When it comes to wild and rugged wilderness beauty, from its desert bottom floor to its mountain top summits, the state of Arizona exceeds them all! Famous for its extremely hot temperatures, only in Arizona can you escape the heat on a summer day and explore one of its many remote wilderness canyons only accessible by 4 wheel drive and enjoy “non-technical” canyoneering; boulder hopping, wading and swimming through cool and refreshing natural pools making for an adventurous and extraordinary day’s retreat that is simply unsurpassed!
West Clear Creek is described by the U.S Forest Service as “one of the most rugged and remote canyons in northern Arizona”. A stunningly beautiful wilderness canyon, West Clear Creek offers many deep natural pools surrounded by colorful, narrow rock walls which are sure to cool you off on a hot summer’s day. However, most exciting of all, known only to locals for many years, and the reward for your day’s canyoneering adventure through the pools of West Clear Creek, you will be amazed to discover Arizona’s garden of paradise, the Hanging Gardens!
So if you’re looking for a retreat and a great way to escape the heat, and you’re up for a rough and wild off road wilderness adventure and a challenging, yet truly extraordinary canyoneering journey to Arizona’s hidden garden of paradise, then I highly recommend checking out the Hanging Gardens Hike, in the beautiful West Clear Creek Wilderness, Strawberry, Arizona!
Starting out early on a weekend morning in early August, I drove out to a meetup location on Phoenix’s far northeast side where I joined the fellow members and friends of the TLC Hiking Club, a local hiking & outdoors adventure club led by Eric Kinneman. After everyone had arrived and in preparation for the long day and strenuous journey that was ahead of us, we received a briefing including last minute safety and advisories then excitedly hopped into our vehicles and were ready to set out for the adventure we’d all been long anticipating, the Hanging Gardens of West Clear Creek!
Heading north on Highway 87, we made our way into the town of Payson by about 7 am, then continued heading north on 87 out of Payson until arriving 2.5 miles past the intersection of Highway 260. After quickly stopping to regroup all of our members, we got back into our vehicles again and with Eric Kinneman in the lead, we turned right on Forest Road 144, and got prepared for what had been forewarned to be a very rough and wild 4 wheel drive adventure! And that it was indeed too!
After turning right on all dirt road, FR 144, and stopping one more time to regroup, we slowly began heading our way east. Upon arriving at the end of FR 144, we continued by making a left onto FR 149, a left again on FR142 then a right on FR 142A. One by one, we very slowly and carefully made our way along this extremely rough road and wild terrain, winding around forest trees and brush, and up and over large rocks and boulders. Please be advised, these all dirt forest roads are extremely rough and rugged and require having a good 4 wheel drive vehicle, not just an HCV because a result of the recent rain storms that had come through the area, along the way we encountered some very deep and completely gutted out, muddy pools! Thankfully though, everyone made it through okay without getting their vehicles stuck, but wow, what an incredible off road adventure it had been so far!
Once making the last turn onto FR 142J, it was roughly 9.9 miles and 1 hour and 20 minutes later, that we had all made it safely to the end of the road, and were relieved to have arrived at the trailhead. Having finally reached West Clear Creek, and our destination by 9 am, we parked, pulled out our packs and gear, and then gathered round together along the cliff’s edge to wait for rest of the members of the group. There at the top and at the edge of West Clear Creek Canyon, I paused for a few short moments to look around and take a few photos of the amazing and beautiful wilderness scenery all around. How incredibly remote, rugged and pristine this area appeared to be and how very fortunate we all felt to be able to experience this. This was going to be an incredible day and an amazing adventure and we were all very eager and excited to get it started!
After gathering everyone together for a few group shots, it was now time for our canyoneering adventure to begin! Starting from the trailhead at the top of the cliff and with Eric Kinneman leading the way, one by one, we each began to make our way down into the beautiful canyon below. The journey down to the bottom of West Clear Creek Canyon immediately started with a steep decent, straight down about 867 feet, along a narrow but well marked use trail. With a lot of loose rocks and gravel, it was a strenuous trek all the way down which many chose to do by getting down on the ground and sliding it, rather than risk a slippery and dangerous fall.
Having successfully reached the bottom of West Clear Creek, I looked down into the canyon where were headed and noticed just how beautiful this place really was as the sun’s rays lit up the tall, amber colored rock walls. It was just amazing! I took a few quick photos then quickly rejoined the others. From here at the canyon’s deep, cool bottom floor, our canyoneering quickly began with boulder hopping over many large rocks and boulders for a short ways until came to our first pools. Only knee deep at the most, we quickly got into the water and boulder hopped, waded and splashed our way through our first few sets of pools.
