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Wakefield Canyon Trip Report: Warning LONG post

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I recently went to a place in southern Arizona called Wakefield Canyon. I have a short story and a long story regarding this trip.


For those of you who like a short story: It was a really cool 4WD trip to an old cabin and a spring. See pictures below: For detailed trip information you can go to: Wakefield Canyon


Now for those daring enough for the long story…


I had heard about a cabin in the foothills of the Whetstone Mountains a few times over the years, one with gardens and a grove of apple trees. Sort of an oasis in the desert. But since no one could give me any specific details, I put the information in the back of my mind for later retrieval (for those who know me, that’s a risky venture). Then, in the last month, two different sources told me about this mythical place. They did not have much more specific information other than it’s “over there” pointing to the northern side of the Whetstone Mountains, but I took it as a sign.


I first went to my “normal” sources, Google Earth and Geocaching.com. I began looking at geocaches in the area (many geocaches can lead you to interesting places). The first thing that caught my eye was a geocache at a spring and a cabin. I clicked on it and … it was the cabin at Apache Springs I had visited the weekend before. Darn, should have looked at the geocaching site before we went out there. Back to searching for the other cabin. No luck. Nothing with a cabin in it. But, there was a series of geocaches made for four-wheeling in the area that seemed interesting, so I started looking through them, thinking I may do this series for fun by itself.


Then, by shear luck, I found pay dirt! One of the geocaches showed a picture of a cabin in the area that looked promising. It wasn’t part of the geocache series and did not have any information on where it was other than “along the way” on a different way out. A few hours on Google Earth and some emails to fellow geocachers and I had coordinates to the cabin! The following is our adventure to the site:


Five vehicles: four Jeeps and a 2003 Tacoma (my old truck that was bought by a friend) met at the Sonoita and I-10 exit at around 8 am. After some introductions, we climbed aboard our 21st Century ponies and headed out. About 5 miles east of Highway 83, we pulled off I-10 and went through a gate at a dirt road. We aired down, though I didn’t expect too rough of a trail.




The first few miles are high-clearance 2WD/easy 4WD that take you through really nice small canyons, ridge lines and valleys.




Surprisingly, we came to a flowing water crossing. After such a long drought, we had no idea where the water was coming from.




A few hundred yards later, we passed a large dirt cattle tank that the water was flowing out of – mystery solved. After passing the Pantano Electric Substation, we headed down into another small canyon. At the bottom of the canyon was a large washout, one in which you couldn’t see what was at the bottom very well over the hood due to the steepness of this portion of the trail. I put my trust in my Jeep and went through it. My sister looked out the passenger’s side window and yelled, “Keep left, keep left!” I held my line, but never saw what concerned her.


I called back on the radio to see if my friend in my old Tacoma wanted some help, as he might have some problems with his longer wheelbase. Too late, he had misjudged the obstacle and went way right, falling into what my sister had seen: A three to four foot deep washout.






He was at a fairly bad angle, with one rear wheel high in the air. He tried to back out, but all it did was send that wheel higher in the air, threatening to roll him over. Now, the long wheel base was helping him out. A 2dr Jeep would have rolled if in the same position. Not wanting to test the rooftop crumple zones on the Tacoma, we hooked up a strap to one of the Jeeps behind him and one easy tug later, he was out.




Damage inventory: small dents in the bumper, slightly pushed in on one side and after some Exacto knife cutting of the plastic piece to cut it away from the tire, we were ready to go again. More pictures and video of this can be seen at:






Now, after only two miles into a 25 mile plus adventure, we were limping along. Hopefully, no more of that kind of excitement for the rest of the trip. We did have to stack some rocks in the washout for him to make it through, this time along the line I took.


Quickly, we turned off the main road onto a seldom used two track. This area is historic ranch land and we saw lots of past and present reminders of that:






We zigzagged our way through a bunch of turnoffs and trails until we came to a point across from a dam I had found on my Topo map and Google Earth. There was no trail to it and I warned the people with me that I often get myself into more than I should and said they could stay back if they wanted to. All were good sports and decided to go along. It’s not a long hike, but it’s through some dense and very prickly underbrush. If you decide to do this, wear some thick long pants and a long sleeved shirt or you may end of with a bunch of cuts. More than one person tore open their pants on this adventure. The dam was filled in on the high side and about 15 feet tall. It was made out of concrete and concave (which you don’t see often in these small, homebuilt dams). Kudos go out to the builders.





