I was left to wander the Earth alone. I am nobody.” These words, from the 1995 movie “Dead Man,” strike an inner chord during my trips to places where few people venture.
Even walking up mostly dry Cottonwood Creek with my uncle Ray and friends Mitch and Jerry, I feel alone in that quiet way I find only in the wilderness.
Something about a desert arroyo or mountain meadow gives me hope.
This creek, north of Lake Pleasant and about 45 miles northwest of Phoenix, has become my personal Xanadu, where I may sit alone listening to the birds. Or I may impersonate a tour guide for long-suffering friends, pointing this way and that, saying things like “Well, here on this east-facing rock is a good example of an ancient Hohokam petroglyph,” or “Here, at the base of this outcropping, I nearly stepped on a Gila monster and screamed like a little girl.”
Today, I can ditch the tour-guide persona and concentrate on this desert oasis. We load up and step over the dilapidated barbed wire and onto a path that threads between cholla and paloverdes along the edge of the creek. After a quarter-mile, we drop into the creek bed and a grove of cottonwoods. We follow the creek bed past occasional burbles of water and pools wriggling with spry tadpoles and tiny frogs.
Wild burros — survivors from when prospectors scoured these hills — also concentrate around Cottonwood Creek, leaving droppings and tracks. The federal Bureau of Land Management more or less manages the population, keeping a semitight leash on the invasive species. As we hike along the main arm of the creek, we spot 11 burros on the hillside, their ears standing up in unison as a big male snorts a loud, intimidating warning.
At the 2.5-mile mark, a sign notes we’re entering the Hells Canyon Wilderness. This imposing name reflects the hardships of a different time, but today it elevates my spirits with the promise of adventure.
The trail passes a natural amphitheater, pocked with caves up on a ridge. We climb toward the alcove through the paloverde and mesquite. Bird calls echo down to us, and we flush a startled Harris hawk, which drops its lunch and flees. The would-be lunch, a dazed Gila woodpecker, lies for a moment in shock before it recovers, counts its feathered blessings and flurries away.
Noting the dwindling day, we decide to turn back toward the car. The warm autumn weather wears on the senses and allows me to test my old adage about rattlesnakes. I have always believed that the second hiker in line will be the one bitten. The first person makes the hidden rattler mad, but the second hiker suffers the repercussions. Sure enough, we pass a hidden diamondback. The first two in our group pass without incident, Mitch blunders along third in line and gets the snake’s attention just in time for me. The rattler buzzes and I dance out of the way to safety.
My feet hurt after hiking 3.5 miles each way; I sport a sunburned face, and I came within a split second of a good dose of venom, but I’m grinning uncontrollably. The wild has that kind of effect.
Courtesy of Arizona Highways magazine. More information at arizonahighways.com.
Length: Varies on how far hikers want to follow the mostly dry streambed. Return along the same route.
Elevation gain: Negligible.
Payoff: A pristine desert experience close to Phoenix with excellent saguaro forests, varied wildlife and petroglyphs.
Getting there: From the Valley, travel north on Interstate 17 to Carefree Highway. Exit and turn west onto Carefree Highway, state Route 74, for 35 miles to Castle Hot Springs Road. Turn right onto Castle Hot Springs Road, and drive 5.1 miles north to parking area on west side of road. The trail starts at the north side of the parking area beyond a lowered barbed-wire fence.
Travel advisory: Wear hiking boots and always carry plenty of water.
Warning: Watch for rattlesnakes.
Additional information: Bureau of Land Management, Phoenix District, (623) 580-5500