By this time, most everyone had at least made it to the first pools and were now reaching further down into this gorgeous canyon with deeper and longer pools closely surrounded by tall, beautifully contoured and narrow rock walls, an area which is commonly referred to as the “White Box” of West Clear Creek. With all of our gear securely packed in dry bags and along with our flotation devices, we slowly swam from one cool refreshing pool to the next, down through the gorgeous canyon narrows and as I continued taking as many photos as I could, the scenery was absolutely amazing and breathtaking!
After briefly stopping for some fun and exciting “rope jumping”, the incredible canyoneering adventure through the beautiful White Box and narrows of West Clear Creek continued as we carefully trekked over the wet, and slippery rocks and boulders, all the while taking in the gorgeous scenery as we swam from one refreshing pool to the next which to our amazement within these pools were many good sized crawfish too! Reaching mid-morning by about this time and with the heat of the summer day coming upon us, our canyoneering journey continued as we slowly moved through one deep pool to the next.
It was reaching noon by now and roughly after 12 pools and close to 3 hours of intense canyoneering, I was beginning to feel exhausted and a little weary. Thinking that I could not possibly make it through yet another pool, we rounded the final bend and while noticing how green the riparian vegetation had become, we got out of the water and looked up; we had finally arrived at the remote and hidden, Hanging Gardens! Wow, it was indescribable! We entered this very lush, green, garden like area, first passing by a beautiful waterfall gushing from over the high cliff above, then moving on and directly to its left, there it was, the Hanging Gardens, a beautiful, cascading waterfall elegantly dripping over thick maiden hair ferns and vines, and wow, what an incredible and amazing sight! I could not believe my eyes. What a unique, remote and truly special place, a real “garden of paradise”, and a remote wilderness “oasis” literally of epic proportions! This place, the Hanging Gardens, was simply extraordinary and so much more than I had even imagined!
Now with most of our group and friends rejoined again, we took a break, ate lunch, did some more rope jumping and thoroughly enjoyed spending some time together taking many pictures and videos, trying to capture every moment that we could of this incredible place. However, it was by about 12:30 and with the afternoon heat of the day now well upon us, one by one we started to make the long and strenuous trek back through the many deep pools and White Box narrows of West Clear Creek, where the towering rock walls now glimmering with the afternoon sun’s rays, made the adventurous canyoneering journey back, even more gorgeous and spectacular every moment of the way!
It was now reaching late afternoon and after having made it through the very last pool, then hiking back up 867 feet to the top and the cliffs edge, we were thoroughly hot and completely exhausted. But wow, what an amazing adventure it had been! It was by about 3pm that we most everyone had finally reached the top and the trailhead again where we were parked completing the day’s canyoneering adventure according to our GPS, was 4.70 miles round trip which we completed in approximately 6.0 hours.
From here, we once again got back into our 4 wheel drives and got ready for the rough and wild return journey back. Miraculously, with only one tire blow out for the entire group, and by about 4:30 pm, we finally arrived safely at the main highway again, having completed the off road adventure according to our stats, was 19.9 miles round trip on what was absolutely some of the roughest, toughest and wildest dirt roads that we as a group had ever been on before! Wow, what an incredible adventure!
In all, really an unforgettable day and an epic, amazing wilderness adventure, that was well researched, planned and coordinated by Eric Kinneman of the TLC Hiking Club. So if you’re up for a rough and wild off road wilderness adventure and a strenuous, challenging, yet truly extraordinary canyoneering journey to a wilderness oasis that is truly a garden of paradise, then be sure you check out the Hanging Gardens Hike, in the beautiful West Clear Creek Wilderness, Strawberry, Arizona!
Laura K. Halik is a writer and published author with over 20 years experience of outdoors travel throughout the state of Arizona and the western region. She is passionate for nature, the outdoors, travel and adventure. Laura enjoys hiking, canyoneering, white water rafting, kayaking, scuba diving, snorkeling, writing, and photography. She is also a co-hiking leader and organizer in a hiking and outdoors adventure club for advanced and experienced hikers.
Throughout her professional career in international business, Laura has worked and traveled frequently throughout the Latin American and Caribbean region. She lives with her family and pets in Phoenix, Arizona.
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