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After a prickly bushwhack back to the vehicles, we loaded up to find a spring (which was another item of interest I found on the geocaching site). Parts of the trail from here to the spring were overgrown and extremely brushy. If you love your paint, you may not want to do this trip. Route finding can be difficult. There are TONS of old roads out here and getting lost would be very easy. The trail comes and goes out of the washes without much reason and little notice.


Near the spring, the route finding was even more difficult. We saw a few trucks in the distance and I figured they were at the spring, so I aimed toward them. When we got within 1/3 of a mile, a guy came walking toward us down the road. Which I thought was the wrong one since it didn’t match what I had plotted on the GPS. This guy was probably in his 40’s and dressed up in National Geographic outerwear. He stated he was with a big group of people who were doing a survey of the springs and there wasn’t much, if any, parking for us there. But the springs there were the best around and were beautiful. I decided to press on with him in tow.




He suggested we find parking areas along the way. Very long story, short, we ended up driving close to where they were all parked, which annoyed him, mostly because he was very unclear on parking spots or where we could park.


He stated they had about 10 people there including a geologist (rock person), ornithologist (bird person), entomologist (bug person) and all the other “ologists” that were important in the world. I think he took offense when I joked that he was now being joined by a bunch of engineers who may be able to provide him some help. He stated that with so many of the ologists surrounding the springs doing their work that he would have to “lead us in one at a time” so as not to disturb them. OK. I can roll with the punches.


When we got to where they were parked, I noticed they had parked their vehicles in the middle of an intersection. One road led to a dead end (by the spring), one went on for who knows how long. I’m glad we weren’t trying to pass through (this would haunt us later). He also told us that the spring was a “Frisbee throw” from where they had parked and that they had camped there the night before, surveying the entire area, cataloging all the important plant, animal, rock and insect life. Cool. Good to know there’s experts out there that know this stuff. When I asked him questions like, “Are you from the U of A?” or “What are you doing the survey for?” they went unanswered.


We gathered at his trucks for him to lead us to the spring, but then he stopped and said, “Oh, no. I think I’m lost. I don’t remember which way to go.” Uhhh, didn’t you say you camped here last night? Wasn’t it just a frisbee’s throw away? I suggested we might head toward the stand of large trees just down the way because that usually indicates a good supply of water. He thought that was a good idea and within 10 feet he found the well-worn trail leading down to a small wash/creek which had a little flow of water in it.


Once again, he got turned around and said he didn’t know where he was. I suggested we follow the water up stream. I don’t think he liked my suggestion and called out to the others on the team. They answered from about 100 feet upstream (you couldn’t see them through the thick brush). They had all finished working by the spring so we went there as a group. Our “guide” was very nervous the entire time, pointing out that they had left there notebooks and packs on the grass and to beware (especially wary of Cat-dog as if she would suddenly steal one).


We saw a few others in his group. They appeared to be college students (or of that age) and were very friendly.


The spring was beautiful, crystal clear water and flowing from behind a wall of ferns. The pictures don’t do it justice.




What was particularly funny was that one of our group walked up to the pool, looked inside and said something like, “Oh, there’s tadpole, what kind is it?” Because they had all the experts there, right?


This was met with a gasp of surprise, “What? You saw a tadpole? We didn’t see a tadpole. Where’s the tadpole? Why didn’t we see a tadpole? We need to document this tadpole…” Within 5 seconds, we had found something they hadn’t noticed there entire time spent surveying the area.


It would have been nice to eat our lunch there, but our guide made everyone so nervous, that most of my group took a quick look, then wanted to leave. Which we did. He walked with us on the way out. When we crossed the little stream again, the same guy in our group said, “Did you survey the spring over there?” and pointed to another area with large trees.


Our guide said, “What spring?”


“Just be quiet and you can hear it,” the guy in our group said.


