B y K e v i n F r a n k l i n
AT THE VERY least, 74 places in Arizona use the name Sycamore. In Howell Granger's Arizona's Names there are nine places named Sycamore Canyon. But there is only one Sycamore Canyon in Arizona that can bill itself as the Little Grand Canyon.
For anyone gazing from a nearby hillside into the nearly 2,000-foot deep gorge, "little" seems nothing if not a relative term. Sycamore Canyon runs for nearly 30 miles along some of Arizona's most scenic land midway between Prescott and Flagstaff.
Herein lies red rock country. Towering spires of etched red and yellow sandstone break the skyline above the deep canyon. Some of these pinnacles seem absurdly fantastical, with their bases narrower than their tops. Much of the ground is covered in a powdery red clay that forces comparison to what one would imagine a hike on Mars to be like, only with more air and fewer Martians.
More than 240 million years ago, before the world had even seen dinosaurs, this place may have looked like the modern-day Nile delta, writes Halka Chronic in Roadside Geology of Arizona. This region may have been the setting of a long-fought battle between lush fertile river valleys expanding into deltas and, in turn, fighting off the encroachment of the surrounding sand dunes. Eventually the land subsided, a sea rolled in and even more sand was deposited on top of these layers. Today you can see the striations of crossbedded sand dunes in the eroded cliffsides.
This was the age of fish. Virtually no animal life had established itself on land yet, and just a few amphibians had begun to slink out of the dark waters.
Within the last two million years, molten flows of black basalt erupted nearby and oozed over the sandstone. Now hard black caps crown the softer sandstone and siltstone.
About 800 years ago, the Sinagua Indians called this place home. But they disappeared in the late 1200s, archaeologists believe. What happened to them or where they went remains an enigma.
"There are all kinds of ideas," says Prescott National Forest Archaeologist Jim McKie.
The Sinagua may have been forced to abandon their agricultural lifestyle because, paleo climatic studies reveal, a severe drought hit the region in the late 1200s, McKie says. Depletion of soil quality may also have played a part, or even attacks from other American Indians. Some anthropologists think today's Prescott Yavapai Indians are the descendants of the Sinagua. Others think the Yavapai either invaded or merged into the Sinagua population and, as a result of changing conditions or lifestyle, moved from an agrarian society to a hunting and gathering society. No one really knows, McKie says.
The history of the Sinagua may be cloudy, but the remnants of Indian culture cover the ground of the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area. Pieces and chips of worked stone like chert and obsidian reveal themselves to inquisitive eyes. Pottery shards also can be found.
None of this material is worth anything to anyone but archaeologists. So enjoy looking at it, but leave it where you find it. Though there may be no monetary value, once these fragments of our Southwestern cultural heritage are gone, they cannot be replaced. If you were excited at finding a pottery fragment or a piece of an arrowhead, recognize that future visitors would experience the same thrill, if the shard is there to be found. Besides, once these things leave their natural setting, they become so much clutter in a shoebox forgotten in a closet somewhere. Of course, for the scavenger who can't be reasoned with, taking these sorts of things is illegal and carries a stiff fine. So there.
Water is scarce in the area. The first Spaniards to enter the region encountered the evidence of the long-gone Indians and gave the Sinagua that name, which means "without water." Today, if you don't want to end up as an archaeological discovery yourself, pack in your water and lots of it. Sycamore Canyon is dry except near its union with the Verde River and at Geronimo Spring at the head of the canyon.
There is also water in several deep pools near Taylor Cabin, an old line shack (a temporary place to stay while grazing cattle in the high-country) built right up to one of these sandstone walls. The back of the cabin is, in fact, sandstone and the fireplace winds up through the rock. The well-maintained shack is on the National Registry of Historic Places, says McKie.
Some people we met took the long way to Taylor Cabin and back (18 miles) as a day hike. With so many side canyons and cool stuff, you could spend a month poking around. I would suggest at least three days.
Right now it's getting a little hot to hike Sycamore Canyon, though the well-prepared shouldn't have any problem. To stay a little cooler, hikers might want to wait until the monsoon season really fires up in about a month and a half. If you don't like getting wet, wait until fall.
There are a multitude of ways to explore Sycamore Canyon. Our merry little band came up through the cliff-hugging city of Jerome and headed north along the Perkinsville Road. Soon the bridge crossing the Verde River will be closed until August, due to construction, so the better bet now would be to come from the town of Williams (just west of Flagstaff) and head south on the Perkinsville Road. About four miles north of the Verde River, look for Forest Service Road 181 to your left. Follow 181 past Henderson Flat and quite a few other roads (181 is the most-worn and the widest). About 5 miles after the buildings of Henderson Flat you will see a sign marking the Wilderness Area Boundary and see the trail. If you're going in August or later, call the Prescott National Forest Chino Valley District, (520) 445-7253 to see if the bridge will be finished, allowing you to take the more direct route through Jerome. Happy hiking.
Mapage: The Sycamore Basin and Loy Butte 7 1/2 topographical maps are handy to have. The Prescott National Forest Service Map shows the F.S. trail numbers and the roads in better detail. This map will be crucial to actually find F.S. Road 181. To get to Taylor Cabin you want to follow Trail 63 all the way there. Jacks Canyon Trail has nice views, but takes considerably longer.
Cutline: Carved in stone: Archaeology student Kevin Price enjoys the solitary beauty of Sycamore Basin and the red sandstone beyond. Photo by Kevin Franklin.
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