Exploring White Canyon Wilderness

Ever been to White Canyon Wilderness? Chances are you haven’t since it’s hard to find! After our first and unsuccessful attempt three weeks ago, Erin and I resolved to make it back to the elusive riparian area near our home in Superior, AZ. About 8 miles south of Superior on Highway 177, we exited correctly on to Battle Axe Road, but couldn’t find the correct spur road that would lead down Walnut Canyon to the Wilderness entrance. As a result, our first trip ended up being a fun exploration of Copper Butte, a mining area just south of where we wanted to be (but couldn’t get to!). It was interesting, but we still wanted very much to see White Canyon.

This past weekend we decided to try again after consulting the TOPO map software of Arizona and also doing some online research to see how other folks had fared. The best accounts came from AZ Trail thru-hikers that had explained the various 4×4 roads that lead to the White Canyon area. By all accounts it was a beautiful canyon that had water much of the year; well worth the trouble to visit the place.

When we hit Battle Axe Road this time, I had the GPS receiver ready! Exactly 2.0 miles from the highway there is a dirt road that veers off to the right and north. If you take this road, it will eventually lead you to the Wilderness entrance. After about 2 more miles of sandy driving through a large drainage basin we finally had to stop at a place where the way was blocked by a combination of boulders and washed out roadbed. I took lots of waypoints on the GPS so that we wouldn’t have trouble finding it again.

It was a short walk down the road, past a dry spring, and then up into White Canyon itself. The Wilderness entrance shows up by way of the end of the road and several signs indicating the Wilderness access and rules. A few yards after this entrance is a trail register where folks sign in. We signed, and dropped into the canyon with a sigh of relief.

The canyon was dry, except for several deep pools hidden under large rock overhangs or stuck in deep cracks in the canyon floor. It was very green, though, and we were impressed with all the large trees and significant signs of wildlife. We boulder-hopped our way about 1.5 to 2 miles up the canyon (north), and then ate our lunch under shade of an Arizona walnut tree. It was very pleasant!

Probably the most striking feature of White Canyon is it’s lofting canyon walls that reach high to the sky on all sides. It’s easy to imagine cliff dwellings since the rock seems to be fairly malleable and soft. Yet we didn’t see any signs of human habitation. We will probably go back in early spring when the water is running more freely. Either way it’s worth the time and energy to get there, even if it’s just to soak up some nice AZ sun while watching the clouds drift by over white canyon walls.

See the pictures from White Canyon.

12 thoughts on “Exploring White Canyon Wilderness

  1. Diane Love

    Do you still have the GPS waypoint to find the entry to White Canyon WIlderness. I am looking forward to traveling up from Tucson and could use the extra precaution.

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  2. Lance Post author

    Hi Diane,
    Thanks for your comment. It’s been a few years, so use these directions with extra caution since things might have changed due to floods and human activity in the area.

    Here is where we turned off Hwy 177 on to Battle Axe Rd (roughly southwest).
    Map: 33.17945, -111.039733, GPS: 33 10.767 -111 02.384

    Now you should be on Battle Axe Rd
    Map: 33.17915, -111.03945, GPS: 33 10.749 -111 02.367

    Here is where you turn off Battle Axe Rd (right turn at the corral).
    Map: 33.1772, -111.0404, GPS: 33 10.632 -111 02.424

    This is where we left the vehicle and continued on foot (the road is very rough).
    Map: 33.160533, -111.074617, GPS: 33 09.632 -111 04.477

    On foot now, we took a right following the wash on a rough road.
    Map: 33.157717, -111.081033, GPS: 33 09.463 -111 04.862

    Somewhere in here is a wilderness sign and trailhead, and you enter the canyon proper.
    Map: 33.163867, -111.090217, GPS: 33 09.832 -111 05.413

    This was our turn-around spot in the canyon.
    Map: 33.1758, -111.0921, GPS: 33 10.548 -111 05.526

    View my custom map on Google Maps showing each of these waypoints.

    AZ Central has another detailed set of directions: White Canyon Wilderness, near Superior.

