Monday 18 March 2019

Escape from the Galiuro Mountains - Trip Report

This past week I was down in Arizona with Paul and Caitlyn for a backpacking trip in southeastern Arizona.  Our original plan had been to go to Gila Wilderness in New Mexico, but a forecast for a foot of snow changed our plans pretty quick.  As such, we opted for my backup location in the Galiuro Mountains, hoping for warmer weather.

The trip had its highs and lows, but overall we had more than the usual lows, particularly related to the weather.  Temperatures were quite low on most of the days (single digits) and we had torrential rain every night of the trip.

After a night in Phoenix, we drove 4hrs to the Deer Creek Trailhead via Deer Creek Road, an 8 mile dirt road that dead ends at the foot of the "sky island" called the Galiuro Mountains.  Weather conditions were dry heading in so we had no trouble getting in...getting out was a different story (more on that at the end of the post).

The only people we saw in 5 days on the trail was at the trailhead when we met a small group of cowboys on mules (not the wannabee cowboys; legit toothless, handle-bar mustache, drinking a beer while riding cowboys) that gave us some good tips about the trail ahead including recommending we stay in a cabin in Rattlesnake Canyon.

We headed up the 'Tortilla Trail' from the Deer Creek Trailhead in the late afternoon.  Besides a few rain showers we enjoyed the strenuous hike towards the mountains and out of the foot hills.

Paul resting at the Oak Creek drainage
We hiked until around 530pm and found a beautiful little campsite to set up for the night.  After setting up camp we started a fire and had dinner.  We enjoyed an amazing evening under the stars until the wind and rain started, pounding us until around dawn.  The Marmot tents held up great!

The morning broke nice and clear!

We had excellent weather for our second day of hiking.  As we headed up towards Topout Divide before dropping down into Rattlesnake Canyon and the 'Powers Garden' area.

I have done backpacking trips in 8 different U.S states and can say that the trails in the Galiuro Wilderness were in the worst shape of any of them.  They don't appear to be maintained at all with trees down and switchbacks at really steep angles!  Certainly challenging and technical hiking!

I can't get enough of those Yucca plants.  The spines are nasty though, as I found out when a couple were embedded in my knee cap!

The scenery was excellent, the photos do not in any way capture the grandeur of these mountains and canyons.

The photo below is near the crest of Topout Divide before descending a series of steep switchbacks with very loose gravel. Caitlyn and Paul handled it like champs even when Cait's hiking poles snapped!

Horse Pack Canyon was quite scenic with towering pillars of rock all around.

After reaching Rattlesnake Canyon we were all exhausted and after finding the 'Powers Cabin', we decided to go inside for the night as the sky was starting to look threatening.  The cabin was built in the 1930s by the Power family.  Another cabin further down the canyon was the site of an infamous shootout during the early 1900s between the Powers brothers and the Sheriff and deputies resulting in the Sheriff and two deputies dying along with the father of the two brothers.  The boys were apparently dodging the draft and fled to Mexico after the shootout.  They were captured by U.S cavalry. 

Inside the cabin was in surprisingly good shape, although Caitlyn likened it to spending her March Break in Bosnia...It even had a wood stove!

This little cabin was a life saver, as that night the weather turned bad again and pelted us with rain, hail and occasionally snow for nearly 3 days straight.  The cabin was certainly a bit creepy, and we slept with one eye open in case we woke up to an axe murderer in the night.  The reality was that no one else was stupid enough to be out there in that hypothermic weather, and we saw nobody.

To get back out of Rattlesnake Canyon you have to climb up over an imposing pass towering 1000ft above the cabin, which would be dangerous in cold, wet, windy weather, so we simply had to hunker down and wait for the weather to clear.  Paul and I harvested tons of wood and dried it in the cabin to keep us warm at night.

View from the cabin.  The pass to get out of the canyon is up in the clouds in this picture.

Paul and I tried to play horseshoes while hail pelted us the one day.

Paul washes his head in the ice water of Rattlesnake Creek

Mexican Jays - one of the few birds we saw in the canyon.
On Tuesday night we had hoped to be able to get out of the canyon, but woke up again to pounding rain, so our departure was delayed until Thursday, which fortunately dawned a very crisp and clear day.  We had a beautiful hike back out the Tortilla Trail. 

We blew an hour trying to cross Rattlesnake Creek with dry feet, which had turned into a river, we all ended up with wet feet except for Paul who spider-manned himself across from a few rocks.  We then blew another half hour as I realized I had misplaced my Vortex Viper (Binoculars), and unfortunately they remain inside of the Galiuros Wilderness.

Snow speckles the distant mountain peaks.
 Ice was present in many locations on the trail, especially as we got up to higher elevations.

We finally arrived at the trailhead at around 5pm, quite exhausted but happy to heading out after the weather had been so poor for much of the trip.

Unfortunately our troubles were not over.  As I had feared, the rain had turned the access road into a muddy mess.  I didn't realize until we got in that the F150 was only 2-wheel drive!!  I floored it through the mud the whole way back until we reached a serious obstacle.  The washout we had driven across at the start of the hike had turned into a full blown river!  It might not look like much in the photo below, but the water came up to the side of the truck and covered the exhaust and front bumper.  We tested the force of the water by rolling some large rocks into the water which were promptly washed downstream!  After debating what to do Paul gunned it and I gave the truck a good luck push.  Fortunately the truck cut a swath through the water like it was parting the red sea!

This blog post only touches on some our trials, there were many others related to minor injuries, our flights getting screwed up, camp fuel being spilled into the carpet of the truck, booking non-refundable hotel room for the wrong date etc. etc.  But despite the truth that this trip did not go as well as I had hoped, I still have lots of good memories with Paul and Cait from it and I hope they will go on another one with me (in better summer weather!).


  1. I think Caitlyn get's to choose your next trip :D glad you made it back alive!

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  3. Too bad the weather was rough on you guys, since like you said the trails and mountains themselves are rough to boot. But the Galiuros are a pretty amazing place. Being so rugged and hard to access they're next to unvisited by birders, but later in the season many of the typical sky island breeders show up. Rattlesnake Canyon is the most northerly breeding site for Elegant Trogon (at least probably, we had multiple individuals on our way in/out of our owl surveys there in 2017 but didn't have time to confirm breeding, and a surveyor on the crew had numerous individuals the year before as well)

  4. Thanks for the comment Mark, I would definitely like to go back some time when the weather is better, would be great to see some more birds as I have heard it can be fantastic later in the spring!