The scene I awoke to Sunday morning, Jan. 13, 2019, was anything but the sunny hiking weather I had been expecting. The weather forecast the day before had been predicting rain for Saturday night, followed by a partly cloudy day on Sunday. But in Northern Arizona – at more than 5,300 feet elevation – you never know.
Magically, that light rain had morphed into several inches of fluffy white snow.
Even so, my friend and I decided to go ahead with our plans for a hike on the Black Canyon Trail, about 55 miles to the south. We knew that within minutes we would be driving below the snow line, and into the desert. And almost always, that means the snow would disappear with the waning elevation.
It was a good call. Not only was there no trace of snow just a few miles into our trip, but the lower elevation brought bright-blue sunny skies as well.
As we walked along the single-track trail through towering saguaro cacti, and along the pebbly bed of the Agua Fria River, I couldn’t help but think about the beauty of Arizona, where you can experience winter snows, spring-like wildflowers, summer warmth, and fall colors – all on the same day.
As we headed from Prescott, Arizona, toward Interstate 17, the snow gave way to wet pavement, and the cloud cover broke up, revealing mostly clear skies. By the time we arrived in Black Canyon City, about an hour north of Phoenix, we were able to ditch the winter jackets and boots, and set out in Chaco hiking sandals – one of the perks of life in Arizona.
A few views from my multi-season day:
It was an unquestionably wintry scene in Prescott, Arizona, as we drove though town to get to highway heading south – several inches of snow and temperatures in the mid- to high 30s.
It didn’t take long on the stretch of the Black Canyon Trail near Rock Springs, Arizona, to begin to see traces of spring. Clusters of yellow wildflowers were blooming all along the trail, and the cactus life was lush.
Thanks, in part, to relatively wet weather in late 2018/early 2019, the desert was coming alive early, and signs were everywhere that cactus flowers would be appearing soon.
With temperatures hovering in the low 70s, it wasn’t difficult to picture a warm summer day, complete with trickling water, deep-blue skies, and puffy monsoon-like clouds.
The Agua Fria River, which winds its way through the canyons bordering Interstate 17, was carrying a healthy flow of clear, chilly water. In places, the saguaro-bordered stream was cascading over rocks, creating that most beautiful of sounds in the desert – trickling water.
After meandering through the desert for about a mile, the Black Canyon Trail opens up to an overlook of the Agua Fria River’s ribbon of blue, bordered by a swath of golden-yellow trees.
If I hadn’t known it was the mid-January, I would have sworn I was in the midst of autumn’s change of colors.
We hiked just a short portion of the Black Canyon Trail’s total of 80 miles through rugged desert terrain. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the trail system, which is open to hikers, cyclists, and horseback riders. The historic trail follows a route used since the time of prehistoric Native American travelers and traders.
According to the BLM’s website, the trail features “rough, unstable soils and rocks, with various trail grades and numerous elevation changes within a harsh desert climate.” Featured along the trails is the ever-changing Sonoran Desert landscape, complete with saguaro forests and rugged canyons.
One caveat: Along much of our 7.5-mile route, we heard the sounds of gunshots in the distance. Because of the valley terrain, it was difficult to determine where the shots were coming from, and how close they were. The BLM website notes that except for seven of its Arizona recreational sites that are closed to target shooting, “You are generally allowed to target shoot on all other BLM managed public lands, as long as you clean up your targets, shell casings, and trash.” The BLM advises contacting the Hassayampa Field Office for more information.
A hike and a bite
In addition to the spectacular scenery and splendid winter weather, the Black Canyon City section of trail is blessed with another sweet feature: The historic Rock Springs Cafe, which turned 100 years old in 2018.
Complementing its range of barbecue and sandwich options, there’s pie – lots of pie. The cafe is known around the state for its selection of pie flavors, from apple to cherry to pecan to lemon meringue.
I opted for the the cherry crumble – delicious.
Directions to the Black Canyon City Trailhead: From Phoenix, take Interstate 17 north and exit at Rock Springs/Black Canyon City, Exit 242. Head west (left). At the stop sign turn right then a quick left onto Warner Road. Follow the road to the white tank which marks the Black Canyon City Trailhead. From Prescott, take highway 69 to Interstate 17, head south. Take the Black Canyon City/Cold Water Road Exit 244. Drive through town and turn west (right) onto Warner Road. Follow the road to the white tank.