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  3. Sue Westendorf

    We have made a number of trips and just returned from a trip to White Canyon yesterday, and it was very beautiful. I don’t think it’s hard to find as long as you find Battleax Road, which was not marked yesterday. It’s 9.5 miles from the intersection of 60 and 177 in Superior. Just drive the dirt road down toward the canyon until you don’t feel comfortable driving it and then walk until you find the wilderness trail register. The further upcanyon you walk, the more beautiful it becomes. Also the boulders, chokestones, and vegitation become more difficult to negotiate, but it’s worth it. There are many pools now which adds to its beauty. Unfortunately, there have been cows there, and the lower part of the canyon is orvergrazed and filled with cow droppings!!!

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  4. Lance Post author

    Hi Sue,
    Thanks for your comment, and the updated information! I’m glad the access to the canyon was easy for you—we didn’t find it until our second try on a different day. I agree that the farther up the canyon you go more beautiful it is.

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  5. Kevin

    We are coming from Washington state for my spring break and renting a car. Do you think we can drive Battle Axe road with this vehicle if it is not four wheel drive? We are searching for areas that are beatiful off the main track and have water and wildflowers.
    What do you think?

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  6. Lance Post author

    @Kevin: White Canyon probably isn’t the best place for wildflowers—there are many better locations. You could still drive most of the road, but you’d just need to park and walk the rest of the way if it gets too rought.

    Picacho Peak State Park is another great choice, we like taking the longer trail to the east of the peak for good wildflower viewing. Of course, that isn’t off the main track, and doesn’t have water. :)

    A good place to check for for the latest news and reports of where flowers are blooming right now is Wildflower Reports 2010.

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  7. Art

    Your blog entry was one source I used to find White Canyon Wilderness myself. Now there’s a map on EveryTrail. There is also a hike going a short distance up the canyon. Thanks for your help finding this gem.

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  8. Carey Lavender

    January 5, 2012

    Just return from a trip to White Canyon; it is AWESOME scenery. Previous road/trail instructions have been a little confusing; these notes are an attempt to clear that up. We were driving a Honda Pilot, a crossover SUV with high clearance and four wheel drive.

    The entrance from Highway 177 is .9 miles south of mile marker 159. It is Battle Ax Road (on the west side of 177) but there is no street sign. It is a dirt road that was very well maintained. In .3 miles you will crest a hill and before you is a beautiful view of the canyon at the 1:00 o’clock position. At 1.9 miles from 177 there is a cattle loading area on your left. At 2.0 miles the road turns right. (If you went left you would head up a hill which is too rough for our SUV.) Up to this point a family sedan could easily make the trip.

    On the next stretch the approach to the canyon gets more beautiful. I would feel OK to bring a family sedan on this stretch, but with more caution. At 1.5 miles you are headed south and are stopped by a gate. We parked here and chose to hike the rest of the way.

    You could drive through the gate but you are immediately faced with an imbedded rock with a dip on the other side. Our SUV might have made it; a Jeep Wrangler could do it better. Once past the rock, the rest of the road to its end would have been fine for our SUV. It is good to park at the gate anyway because the next stretch of road is the most beautiful scenery on the trip; you want to be on foot.

    This stretch of the road curves to the the west; the great scenery continues for about .5 mile. Canyon walls and rocks rising on either side with trees and shaded grassy areas. As the road starts to turn north, it’s still great scenery but you are more out in the open. In about another .5 mile the road ends in a turn-around circle.

    Here there are flexible signs denoting the wilderness area. The sign on the left marks a trail. A few yards up is the register. The trail is defined OK for the next few hundred yards. Further on the cairns are well placed, but with the trail often crossing the creek bed, we got off the trail rather easily. Bush-whacking and boulder-hopping ensued. The rest of the trail is “adventuresome” but the scenery starts to play out. We turned around less than a mile from the trailhead.

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  9. Erin

    Impressive detail, Carey. Thank you for sharing all of this helpful information. We haven’t been there in years but the canyon still sounds lovely! Glad you enjoyed your visit.

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