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Agua Fria National Monument

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Arizona Site Map

Agua Fria National Monument covers an area of high elevation desert around the boundary between the Sonoran cactus lands and the grass-chaparral belt, one third of the way from Phoenix to Flagstaff, alongside interstate 17. The monument is only 10 x 20 miles in extent and like other new preserves in Arizona such as Ironwood Forest there are few signs of its existence, just a few notice boards at the start of the 3 dirt tracks that cross into it from the west. The centerpiece is the deep canyon of the Agua Fria River, which is bordered by two grassy mesas, split by various smaller valleys. As well as the protection of the abundant natural life sustained by the river corridor, the monument was established to preserve hundreds of ancient sites - ruins, pictographs, etc. - which are found dotted around the hills and along the river. Visitor activities include camping, bird watching, general exploration and in particular, hiking down the canyon.

The North: The north section contains 4,000 foot high Sycamore Mesa and several valleys but is mostly rather featureless, with low grassy hills bearing a few small bushes and occasional opuntia cacti. Such is the scenery around exit 259 of I-17, one of three junctions which provide easy access to the monument. Apart from these, the only route in is from Black Canyon City, where a track follows the Agua Fria River northwards for a few miles, though other approaches are possible from the east via rough roads through the Tonto and Prescott National Forests. From exit 259, a good gravel/dirt track (Bloody Basin Road) descends 3 miles to the river, then continues to more remote lands in the east. There are some nice camping places along tracks close to the interstate which allow for distant views south over the highway and the Agua Fria canyon. The land hereabouts has clumps of granitic boulders and coarse, clean white sand, quite similar to parts of Joshua Tree National Park in California.

The Canyon: From exit 252, a side track leads east to a parking/camping area and a trail register, start of the short path down the mostly dry Badger Springs Canyon to the Agua Fria, meeting the river just as the canyon starts to deepen. Entries in the register suggest only one or two groups pass by each day. The main river flows all year and forms pools at least several metres deep, many small waterfalls and pretty cascades. There is no trail as such downstream but it is easy enough to walk beside or sometimes in the river. Saguaro soon appear, then many other types of cacti - big opuntia, Arizona barrel cacti, clumps of echinocereus and mammillaria, all growing in crevices in the walls of the increasingly rocky canyon. At river level there are trees and grassy patches but the surroundings are mostly open, with sand bars and grey granite boulders, polished smooth by the waters. Rows of driftwood many feet above the normal water level tell of the great force of the occasional floods down the canyon, in contrast to the usual peaceful, quiet scene. In some places the river flows through rocky channels, forming deeper pools but there are no extended narrow sections.

An Old Mine: In the middle of the canyon, shortly after a large tributary ravine (Tank Canyon) joins from the west, parts of an old rusty pipe remain alongside the river; this was once used to provide water for the Richinbar Mine, situated 700 feet above on the western rim. The mine is a possible turn around point, otherwise, if following the canyon all the way downstream, a car shuttle would be required. It takes about 20 minutes of scrambling and climbing to reach the rim, on which there are various remnants of old buildings and equipment. Richinbar Mine produced gold and silver from about 1896 to 1912, and even contained a registered post office. From here, the Badger Springs trailhead is about one hour's walk away, over a flat, stony plateau.

  • 10 views of the national monument

  • A narrow section

    Echinocereus cacti

    Entrance to the monument

    Similar Places

  • Kofa Wildlife Refuge, Arizona - desert region with a distinct sense of isolation
  • Sonoran Desert National Monument - rugged saguaro wilderness
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