Sure enough, you could hear the trickle of water. “It may just be a waterfall,” the guy from our group responded, “but it sounds significant.” Which it did. It was either a fairly good spring or where the stream fell a few feet into another pool.


“Oh,” our guide said, “you’re right.” He yelled for the two college students nearest us to go take a look and they said they would when they were finished with their current measurements.


I found it extremely funny that within 5 minutes we had pointed out two seemingly obvious things they had missed in all the time they spent there. At the time, I did not believe this was the spring I had come to see and not the one I had plotted on my GPS (after looking at the map, I believe it WAS the correct spring). So we packed up and left to find the other spring. It turns out this group had parked a truck in the middle of the road which led to the other spring (or what I thought was it) and we couldn’t pass (not without some effort). This made me very angry. The group doing the survey did not follow trail etiquette. I also found it interesting that they did not appear to take much care when doing their survey. The entire spring was trampled down and they were breaking branches, etc. to do their measurements.


This is not meant to be a dig on environmentalists and I don’t want to turn this post into that kind of thread, I’m just saying that it was surprising and a little disheartening. It would have been a wonderful experience for me if the group doing the survey would have been more friendly and open (and trail smart) about what they were doing. I could have learned a lot (and maybe they could have also).


Anyway, we decided not to go look for the other spring and headed out for the cabin. As you come down into a small canyon, you will see it off to your left. A very cool sight.



There’s ample parking for a number of trucks by it. It looks like fairly recent construction with stucco on the outside and modern stuff on the inside (ceiling fans, stainless steel sink). There’s some interesting artwork on the outside in a language I don’t know. The rockwork is really nice as is the wood porch. There’s an old outhouse and carport next to it. There were a few stone pathways that led to what looked like old gardens, but we never found any apple trees (we didn’t have a great deal of time at that point). So maybe this isn’t the cabin I was looking for.






After exploring the area, we headed toward Empirita Ranch via the quick way out. The canyon next to the cabin is really beautiful with large trees and interesting canyon walls. This is where a second washout that will give long wheel based vehicles issues is located. It was a great deal of fun going through it.






Once out of this canyon, you will go in and out of a few more canyons until you reach a gate that means you’re entering the Empirita Ranch area (Empirita Ranch permit required). From here on out, the trail becomes high clearance 2WD and is much easier. You will find a locked gate and a sign in station near the exit (the permit gives you the combo). After that, it’s a quick and easy escape to I-10. When we finally got to pavement after almost 30 miles, the sun was going down and the wind was coming up. It was COLD. Cat-dog was ready for her nap so we shook hands, got in the trucks and headed home.




So, did I find the cabin with the apple trees. I THINK so, but don’t know for sure. It looks like I will have to do some more research … or just head back out and do some more exploring :-).


More pictures, video, detailed maps, GPS coordinates, history, etc can be found at:


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I literally laughed out loud while reading about the 'ologists', their leader getting lost on the way BACK to the spring, the tadpole discovery, the OTHER spring, etc. What a bunch of doofuses. (Doofi?) Awesome story Matt, I really enjoyed the long version. I googled Kagy-nyingma (sign found at cabin) and it looks to be related to a school of Tibetan Buddhism. So who knows? Thanks for the great story and the laugh. Diane

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I was curious about the language, so I googled the words. The building seems to be a Buddhist retreat, and the language is that of Tibet. I couldn't make out the first word in the larger print, but wikipedia came up with this info:




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Man, that sounds like a great ride. I can't wait to go out with you guys soon. Matt, did you say that you were gonna come further down this way in the next couple of weeks? I have school this Saturday, but am off for the next several Saturdays after that. A freind of mine in town would like to go up to Ft Huachuca, he's never been up there, so I might go with him. I'd like to find the petroglyphs that are up in Garden Canyon.. and to find the old prehistoric village site that is supposed to be up there as well. I think you said you were gonna do some more trails down south of Sanoita? I'm interested in exploring the western side of the Huachuca's. Supposed to be some neat mines and ghost towns up there, besides Sunnyside..


THanks for the trip report and the pics!!

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Yes, that's exactly where I want to go. I am going to try to head down there sometime in the near future. I can PM you if you want when I decide on the date.

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