I didn’t breath a word to anyone, but as we climbed down out of Pueblo Canyon, I was secretly thinking to myself, “there’s NO WAY we’re doing another hike tomorrow.” The plan had been to hit Pueblo Canyon, the harder and longer of the hikes, on day one and follow up with a quick out-and-back to what the guidebook called ‘Cooper Forks’ the next morning, before heading home to Phoenix.
In that moment, on the tail end of what I will officially deem “one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done,” (Adventure in the Sierra Ancha) I mistakenly believed that if I was feeling the pain, everyone else must certainly be feeling it. So when our silent descent was broken by random banter about the following morning’s hike I just smiled and nodded diplomatically.
Morning dawned bright and early; I laid with my sleeping bag up over my face for as long as possible, until I could hear that everyone was up except for me. I am not a morning person, so was a bit slow coming out of the bag entirely but once I got moving around I began to revive. I was still quite confident that we’d probably putz around the campfire for a while before reaching a unanimous decision to break camp and head back home a little early.
I dressed and freshened up a bit, and came around the side of the truck to see everyone standing slightly beyond the fire, shading their eyes and squinting intently out across the wide canyon that stretched below our campsite. As I approached, John handed me the guidebook and pointed to a hill that rose steeply from the creek at the canyon bottom to the base of a sheer rock cliff.
“That’s where we’re going, see up there at the base of the cliff?”
“Huh?” I glanced at the guidebook, then back up at the large hill. John offered me the binoculars, and after scanning the hillside for a bit I found the cliff face and trained my view down to where it met the bare slope. Nestled inside what appeared to be a gash running down the cliff was a cliff dwelling, perfectly centered in the narrow opening.
“Wow, that looks pretty far…” I trailed off as I realized how lame I sounded; it was obvious that the plan was to do it – and nobody else was complaining.
“Well, the guidebook says it’s only a half mile down to the creek, then another half mile to where we hit Cooper Forks Canyon, and then another half mile up to the structure.” John assured. OK, that didn’t really sound too bad – really just a quick jaunt.
If I hadn’t been so eager to believe it was a short hike I would have realized those distances made no sense based on what I was seeing with my own eyes. Regardless, there was no way I was going to be the only one who didn’t want to go.
I gathered up my gear a bit reluctantly and followed everyone down the dirt road where we met up with the old mining trail again, this time heading down-slope towards the creek. The warm sun on my face, singing birds, and flowers blooming all around quickly captivated me and I was suddenly really glad we were on another adventure.
We hadn’t gone a quarter mile when some strange-looking droppings in the trail prompted me to wonder aloud what type of animal might have produced them…My husband Dan swiftly delivered the first blow to my serene state of mind when he revealed (after some hemming and hawing) that it was probably bear. Apparently, he and John had already had this conversation the day before when they came across the same thing multiple times on the trail to Pueblo Canyon (Adventure in the Sierra Ancha). When John told Dan it looked like bear scat, Dan had sworn John to secrecy – bears happen to be my biggest fear ever.
The second blow came when we reached the creek. There, marked clearly in the sandy bank, was the BIGGEST paw print I had ever seen. “OMG, the bear’s down here!” was my first thought. However the number of toes must not have matched up because Bill joyfully exclaimed that it was actually a mountain lion…”And he must be a big sucker!”
Numbness crept up my body as I furtively scanned the banks and the encroaching forest, positive the animal in question was watching and waiting just beyond the treeline. Nobody else seemed to be that worried, so I tried to mask my terror, but in reality I could not get out of the forested area near the creek fast enough. I cringed thinking about where I had slept the night before, totally exposed and ripe for the picking.
As usual, my fierce yet shameful sense of self-preservation took over. In a carefully-calculated strategic move, I fell in behind Bill and John, with my husband Dan and his friend Brian from Jersey trailing behind me. My thought was, if we surprised the mountain lion, Bill and John would create enough of a distraction for me to have a chance – and if the mountain lion came up behind us, the same logic would apply from the back end.
In loose formation, we boulder-hopped across the creek and up the other bank. Trying to stay close to the creek, we slowly made our way among the boulders and slippery rocks, but were eventually forced by a tangle of impenetrable vegetation to veer right and up onto a little terrace that rose above the river.
Low mesquite trees created a canopy over the flat terrace, interspersed with the occasional prickly pear or creosote bush. I imagined that this would have been a perfect place for the ancient Anchans to live, overlooking the river and all, but I didn’t notice any signs of habitation except for a few possible stone alignments that may or may not have marked the location of ancient structures.
