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West Clear Creek
Water is a rarity on most hikes in Arizona. That’s why this scenic beauty is so special.
By Robert Stieve
The centerpiece of this hike, and the body of water for which it's named, is West Clear Creek, an idyllic stream that winds for nearly 40 miles through some of the most-scenic and least-visited terrain in Arizona. And it's true, the creek itself is very clear, but, ironically, some of the directions you may have seen for the trail are not.
The Forest Service directions, for example, suggest you begin the hike at Clear Creek Campground. Technically, that's not wrong. In the same way you could start the hike in Flagstaff and traipse down Interstate 17 to the water, you could also kick off this trek at the campground, but you'd have to do a lot of bushwhacking, and you don't want to do that. Instead, begin the hike at Bull Pen Ranch at the end of Forest Road 215.
Not only will this plan spare you a lot of cuts and bruises, the scenic drive to the old ranch is an added bonus. Although FR 215 is a little rough in places, if you go slowly, a sturdy sedan will do. Of course, high-clearance is always the best option on back roads in Arizona. Either way, the road offers terrific views of the canyon into which you'll be hiking. As you look down, your Lewis and Clark impulses will shift into overdrive.
From the trailhead, the route passes under a canopy of impressive sycamores (you'll also see cottonwood, Arizona walnut, willow and ash trees along the creek). Initially, the trail piggybacks an old ranch road on the north bank of the creek. Then, after about a mile, it cuts south for the first of four stream crossings. Throughout most of the year, other than the wet season, it's a simple hop, skip and a jump to other side. In fact, if you're even mildly agile — you don't have to be one of the Flying Wallendas — you can maneuver the rocks and logs without getting wet. Be careful, though, anything you step on will be slippery.
Heading east on the south side of the perennial creek, the trail meanders through a lush riparian forest and quickly comes to the second creek crossing, followed by the official boundary of the wilderness area. Looking around, you'll understand why Congress designated more than 15,000 acres as the West Clear Creek Wilderness in 1984. From the soaring cliffs of Coconino sandstone to the hanging gardens of maidenhair fern and other vegetation, West Clear Creek is a natural wonder that attracts not only humans, but also bears, deer, mountain lions, badgers and birds galore. Keep your eyes peeled.
Eventually, after 5.5 miles and a fourth creek crossing, you'll come to a point where the trail veers north from the creek. This is our recommended turnaround point. Just retrace your steps. If, however, you're in excellent condition and you want to extend the hike, follow the trail north through a draw that climbs 1,800 feet in 2 miles. It's strenuous all the way to a trailhead on Forest Road 214A. From there, it's possible to return to your car by following the forest road for 1.3 miles to the upper end of the 2.5-mile Blodgett Trail, which completes a 15-mile loop. Whichever route you choose, in the end, you'll be glad you started at the ranch — that extra bushwhacking is for the birds.
Trail Guideclick to expand
Length: 11 miles round-trip (along the creek only)
Elevation: 3,700 to 4,100 (along the creek only)
Difficulty: Easy (strenuous if you complete the loop)
Directions: From Interstate 17 at Camp Verde, go southeast for 6 miles on State Route 260 to Forest Road 618. Turn left and continue 2.2 miles to Forest Road 215. From there, turn right and drive approximately 3 miles to the Bull Pen Ranch Trailhead.