Flagstaff’s Secret Canyon
What’s this? A photo post only a few days after the last? Well strap in, because this is a big one. I’ve been planning a trip to this location for some time now, and since the weather has been irresistible lately I figured I’d finally give it a look. The location is called Picture Canyon, a scenic little strip of the Rio de Flag snuggled between a water treatment plant, a cinder-mining facility, and a natural gas compression plant. I was as skeptical as you likely are reading this, but the mile-long bit of canyon and water is an amazing sanctuary within Flagstaff itself. Its ownership has been in flux for the past few years, but just this past October it was purchased by the city with the help of a dedicated conservation group. It was previously state trust land, so now the protocol for visiting is somewhat up in the air. I’m sure as time passes it will become a more organized site, but for now all it bears to distinguish it is a nameplate and a national registry as a historic place.
The hike begins along the outflow from the aforementioned water treatment plant, and because of this it’s important to note that the water in the canyon is not considered safe for drinking, though it carries the highest grade for reclaimed waste-water. After following its path through a channel of bulrushes for a little while it suddenly plunges over and into a box canyon which seems to open up straight out of the ground. The walls of the canyon are dark gray basalt fractured in upright blocks, and easily 40 feet high at the start. The small stream reveals just how much water it carries with the considerable roaring down the first rocky slope. It was impossible (for me, at least) to follow the river’s course downward, and so I circled back up to the southern rim to find a safe point of entry.
From there I got a good overview of the canyon, with patches of rushes and a few dead old pines near the water and still-to-sprout brush along the banks. Keep in mind throughout my photos that spring has been taking its sweet time in waking things up after winter, so much that would otherwise be green is not. There were a few blooming Oregon grape though, as seen above, with clusters of bright yellow flowers to mark the season. Eventually I found a slope safe to descend, and not far down I found one of the “pictures” for which the canyon is named, my first prehistoric petroglyph.
The canyon is supposed to house hundreds of these petroglyphs, but either I was in the wrong places or just too focused elsewhere to see more than one big panel and a few scattered individuals. Creeping carefully downward I made it to the water’s edge, and from previous tries I knew the water to be deceptively deep and its rush-covered shore too wide and unstable to jump, so I browsed back upstream to find a good boulder hop across. The north rim, as I later found out, is where most of the interesting sights are, as well as most of the traversable terrain, but the south side had some nice areas of its own.
After using one of the old pines in the canyon to cross the stream I started making my way up the bank, below the sheer cliff face. I wanted to get as close to the main waterfall as I could at water-level, which turned out to be fairly difficult and involved trusting the fallen patches of rushes for footing. I got as close as the edge of the swirling pool below the falls which, if the water didn’t carry the stigma of being reclaimed, would surely make a great swimming hole in the summer. Having gone as far as I dared I decided to focus more on the north rim.
I found a network of pathways or possibly game trails which wound up and down the north bank, making it difficult to follow the same route twice, but eventually I chanced upon the right one and came up to the canyon’s rim. From there I went back toward the falls, just to see it from above, and I also got a nice view of the inflowing stream from the canyon’s side. I was far from ready to leave, though, and so I turned back, picking my way along the bank to search for more petroglyphs and perhaps something a little different.
My luck held, and I stumbled across both features I was looking for. The first was a large panel of petroglyphs etched on the top face of a boulder, though it was set strangely and I couldn’t find a way to see them clearly without stepping all over the boulder itself. Nevertheless I could pick out human figures, more spirals, and a few other designs. This is surely not the only panel, but it was the only one I chanced across.
The second feature was one I heard rumors of, and didn’t expect much from, but which turned out to be one of the more intriguing parts of the canyon. About halfway up the north rim, near where the cliffs give way to sloped pine-covered hillsides and limestone, I found the low entrance to the cave dwelling of the group of Sinagua who lived here before recorded time. It was fronted by a loose stone wall, perhaps not of original construction, but the fire-blackened cave ran under the basalt roof for a surprising depth. I was disappointed I had forgotten my flashlight, as it went so far back that I did not want to proceed with just the little focusing light on my camera. I will absolutely return here and plumb its depths further, which contained another room that I could just make out and possibly more beyond that.
After emerging into daylight again I followed the narrow trail down to the water’s edge, and found myself blocked by a fence surrounding the rest of the river as it disappeared into an oak thicket. I took this to be the end of the canyon proper, but I lingered down there to see more of the water tumbling over boulders and between trees. The canyon had a wonderful air of serenity to it, and I can imagine in summer it’s about the best thing you can find in the forest around Flagstaff.
From the stream I decided to head back up the way I had come, working through the slippery dirt and fallen leaves to come out on the south rim again. I strolled along the edge and found a nice spot overlooking the main waterfall where I rested a bit and watched the sun set. The first photo in this post is from that seat. When the last light left the tops of the trees I began the walk back, passing the stream in its marshy channel flowing between the three (thankfully) quiet industrial plants. The hike altogether was a great success, and you can bet I’ll be returning there before much longer.
Edit – What I initially mistook as a flowering gambel oak sprout is actually Oregon grape. Fixed accordingly.
As always, these photos are linked to the new gallery which has now passed my last trip to Wupatki as the largest on the site. Give it a look, as there are many vertical shots which don’t fit well in these posts, as well as other curiosities I found in Picture Canyon. And now, of course, these photos are available in my print store, so if you see one you especially love, please don’t hesitate to order!