A Rare Excursion into Rattlesnake Canyon Offers History and Expansive Views

November 24, 2023

By Dick Williams

Curiosity lead the Westerners Drovers group to explore into Rattlesnake Canyon where they found a 12-foot tall water gauging station used to by Forest Service to measure run off into the canyon.

The name of the hike looked unfamiliar, yet interesting, on the Westerner’s website. Rattlesnake Canyon. I recalled having fellow hikers point out a canyon near the end of Wood’s Canyon, but I had never ventured up there. Because… surprise… I do not like snakes. But that’s a story for another column. That said, I figured with enough people around I would just have to be faster than one other person. This was also a hike that the Westerners had not done for a while, so thanks to Jim Kemper for scouting the trail and resurrecting the adventure from historical hike reports for this Drovers hike.

The description showed the need for high-clearance vehicles to access the canyon.

Showing up at the VOC meeting place, I found out why. Instead of accessing Rattlesnake Canyon via Wood’s Canyon, we were going to access it from up top… which meant driving to I-17, heading north one exit, and then taking a series of established Coconino National Forest roads to a parking area. We would hike in from there. After the requisite safety discussion, we divided into cars and started the drive. This morning’s discussion centered around the recent accidents on SR 179, with all of us agreeing the most dangerous part of our day would be the part we spent in our cars.

The Forest Road had only a few sketchy areas. We were glad we had our Jeep, though it was only about a mile to a parking area. It was a beautiful day, so without too much clothing fanfare we scampered off down the trail, led by another Jim – Jim Sweeny. Jim Kemper was under the weather that day. Our Drovers Hike Leader Kelley Malek was along with us as well, so we were in good hands. 

The first hour or so of the morning was walking on a very rocky trail – think walking on softballs hidden in grass that had some semblance of an old road. Turns out, this was a history bonus day for us, we were actually on a part of the historic Chavez Trail. Kelley had prepared an excellent recap of the history, especially the historical significance of the trail. I will recap a short history of the trail below but urge everyone to research the trail on the internet. There are a ton of stories that put context around this rather unruly walking surface.

In 1864, Lt. Col. J. Francisco Chaves was tasked with finding a more direct return route between the new Arizona Territorial capital of Prescott and Santa Fe. Legend has it he and his fifty-person contingent followed an old Hopi Indian path called Palatkwapi Trail through this area, eventually arriving at Winslow, which was called Sunset Crossing at the time. In the late 1800’s, it was used as a stagecoach line and was a major east-west trading route that even accessed Los Angeles. In the early 2000’s, Forest Service Historian Bill Safford began work with a wide-ranging group of local volunteers to better locate the forty-five miles of trail in the Red Rock Ranger District. He documented the trail and preserved its expansive history that probably spanned from Native Americans to Spanish Explorers to the settlers of the growing United States and to today as the feet of the Westerners traveled down its rocky path. Standing there, we were mesmerized thinking of all the people who had traversed it before us – and wondering if their stagecoach ride was smoother than our hike in. 

We reached the rim of the Canyon after about an hour and were duly rewarded with views down Rattlesnake Canyon to the Ranger Station on SR 179, now about 5 miles away. We could also see most of the Mingus mountains and the peaks around Flagstaff. The real treat up top – reached after some meandering on even more uneven terrain – was a promontory where we had a snack with an expansive view up and down the canyon. Looking east of this point, way down below, was a water gauging station. It looked, really, really, small from this distance, and elicited a lot of “Boy, it would be cool to go see that.” Jim Sweeny said he was glad we wanted to see it because that was our next stop. So off we went.

We soon picked up another Forest Road, looking almost passable, that went about halfway down the canyon to a parking area. The offshoot trail from there continued down the hill to the gauging station. You could tell this was as far as the maintenance people could drive their vehicles, and that they had to haul the rest of their equipment by hand down a very, very rugged trail.

The pools were dry, but Jim said back in the Spring there was a huge waterfall shooting off the edge. The gauging station was about 12 feet in the air today, so you could only imagine how high the water would get. There were also some very interesting remnants of a dam, rebar in the rocks, etc. This was the lunch spot, so we put our packs down, nosed around, and watched beautiful insects in a small patch of water and butterflies chasing each other. Several of our hikers even lay on the rocks like lizards soaking up the sun. As an added bonus, Jim Sweeny found a geocache box hiding under one of the ledges. It was filled with many baubles, the most interesting being a brand-new set of four dog booties.

Alas, it was time to haul our tired bodies back up the steep hill. The surprise was that when we hit the previous access road, it continued on and took us straight back to our cars. The trip back out was uneventful. We all agreed it was a wonderful morning with a great history lesson and a view of the Ranger Station, from five miles away, that many folks never get to see. And, thankfully, no actual rattlesnakes.

The Sedona Westerners have hikes every week from September to May for just about every ability. The cost to join is only $30 a year, and all are welcome… even short-term visitors to the region. Our website, www.sedonawesterners.org, has all the hikes listed, our history, and a handy signup link. We invite you to start your adventures in the Red Rocks with us today. 

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