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Parsons Spring Day Hike
Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area
May 5, 2001
by Chuck Parsons
22 adventurous hikers gather at the Parsons Spring Trailhead. [photo by Tom Kuhn]

On a spectacularly beautiful and crystal clear spring morning, twenty-two Motorola Hiking Club members and guests gathered at the Parsons Spring Trailhead at the southern end of Sycamore Canyon for a group picture. The time was 10:00 AM, and the temperature stood at a balmy 75°.

Tom Kuhn, from Arizona Highways magazine, was our group photographer, taking several pictures of this anxious gathering of hikers; eager to explore the canyon that lay stretched out behind us. Tom joined us at the trailhead, having spent the past several days hiking and exploring in this canyon wilderness in preparation for his upcoming feature article “Hike of The Month” in the December issue of Arizona Highways.

We wish to acknowledge and thank the following (listed in alphabetical order) for their participation in this May hike: Nicole Goslar, Tony Grundon, Lee Hamel, Chris Harman, Laurie Jacobson, Glenn Kappel, Anatoli Korkin, Natasha Korkin, Adam Kostewicz, Tom Kuhn, David Langford, Yu-Ling Langford, Tim McAlpin, Melinda McClelland, Joe Michalides, Chris Midgett, Joyce Parrish, Chuck Parsons, Kathy Robertson, Marnie Shepperd, Jessica Thomas, and Mike Wargel. Our friendly and eager four-legged friends in attendance were Adam’s Boris, Melinda’s Bailey and Cinder, and Laurie’s Spackles.

Starting the descent into Parsons Spring.

With our group pictures out of the way and a soft, refreshing breeze blowing up from the canyon below us, we made final preparations for our descent into Sycamore Canyon.

The trail dropped rather steeply for about 250 feet in the first quarter mile, before depositing us on the canyon floor of this riparian paradise.

We are privileged to enjoy the beauty and serenity of a true rarity in Arizona — a free-flowing stream that flows year round, at least from our destination of Parsons Spring four miles upstream to its junction with the Verde River, roughly a half-mile southwest of the trailhead. Much of this trail has been rebuilt in the past couple of years and is now considerably easier to follow, since quite a bit of it had been washed out or obliterated by a massive flash flood that ripped through this canyon in the spring of 1993. Evidence of the enormous and frightening powers of these devastating floods would be seen later on our hike.

Although life threatening and destructive in excess quantity, evidence of the life-giving and life-sustaining powers of a year round water source surrounds us in this green and lush environment.

Huge, towering sycamore and cottonwood trees line both sides of Sycamore Creek, competing for space and growing to enormous sizes with a plentiful and constant source of life-sustaining water. This canyon is also a prime habitat for bird life, with food and shelter in abundance. Although we heard a number of them, we were able to positively identify only one. Marnie spotted a Black Phoebe on a boulder in mid-stream.

Hikers stretched out along the trail.

Onward we trek through this canyon of sycamores, surrounded by high walls of gray limestone. Before long, we reach the first of six stream crossings, increased from the original two crossings before the old trail was rebuilt and realigned. This crossing was pretty easy, with a path of stepping boulders providing a dry crossing over water averaging about a foot in depth. Such was not the case just a few short weeks ago, when we had to postpone this hike because of high water levels in the canyon. Heavy rains and fast melting snow resulted in a rapid rise of water level, covering the crossing boulders at all of the crossings, which would have forced us to wade across in fast-flowing and frigid water up to our knees or higher. One false step, and the unlucky hiker would be plunged into the ice-cold waters of Sycamore Creek.

One area of no small concern for us was the presence of rattlesnakes in this canyon. In addition to being a prime habitat for birds, Sycamore Canyon is also an ideal habitat for rattlers, as well. The pickings are prime for these slithering critters of the venomous variety in the dense undergrowth along both sides of the creek. Tom Kuhn had warned us to be watchful for rattlers along the creek, noting that “upper Sycamore Creek is lousy with them.” Luckily for us, we would not be hiking in the upper creek area today. Perhaps some other time, when the temperatures are on the cooler side and the rattlesnakes are all tucked away safely in their burrows, sleeping away the winter months. In the meantime, we would just be cautious.

