Have you ever seen those Facebook videos of Havasupai Falls? They usually have titles like “THIS SECRET PLACE” or “THIS HIDDEN GEM.” It’s laughable because everyone and their grandma knows about Havasupai, especially if you live in Arizona. But I got the chance to explore a place I can confidently say is a hidden gem. West Clear Creek near Hanging Gardens is so remote and difficult to reach that I only saw three people during the whole trip.
But this treasure isn’t without tribulations. The scenery is stunning but the journey is challenging. I discovered the hard way by hiking this one alone.
Getting to West Clear Creek
The road to Cash Tank Trailhead is no joke. Prepare for at least one hour of off-road driving in a high clearance vehicle. 4WD isn’t required but strongly recommended. I can’t imagine driving there without in case it rained. Take I-17 to Highway 260 at Camp Verde (in between Phoenix and Flagstaff). Drive 30 miles east until you reach Tom Creek Road on the left. It will look like a private drive with a gate, but this is a public dirt road. Open the gate, close it behind you, and follow the dirt road underneath the power lines.
This road is rough so be patient and take your time. Even my Toyota Tacoma bottomed out a couple times because I started to hurry. The road will leave the power lines for a moment and wind through the woods. Don’t worry, you’re still on track. Soon after you’ll pass through another gate. Keep driving until the road comes to a Y and veer left. This is FR142J and you will take this all the way to the very edge of the canyon.
Hiking Into the Canyon
Look for a stack of cairns to the left after you park. This is the “trail” down to West Clear Creek. I use quotes because this isn’t much of a trail at all. It’s very steep and full of loose rock and dirt. I slid and fell a few times on the way down. The cairns will guide you down but look for orange tape when the brush thickens. Those markers will be much easier to find.
Once you reach the bottom, the beauty of the river will open up, but take note of where you are. It will be easy to miss the canyon exit on the way back. Take in the scene and remember the orange markers for the way back.
Trekking through West Clear Creek
The distance between the trailhead and the destination at Hanging Gardens is less than two miles, but that number is extremely deceiving. There are three major challenges through this river:
- The rocks underneath the water are covered in algae and therefore slippery as all hell. There is no normal way to walk on them without slipping and stumbling.
- There are several points where the water is too deep to wade and you must swim. I used a small tube to carry my backpack while I grabbed on with one arm and used the other to paddle down the river. It’s cool at first but after a while you’ll realize how slow-moving it really is.
- The spots along the side of the creek where you can hike are covered in brush and poison ivy. There’s no easy escape from the slippery rocks.
But if you’re going to punish yourself through rock, water, and poison ivy, you might as well do it in a place like this. The views were stunning. It reminded me of The Narrows at Zion National Park on a smaller scale. There were places I could have stopped for some cliff jumping if I wasn’t in such a hurry. And that’s because the weather rolled in quickly.
Thunder & Lightning
I didn’t make it to Hanging Gardens because the weather had other plans. Hikers can endure bad weather all day, but it’s a different story inside a canyon. There’s no escape from flash floods and I kept thinking about how seven hikers died from flash floods at Zion National Park in 2015. Even though I was probably close to the end, this was a new hike and I didn’t know what I was working with. I turned around and booked it back to the trailhead.
The Risks of a Solo Hike
Hiking alone is fantastic. You set your own pace, make your own entertainment, and it’s a chance to get away and be alone with your own thoughts. But this isn’t the place I’d recommend doing that. The complete solitude and multiple opportunities to slip and fall can leave you vulnerable. Maybe if I was more experienced or had an SOS device, but I’ll be returning to this one with friends and making it back to the Hanging Gardens.
- Location: West Clear Creek, Arizona
- Distance: 3.6 Miles (Round Trip)
- Elevation Gain: -540 Feet (Elevation Loss)
- Difficulty: 8/10
- Cautions: Slick Rock, Poison Ive, Steep Trail
- Highlights: Canyon Walls, Flowing Water, Swim & Jump Spots
- Nearby Campground: Cash Tank (The Trailhead)
- PTO Days Required: 0 (from Phoenix, Tucson, or Flagstaff)
- Nearest City/Town: Camp Verde, Arizona
- TOTAL SCORE: A Perfect 5/7 Floaty Tubes
Trail Tales is an ongoing series. Check out my trip to Druid Arch at Canyonlands National Park, and look out for the next Trail Tales adventure.