Hell’s Cats In Aravaipa Canyon

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Easy Hiker Vera Marie BadertscherA guest post by Vera Marie Badertscher

Hiking in Aravaipa

In Greek mythology, the three-headed dog Cerberus guards the gates of Hell. In Arizona, cats do the job.

It was a perfect October day as my husband Ken and I headed for the east end of Aravaipa Canyon,[air-ah-VIPE-a] the wilderness area canyon stretching northeast from Mammoth to Klondyke in Arizona for an easy hike down a canyon bed. The turquoise sky crackled against the tops of red and purple mountains. The slanted rays of morning sun creased deep pleats in rock walls. Soft breezes carried air warm enough to ease the shock of stepping in cold Aravaipa Creek.

Some years before, riding in a helicopter over the Aravaipas  wilderness, I squinted down at the green gash carved by Aravaipa Creek. Here and there the sun reflected back from poolof water or hawks spiraled up from the green clouds of foliage along the creek.

One dark, diabolical cleft was so narrow that no greenery or diamond flash of water was visible from its depths. The deep black fissure writhed across the land, untouched by jeep trails. In a line of canyons reaching northward to the mountains, with names like Desolation and Hell’s Half Acre, this was the meanest looking. This maze-like canyon would swallow up a wanderer and tuck them away in a dead end. There might as well have been a sign: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”

“What’s that?” I shouted over the thrum of the rotor blades.

Through the padded earphones I heard the name, “Hell Hole.”

I had been to Paradise, Arizona. Now I was on my way to Hell.

Splashing along the creek bed which frequently doubles as a hiking path, we drank in the beauty of Aravaipa’s rugged rock walls. Frequently we consulted the topo map, called, invitingly, Booger Canyon, to be sure we had not missed the mouth of Hell Hole Canyon. Two and a half miles into our easy hike, we curved to the right into a side canyon as wide as the main corridor and as gently beautiful. Where were the narrows?

A large, bare, bleached bone lodged between rocks in the stream. Probably mountain sheep—a victim of mountain lions or an unfortunate fall from the towering cliff above. We scanned the top edge of the cliffs, hoping to spot the departed sheep’s relatives. Lizards scurried and canyon wrens did their comic dives. The breeze interrupted the stillness with soft shhhhhs of waving grasses.

Fifteen minutes in, we could see the broad canyon suddenly narrow and make a sharp right turn into a slot. My goal—the tortured narrows of Hell Hole Canyon—was close at hand.

At the curve, a feathery clump of willows stood across the creek from our path. On the right, the canyon wall displayed a mosaic of sienna and black—a crazy pattern that demanded an artsy close up. I pulled the camera from my purple fanny pack and turned toward the wall of rock, moving the camera close, to frame nature’s abstract art.

Ken, behind me, said quietly, “Look across the creek.”

I swung around, the camera still raised, and looked into the trees. Less than fifty yards away across the creek, the soft brown fur of two young mountain lions reflected the sun between shadows cast by leaves. Heavy legs dangled from the branches with those puppy-like not-yet-grown-into-them big feet. They looked like the stuffed animals that lounge on a little girl’s pillow. A larger cat, no doubt their mother, lounged nearby. Like the youngsters, she was as relaxed as a kitten after lunch.

“Take the picture,” I silently told myself, my camera frozen at my chin. But I envisioned a click that would sound like a cannon as it reverberated off the rock walls. I really did not want to annoy these kitties.

Mind racing, I considered the options. To continue into the narrow Hell Hole, we would have to pass the cats right where the walls closed in. They might have felt threatened. We surely would.

With a couple of words of whispered consultation, Ken and I backed slowly down the path, the way we had come, the cats lazily watching us. After several minutes that seemed like years, we turned and completed our retreat with only our pounding hearts to break the silence of the canyon. Checking over our shoulders we confirmed that the cats stayed in their tree, and we strolled back to the parking lot, ending our easy hike.

