Badger Springs Trail offers scenic vistas that include views of the Agua Fria River.
© Jerry Jacka
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Badger Springs TrailSightseeing and solitude are the highlights of this hike in the Agua Fria National Mon- ument. The archaeology is an unexpected bonus.
By Robert Stieve
There are a couple of things you should know about the Badger Springs Trail. 1) Badgers aren't among the mammals you're likely to see — your chances of seeing the trail's namesake are about as good as they are at the Tempe Music Festival. 2) Agua Fria, a Spanish phrase meaning "cold water," is the name of the river you'll be following, but the river is usually just a riverbed, and it's almost never cold. Here's another thing: If you're a little squeamish about rattlesnakes, you might want to sit this one out — the desert sun stirs up Mohave Greens and other rattlers as early as February. (Note to reader: This is our February issue, so beware.)
Disclaimers notwithstanding, the Badger Springs Trail is one of Arizona's best, especially in the spring. Archaeology, ecology, history, spectacular scenery, peace and quiet are the selling points of this hike, which winds through the heart of the Agua Fria National Monument, a 71,000-acre parcel of high mesa grassland established in 2000. Unlike other federal parklands, this one offers a respite — if the Grand Canyon is Grand Central, Agua Fria is a bus stop on a deserted stretch of Route 66.
Indeed, very few people have ever been to the monument. Millions, however, drive by it every year. The trailhead, which is within shouting distance of the Sunset Viewpoint Rest Area, is located just off of Interstate 17 at the Badger Springs Exit. From the freeway, it's a short drive — less than a mile — down a forest road to the trailhead. That brings up another thing. The Badger Springs Trail isn't really a trail. It's more of a route. From the "trailhead," you'll follow a traditional path for a few hundred yards down to the river. After that, the trail is whatever route you choose to take along the river.
This time of year, the river will be more substantial. Other times, it'll be nothing but a series of pools. Either way, what you'll quickly realize is that this hike is slow-going. That's because you'll be bushwhacking through a combination of soft sand (imagine walking on the beach) and an endless stream of boulders, ranging in size from large pumpkins to Volkswagen Beetles. There's a lot of up and down and around and around on this hike, which makes it hard to gauge distance. Although the river runs for several miles to Black Canyon City, it's best to hike for an hour or two, and then retrace your steps.
Along the way, you'll experience one of Arizona's most beautiful riparian corridors, which is home to cottonwoods, sycamores, willows, coyotes, bobcats, antelope, native fish and 177 bird species. The list goes on, but the monument wasn't established because of Mother Nature. It was created to protect one the most significant systems of prehistoric sites in the Southwest — from a.d. 1250 to 1450, a people known as the Perry Mesa Tradition inhabited this Precambrian canyon.
As you make your way downstream, keep your eyes peeled for their cliff dwellings and petroglyphs, as well as the old pipeline left over from the Richinbar Mine — interestingly, the rusted steel feels more like a museum piece than an eyesore. Of course, more than anything, you'll want to keep your eyes peeled for snakes. It is February, after all.
Trail Guideclick to expand
Length: Varies, depending on how far downstream you're willing to hike.
Elevation: 2,150 (along the river) to 4,600 feet (in the northern hills)
Directions: From Phoenix, take Interstate 17 north for approximately 40 miles to the Badger Springs Exit (256) and turn right. Cross the gravel parking lot to Forest Road 9001 and continue for .75 miles to the trailhead.
Special Consideration: A $5 day pass is required.
USGS Map: Mount Bigelow
Leave No Trace Ethics: