AZ – Cave Creek Canyon, Winn Falls and the Basin Trail

Portal is the nearest town to the Cave Creek Canyon area of the Chiricahua Mountains.  With a population of around 800, there are few options to resupply and as of this writing no gas stations. After spending a couple days at the Chiricahua National Monument, I returned to Willcox to resupply and fill my gas tank before finding my way to the other side of the mountain range. There is no easy or fast way to this remote area especially if it’s recently rained, like it had during my visit. This was still early in the COVID-19 scare. I spent time researching and worrying about what to do.

I enjoyed the drive stopping frequently to take photos of the large swaths of yellow, which I believe is Gordon’s bladderpod, a member of a mustard family. An Arizona friend told me these are Bladderpod Mustard.

The white flowers looked very similar although much less prolific. My Arizona friend said these are White Bladderpod.

As I followed signs and google directions to Portal, I wasn’t very happy when I arrived at this obstacle.

I turned around and tried several other roads unsuccessfully. I met a couple of local gals walking who assured me it was fine to drive through. Holding my breath I did!

I stopped at the visitor center and was welcomed with colorful verbena.

The Visitor Center is not only staffed by amazing volunteers, it also offers speedy WiFi and a Verizon booster during office hours. I was happy to find I had a few days of good weather hiking in my future. I purchased the area map, was provided with trail guides, and did some quick research.

COVID-19 fear was low key in the area, although we were all aware and following CDC guidelines. I had plenty of hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes, and was using both judicially.

I drove to the Herb Martyr Campground Trailhead, enjoying views of Winn Falls enroute. I learned the key for best photos is very early in the morning, around 7-8am due to sun angle and deep canyon walls. I was lucky to find them flowing at this capacity after the rains and snow melt.

The volunteers recommended the Basin Trail as a good option for an afternoon hike. The Horseshoe 2 fire burned over 200,000 acres in 2011. Most of the trails have had to be rebuilt. It’s been an ongoing process with much being in wilderness areas thus mechanized equipment prohibited. Many burned trees are left standing waiting for nature to knock them down. It’s a good reminder of the slow recovery expected at my local park, Whiskeytown National Recreation Area with 97% burned in the 2018 Carr Fire.

I quickly arrived at the Ash Spring area. This chicken coop is all that remains of the homestead built in the 1940’s by Frank Pack, a local miner.

If I’d read my handouts I would have learned that the spring water feeds two pools that have been established to benefit the threatened Chiricahua leopard frog. A few days later I hiked back to the area where I watched as frogs leaped into the ponds but were too shy to let me see or photograph them. I waited and waited and waited for them to reappear but nope not on this day.

The previous blooms on the century plants were like decorations along the trail. Soon this dry grass would be green, but spring had not quite sprung on this mid-March day at 5-6,000 feet. The trails were in great condition, although the short-cut trail to the spring was tougher to find.

The trail offers more views of Winn Falls. But as you can see at 1:30pm the lighting was not the best.

I drove back up the next morning but at 8:30am, but the waterfall was already darkened by a shadow.

Later I hiked the Greenhouse Trail to the Basin Trail in the morning trying to get better views. I found I needed to stay on the Greenhouse Trail which would take me to a high view point. That was on my list for a future hike which sadly didn’t happen this trip.

This is about the best I got on this trip. Winn Falls, I’ll be back!

On this day I hiked the very rocky Greenhouse Trail 4×4 road which reconnects to the Basin Trail.

I was told it would take me to a ridge for 360 views. Sadly the high point was on the shoulder of this hillside. On the left is Silver Peak which I’d hike later in the week; on the right is Mount Sceloporus.

Tip: I found the Gaia layer on the Gaia App was the only one showing the current trails.

There was so much water flowing. Definitely not what you think of when you imagine the dry deserts of Arizona. However, this is one of the sky islands.

“Sky Islands” are isolated mountain ranges in southeastern Arizona and northern Mexico. Some of the mountains rise more than 6,000 feet above the surrounding desert floor making the lowlands and high peaks drastically different. Plants and animals living in the mountains could never survive in the surrounding deserts. Thus by analogy, the mountains are “islands” surrounded by deserts that are “seas”. Source: USFS website

Adventure Date(s):

  • March 15 and 19, 2020

Hike Details:Tips:

  • At the Visitor Center ask for trail guides and the dispersed camping handout.
  • The nearest gas is in Animas, New Mexico
  • The nearest laundry is near Rodeo, New Mexico. I used Rusty’s RV Park and it was clean, inexpensive with the bonus of a place to hang out with WiFi.
  • The nearest shower I found was at The Chiricahua Desert Museum between Portal, Arizona and Rodeo, New Mexico.
  • There are small grocery stores and cafes in both Portal and nearby at Sky Islands.
  • The library and Visitor Center leave on their WiFi during business hours, both accessible from outside.
  • Potable water, garbage and restrooms are available at the nearby campgrounds.
  • Best digital trail maps I found are the Gaia layer on the Gaia app. The others I tried haven’t been updated since the 2011 fire.
  • The time on your phone will flip back and forth between New Mexico and Arizona time, making it very confusing.



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