Wilderness in the City   8 comments

On Sunday, March 25, 2012 I decided to go for a morning hike.  My destination was South Mounain, but as I headed in that direction (south, of course, I have to go south to reach South Mountain) on 7th Avenue, I noticed a small city park located in the riverbed of the Salt River.  Phoenix, like many large cities is built on a river, but this river has been dammed some 40 miles northeast of town, not once, but several times, creating a series of lakes in the Superstition Mountains, and leaving the river itself dry and empty by the time it reaches Phoenix.  I have been wishing for some time that I could walk in the dry riverbed, but it is fenced off at most crossings.  Well, I had unexpectedly discovered a place where the riverbed was accessible, and I abandoned the trip to South Mountain to take a hike here.  I had brought my camera along to record the trip, and so, on Sunday morning I walked about 5 miles in a difficult, but beautiful, hidden part of the city that most people never see.  Here are some of the pictures to show what I found.  I took 43–yikes!–but that’s too much to foist upon you, dear reader, in this blog.  Your journey will not be quite as long as mine was.

My starting point--looking back at the 7th Avenure bridge over the Salt River. Whenever you see a line of green plants like this, continuous, in the desert, it means there is water there.

A 1-lane road leads down into the riverbed. It doesn't stay paved for very long. I found a city park ranger and a work crew at the bottom and found I had permission to explore this part of the river as much as I wanted.

I headed west. The road quickly ended and left me with this kind of terrain to walk on. Note the incredible variety of rocks present. They have washed and tumbled down to their current locations over millions of years and represent rock from every part of east central Arizona. The line of trees is the actual edge of the flowing river.

I wondered if I could actually get down and walk by the water. All the interesting stuff would be down there. By this time I could hear a lot of strange bird calls. There were occasional quacking noises, and various hoots and tweets, but something sounded like a cow in labor. For all I know there might have been A cow in labor down there, but my guess was for swans or geese. I headed that way. I thought that once I broke through the barrier of dead cattails, I'd be at the riverside.

I reached the edge of the reeds and started to break through them. They were all dry and dead, and broke very easily. Luckily, I looked down, chooosing my footing carefully, before stepping into them. This photo is looking straight down, and the dark stuff you see is river water. One more step and I would have fallen right into the swamp, and that wouldn't have been any fun at all. Oh, yeah, cattails and other reeds actually grow right in the water. You don't break through them to reach the river, not unless you have hip waders and a machete.

I found a place where I could climb out of the riverbed. Off to the side was a huge open pit gravel mine. This pit isn't natural. Men dug it. I guess they dug all the way down to the water level, because the deepest part of the pit is a large pond. Those are the South Mountains in the background.

This isn't river. It's a big open pit full of water.

I reached the greenest part of the river. The trees were largest and thickest here. Bird calls were most numerous. This is whete I actually saw some wildlife. Two large white birds, not ducks or geese, lifted out of the vegetation and flew around, circled, and then headed off upriver. I could not photograph them--they moved too quickly for my little camera. I'm not sure what they were, but they had a kink in their necks and wingspans of six to eight feet--I'm guessing herons or egrets--not birds one expects to see in Arizona. I also saw a large black hawk, skimming near the ground, gliding in the way that raptors do. It passed within 20 feet of me, bigger than a crow, with very dark feathers, and definitely a hooked beak.

My path was blocked by fences. To continue, I would either have to retrace my steps and climb back down into the river bottom, or take this narrow cliff trail. I have fantasized about narrow cliff trails all my life, and here I finally found one in the heart of Phoenix.

I took the cliff trail, of course. Explorer Ken isn't going to let a little thing like a narrow trail keep him from completing his journey. It got narrower as I went along. The cliff is about a 60 to 70 degree slope, all caliche. Falling down it would be painful or fatal. But why would anyone fall?

Secret tunnels leading into the river. Halfway along the cliff trail, I found a road leading back into the riverbed, and a jog in the fence. City of Phoenix owns the fenced-in land. I got back down into the rough terrain. It would have been nice if there were a real road down there, but it was all rocks--only a high-bottomed 4-wheel drive vehicle would want to drive on such terrain.

I set that distant bridge, the one that carries 19th Avenue over the river, as my goal.

Along the way I found this stunted palm tree growing wild in the riverbed.

Walking very carefully over treacherous footing, I reached my goal. Did you ever wonder what the bottom of a bridge looks like? Having gotten this far, I wondered if I could actually cross the river and go back on the other side. I headed across.

On the other side, in a shady grassy area, I found a sleeping bag, and a good deal of trash. Is some homeless person living down here? Could be. I did not take his sleeping bag.

Where does the water in the riverbed come from? There hasn't been enough rain to account for it. It doesn't flow down continuously from upstream. The answer is that the City of Phoenix or the Salt River Project is dumping water into the river. Here is a huge drainage tunnel with lots of water pouring out of it every second.

Then came the hard part--getting back to my car 12 blocks to the east. I thought perhaps I could climb out of the river and walk back on the banks 30 feet above. I tried it here, but about 30 feet up the slope crumbled beneath me so badly that I couldn't go on, slipping and sliding back down to the base.

I found another possible spot to climb out a block or so to the east. It was a hard scramble, but the slope was rockier there, and with difficulty I made it to the top. Here you see me dangling my feet over the edge and looking down at the cliff I had just climbed. Not bad for a 64 year old man.

The cliff trail going this way was even narrower than it had been in the other direction. There were spots where I had to actually hang onto the fence in order to keep from falling off the trail, which crumbled underfoot in places.

Once the cliff trail was behind me, it was an easy walk back the rest of the way. I stayed on top. I was tired of twisting my ankles on the stones below.

It is Spring in Arizona. Desert wildflowers, mostly yellow, are in bloom.

Going out where I first came in. Goodbye to Rio Salado. I look forward to hiking a different part of the river some time in the future.

I showed you 17 of the 43 pictures I took on Sunday.  This is a part of the city that not one person in a thousand ever sees, or even thinks about.  If you’ve ever found the wilderness still lurking in the heart of  your own city or town, or if you’d go hike the river with me some day, why not leave a comment?


8 responses to “Wilderness in the City

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  1. Sure have, we used to call it Urban Adventuring.
    Old Tunnels, Parks and Abandoned developments, Closed Hospital, A rocky coast line.
    Much fun!!!

  2. Looks like fun to me.

    Here is an overview, courtesy of Google Maps:


  3. Looks like a fun hike. I don’t think I would have tried to navigate that loose slope.

  4. I love this kind of stuff, and it reminds me of my two trips to Phoenix.

  5. Lots of room for exploration there. It reminds me of hikes my brother and I used to take with my uncle.

  6. Absolutely lovely photography, you really captured a rarely seen side of Phoenix!

    — Freend

  7. Very nice. My city has some interesting places to explore, but life-long ankle problems have prevented me from doing so in most cases. There is apparently a sizable network of tunnels under the centre of the city – separate to the storm water tunnels, and dating to the late 19th Century, if memory serves – and you can walk for miles down there.
    – Mahrundl

  8. I’ve done a bit of urban/suburban adventuring in the past as well, abandoned buildings, forested areas around here, quarries, etc. I actually got to explore inside a dam with a couple of friends on Halloween night like two decades ago when the maintenance crews left a hatchway in the ground open. That was like dungeon delving, I’ll tell you. The funniest was when the last lighter broke from overheating and we had to find our way back in the dark tunnels. Just one of many fun (stupid) (mis)adventures me and the characters I called friends back then got ourselves into.

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