At one point about three miles into the trail, I received word from Anatoli over his Motorola TalkAbout that he had spotted a diamondback moving rapidly through the brush on one side of the trail. He estimated it to be about four feet in length, just your average garden-variety Arizona diamondback rattler. However, as word of the snake spread among our hikers, who were by now stretched out over some distance along the trail, it began to mysteriously grow in size, until it became a true legend among snakes. What started out as an average four-foot rattlesnake, would eventually become a twenty-foot monster of anaconda proportions, six-inch fangs dripping with venom, a two-foot rattler that could be heard for 100 yards, and large enough to swallow a man whole! Fortunately, we did not lose a single hiker or dog to this giant. Joyce, our resident diamondback expert, couldn’t wait to catch a glimpse, but the snake soon vanished.

Hikers gather on a rock ledge overlooking Sycamore Canyon.

At Summers Spring, about a mile and a half into the trail, Tom Kuhn decided to split off from our group and do some bushwhacking in the hillsides above the trail, thinking that the main trail was still washed out and hard to follow along much of its length from here to Parsons Spring.

We would not see Tom again until we broke for lunch at the spring around noon.

I knew better, having been told earlier by one of the Sycamore Canyon district rangers that most of the trail had since been rebuilt. I believe Tom was just in the mood for some serious bushwhacking and wanted to check out some new territory. I have done my share of bushwhacking with the King of Bushwhackers from the hiking club, Ted “Hacksaw” Tenny, and had no desire to join him, nor did any of our hikers, who decided to stay with the trail until it ran out.

So onward we marched through this magnificent shaded canyon, the limestone walls rising ever higher on both sides of Sycamore Creek, as we penetrate deeper, and gradually giving way to red rock sandstone walls quite similar to those found in the Sedona area. Our newly rebuilt trail is in excellent shape, well laid out and realigned higher above the creek in many places to avoid future flood damage, as we make a few more stream crossings on our journey to Parsons Spring. Kathy and her friends were one of the lead groups on this hike, and she kept those of us in the rear posted on the stream crossings as they came up and would notify us when they finally reached Parsons Spring. At several points in this area Marnie, Joe, and I noticed strange fossil-like markings in the limestone bedrock near the creek, perhaps evidence of ancient marine creatures forever captured in bedrock, when much of Arizona was covered by an inland sea many millions of years ago. Hard to imagine, but much of the Southwest was then covered by this ancient sea.

From time to time we would stop along parts of the trail that traversed smooth rock ledges that took us right up to creekside and peer about four feet straight down into deep, clear pools of water and watch small fishes darting about above thick mats of emerald-green algae covering the bottom of the creek. Melinda and several others were heard to remark that this would be a great place to stop on the return trip and relax for a bit, with tired and aching feet dangling in the cool, inviting waters, not to mention a good place for the dogs to take a swim as well. I swear I saw her two labs, Bailey and Cinder, vigorously wagging their tails in anticipation at the mere mention of a swim. They were ready to dive in right now!

Melinda, Bailey, and Cinder at water’s edge.

We were seeing more late spring wildflowers lining the creekside now. Globemallow was growing in abundance along much of the creek, its tall stems of bright orange blooms waving in the gentle breeze. There were a number of Perry’s Penstemon, scattered yellow columbine, and desert star-clusters of white daisy-like flowers. Hedgehog cactus, with their spectacular magenta blooms, were seen from time to time along the trail.

Even the lowly thistle was sporting colorful pink-red and prickly sharp flower heads on four-foot stalks reaching for the sun and moving to the call of the winds blowing through the canyon.

Pushing ever forward, we eventually came upon a large clearing with a sandy beach, ideal for swimming, and stopped to watch a group of young people gathered on a rocky cliff on the opposite shore. One of the guys looked like he was getting ready to dive in and did just that after a few minutes. Below them, a beautiful Siberian Husky was paddling about happily in the clear, cool water. After watching a couple more dives, we decided to move on in search of Parsons Spring. We were also getting hungry for lunch.

Somewhere beyond the three and a half mile point and the sixth and last creek crossing, the trail began to slowly disappear on us, becoming more and more vague and forcing us to start doing some bushwhacking of our own. Pushing through the undergrowth, we were eventually forced to go around what appeared to be a large pile of brush. After we dropped down a bit and scrambled over gnarled tree roots, we were now in a dry creek bed and turned around to get a good look at the obstacle blocking our path.

