon it was 80 feet deep! By the time it reached Wickenburg, the water was 40 feet tall. This disaster killed around 100 people.
A Wonderful Place
The Hassayampa is a wonderful place and it provides a haven for many of the endangered Arizona animals that need riparian areas to survive. When you visit there, please be mindful of animals and of other people - leave no trace.