Finally, we came to the edge of the terrace, where Cooper Forks Canyon intersected the creek. Unfortunately, by this time we were quite high above the creek and the canyon floor, without any obvious way down – the problem was that we needed to cross Cooper Forks Canyon. Before I knew what was happening, Bill disappeared down the side of the terrace, to the sound of cracking branches and cascading rocks. A moment later, John followed.
I gingerly stepped forward a few feet in the direction they had gone, looking for handholds. Just then Brian spoke up and said his heel had been bothering him for a while, and he felt he’d be better off going back to camp to wait for us instead of pressing on. Before he had even finished his sentence, Dan chimed in, offering to accompany him back to camp. Bill and John were already out of earshot. I craned my neck, trying to see where they had gone, to no avail. Looking at Dan and Brian, then back down the steep terrace, I reluctantly decided to push ahead; at this point I just couldn’t stomach giving up and turning back after coming so far.
Bidding Dan and Brian farewell, I returned to the task at hand; negotiating a way down the slippery, vegetation-choked dirt bank. Seeing no obvious route, I finally launched into a brisk downhill slide, grasping wildly at any plant within reach (most of which happened to be covered in either spines or thorns).
I made it down about 20 feet and finally caught sight of Bill and John waiting in the wash below. After another 20 treacherous feet of basically skiing on dirt, I finally reached the wash and the base of the steep hill leading up to the cliffs and the ruins.
I can’t lie; at this point I was secretly envying Dan and Brian, imagining them kicking back with a cool drink at the campsite, leisurely watching the remote hillside, waiting for us to appear. As we wearily crossed the wash, Bill paused for a moment before staring up at the steep opposite bank. “You know,” he said, “I’m feeling a bit tired myself – I think I’m going to go join those guys at the camp site and sit this one out.”
John and I looked at each other. For a brief moment, I thought I might get my guilty wish and we’d all turn back. But I could see John was excited to continue, and despite my pure physical exhaustion, I did really want to see the cave and the ruins first-hand. So after making sure our walkie-talkie was synched with Bill’s, we agreed to contact him when we reached the ruin.
The cliff and cave appeared tantalizingly close at just over a half mile away, but this final stretch involved a 1200 foot climb, and to quote the trusty guide book, “most of the route follows no recognizable trail”. For once, the book was astoundingly accurate. John and I started up the steep winding trail that switch-backed up the base of the hill. Within minutes, the trail had dwindled to nothing and we stood staring out over a rocky, sparsely-vegetated slope.
In the absence of a trail, we opted against pushing ahead on a steep route directly towards the ruins, instead choosing a more gradual approach which would take us left along the hillside and a bit out of our way before (hopefully) veering back up towards the cliff and our destination. We were encouraged when we eventually picked up a faint trail again, but after about 20 minutes it was obvious that it was taking us around the mountain and not up towards the cliff.
Abandoning the trail to nowhere, we bushwhacked up through a copse of mesquites to the crest of a low rise, hoping we’d be able to see our destination and adjust our path accordingly. Frustration mounted as, no matter how high we climbed, a clear view of the cliff we needed to reach eluded us.
We had nearly reached the top of the mountain without catching even a glimpse of the cliff face when we suddenly had an ‘ah-ha’ moment and pulled out the camera. Examining the pictures we had taken earlier from below and matching up distinctive landmarks, it became obvious we had climbed too high and were actually above the ruins!
Cautiously but excitedly, we began to descend towards the edge of the hill, and where (based on the pictures) we thought the cliff should be. After a harrowing, albeit quick, slide down a field of shattered rocks that rolled and shifted under our feet with a sound like breaking glass, we finally rounded the corner of the cliff and found ourselves directly below the ruins.
Looking up in awe, we beheld an amazing sight! Blending perfectly into the natural openings in the cliff were the most well-constructed ancient dwellings I have ever seen. And compared to the structures in Pueblo Canyon, this small enclave of 10-12 rooms brought new meaning to the word ‘inaccessible’.
After personally experiencing the difficulty of reaching these dwellings, it was hard to imagine what prompted the Anchan people to expend the time and effort required to build in this remote, waterless cliff side – a question that archaeologists are still trying to figure out.
As John and I spent the next hour joyously exploring this amazing place, there was no question as to whether the trek was worth it – bears and mountain lions notwithstanding.