In front of us stood an enormous brush dam about ten feet high, filled with entire trees, logs, stumps, brush, and all manner of debris crammed tightly together and forming an almost perfect dam. This was no doubt created in large part by the flash flood of 1993 and since added to by the periodic floods that sweep through this canyon. Looking up at this massive pile of debris gives one a real sense and appreciation of the awesome and sometimes terrifying powers of nature. Any living creature that would have been here, where we now stood gazing in awe, just prior to the wall of water from that flood hitting, would have surely perished in a matter of seconds as the explosive power of that wall of water bore down on them, wiping out everything in its path as it tore violently through the canyon, uprooting tall sycamores and moving boulders hundreds of pounds. In fact, near one of the crossings we saw stark evidence of just that phenomenon, a boulder about two feet across and weighing at least a few hundred pounds wedged neatly into the fork of a tree about five feet off the ground. Placed there by some merry pranksters? Perhaps, but I doubt it.

Pushing on a bit further, we soon catch up with the bulk of our hikers, who by now were sitting in the shade on rocks and boulders and enjoying their lunches. Sycamore Creek at this point had degraded into a dry streambed, as we were now actually above Parsons Spring without realizing it. From the description of the spring in an earlier trip report based on a 1998 visit, I was looking for a large marshy area full of cattails. Dave said that he and Yu-Ling had explored several hundred yards ahead and saw no more signs of water. Tom Kuhn, arms covered in scratches and bleeding in several places from his close encounters with catclaw and other nasties on his bushwhacking expedition, soon arrived to join us for lunch and explained that we had passed the spring about a hundred yards back. He would take us there after lunch.

Meanwhile, Laurie announced that she was heading back to replace one of her tires that she noticed was slowly going flat back at the trailhead parking area, probably victim of a sharp rock. Anatoli, Natasha, Glenn, and Lee joined her, as they made their way back to the trailhead.

The rest of us finished our lunch and wrapped up conversations, as we made preparations to return as well, reluctant to leave this beautiful canyon of towering sycamores. On the way out, Tom pointed out the true Parsons Spring, a relatively nondescript large, shallow pool of moss and algae filled water. There really was no obvious flowing spring at all, and most hikers probably pass right by, just as we had, without ever realizing it. In truth, this and Summers Spring are the only reasons Sycamore Creek flows year round on its journey to the Verde River.

We soon found ourselves back at the clearing by the creek, where we had earlier watched the cliff divers. They were still at it, canon-balling off the cliff into the deep waters far below. Melinda, along with her eager four-legged friends Bailey and Cinder, and Adam were all wading around in the cool, inviting water along a sandy stretch of beach opposite the cliff divers. Mike and I took some pictures, and eventually we all prepared ourselves for the final leg of our return trip to the trailhead.

Clear, cool spring waters flow next to the trail.

By 3:00 PM we were all back at the trailhead parking area, tired, hot, and thirsty for something other than water. Laurie and company were all long gone by now. The skies were still a clear, azure blue and the air remained crystal clear. It had been a perfect day for hiking this canyon wilderness carved deep into the Colorado Plateau. We cleaned up, took of boots and messaged tired and aching feet, and enjoyed ice-cold sodas and tea, while talking about the hike and bidding good-bye to one another, in preparation for the return trip back to the Valley of the Sun. We determined that this would now have to be an annual event.

Glenn, Joe, Marnie, and I drove back together in search of a good Mexican restaurant in Cottonwood that Glenn had heard about. However, it seems that the serpent world was not quite done with us yet, as we ran across a dead four-foot gopher snake, crushed in the road by a careless motorist. Marnie, the lover of all living things great and small, not even excluding the slithering and writhing variety, insisted that we stop to at least remove the dead snake from the roadway to keep it from repeatedly being run over.

Glenn, sensing the urgency in her voice, stopped and got out with her, as she found a stick and gently picked up the expired serpent, depositing it in its final resting-place under a bush by the roadside. I’m thinking there’s not too many people that would go out of their way to perform that deed. Good for you, Marnie! You are indeed a good shepherd. As an added bonus, it wasn’t too long before we spotted another gopher snake in the road, this time a live one, slithering along on its journey to the opposite side of the roadway. Why does the snake cross the road? Sorry, that is another story for another time.

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updated September 29, 2018