And that is why I never got to Hell.

Vera Marie Badertscher writes about travel. She also blogs about books and movies that inspire and enrich travel at A Traveler’s Library

19 comments to Hell’s Cats In Aravaipa Canyon

  • Hahaha, and I thought ladies prefer cats. Thanks all for taking the time to comment. Glad you enjoyed the read, as I knew you would. Special thanks to Vera for sharing such an exciting hiking experience.

  • What a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Or have you run into big cats before?

  • jessiev

    what an incredible experience. fantastic photo!

  • Kris Bordessa

    Yow. I’ve lived in an area rife with mountain lions and heard them in my driveway, but surprisingly – thankfully! – I never actually saw any. I can just imagine all of the thoughts that went through your head that day.

  • Whoa. So interesting. I went to college in AZ but really didn’t take advantage of the outdoors as much as I wish I did!

  • So scary to have such a close encounter with nature! So hard to know what to do in these situations. I encountered a fox in my back yard last night and it scared me…. and foxes are not known to attack people. But still. They have teeth!

  • Melanie Haiken

    Wow, what a story! While I know how disappointed you must have been not to see Hell Hole, I’m sure you did the right thing; wild animals must be taken seriously and treated with respect!

  • Thanks everybody. And I should have added the information that Aravaipa is a Wilderness area, so you must have a Bureau of Land Management Permit before you hike. The number of people allowed in each day is strictly limited. (No limit on kitties, as far as I know.)Information at: http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/arolrsmain/aravaipa/permits.html

    Lucky you, Casey. You’ve hiked some gorgeous ground. Don’t miss Aravaipa and I hope you’ve seen Canyon de Chelly, too.

  • What an incredible hike and incredible post. Loved it.

  • I came home late from work one night when I was early 20s and still living at home. My mom lived in the foothills of the adirondacks. I pulled in the drive and the light shown on our house cat who was not allowed outdoors. It was late, about 10pm.

    I got out of the car and yelled to the cat to get in the house. I called and called and she just sat staring at me. I got very annoyed (I had some friends I wanted to meet out) and stomped my feet. She got up and I noticed that her legs looked a WHOLE lot thicker than normal. I started to wonder if I was seeing a dog.. like a big puppy type dog. I couldn’t believe the size of the feet and legs. So I slowly went into the house.

    I told my stepfather and he jumped up to see. As it turns out, it was not our house cat–it was a mountain lion. I never yelled at cats in the dark again.

  • Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart

    Yikes! We’ve run into a single, young, female mtn lion on our hikes, but never 3 at once. I know how that can get a girl’s heart pounding … especially when you have a dog with you on the hike, who might just look like a snack to a big cat.

    You should check out this blog … my friend KB hikes and mtn bikes in an area populated by all kinds of wild creatures. Her wildlife cameras catch all kinds of amazing sites.


  • Casey

    Breathtaking in so many ways! My husband and I (both Edward Abbey fans) went hiking in Sedona, Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Arches earlier this year. We’ll have to make it back to do Aravaipa Canyon too.

  • Lisa

    I’d take mountain lions over hell any day. What an experience!

  • What an adventure! When I saw you were writing about hiking in Hell, I thought maybe you had gone to Hell, Michigan, I see I was waaaaay off. Cool post.

  • Susan

    Sounds like quite the adventure! Loved those photos.

  • I loved this post! I was so into it that I gasped when I read about the mountain lions. The scenery where I live is beautiful, too, but not the extreme beauty you describe here. That’s what’s great about the Internet. It’s possible to travel and experience amazing things through the eyes of others. Thanks!

  • Sheryl

    Wow, Vera! Quite the experience. Glad you escaped unharmed. The photos are gorgeous, too. Beautiful animals, but I know they can be quite dangerous.

  • That must have been magical. No doubt better than Hell.

  • What an intense experience! I’m so glad nothing happened to you. Those animals are magical and I expect it was impressive to see them in their natural habitat.

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