Fifty rainbow trout in one day. Some people might call that just another fish story, especially since the angler had released most of his evidence. But such catches really do happen to fishermen fortunate enough to find the right place at the right time along the Colorado River, just south of the Arizona/Utah border, between Lake Powell and Grand Canyon. The fisherman in question found his good fortune in three days of working the waters at the mouth of a side canyon called Soap Creek Canyon. He had taken 10 fish the first day, a dozen the next day, and 50 the next, the day I spoke to him.
While most fishermen prefer to wade the peaceful riffles of the Colorado River as it flows between the ruddy sandstone walls of Glen Canyon at Lees Ferry, some of the more adventurous seek out more remote waters even though the hike into them may rattle the nerves. These include, not only Soap Creek Canyon, but also places such as Rider Canyon, Jackass Wash, Badger Creek and Soap Creekall side canyons of the Colorado River in Grand Canyon National Park.
Soap Creek got its name when Jacob Hamblin, a Mormon, reconnoitered northern Arizona between 1858 and the early 1870s on behalf of fellow church members who hoped to settle in the area. While he scouted for trails, river crossings and water sources, Hamblin caught a badger in what is now called Badger Canyon. He boiled the critter in the next canyon downstream. The intensely alkaline water, combined with the fat from the badger, produced soapsuds, which gave the canyon its name.
A spokesperson for the Arizona Game and Fish Department says the fish are pretty plentiful at Soap Creek, and, to the angler’s delight, they are considered naive because they don’t see a lot of hooks. A big catch is entirely plausible.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department guesses Soap Creek holds about 7000 to 8000 trout, 12-inches or larger, per mile, perhaps half the population density of the Lees Ferry fishery. The department allows a six-fish-per-day-limit at Soap Creek. And, contrary to the catch-and-release credo of most fly fishing aficionados, the department encourages the anglers to harvest their catch, up to the limit, to help cull the population.
Not everyone sees Soap Creek, however, as just a place to catch your limit. Experienced trekkers like the canyon’s wildly eroded corridor, which provides a nerve-wracking, but scenic, hike. Although there is a small spring nestled deep inside the canyon, the streambed is usually dry except during wet weather. Water pockets from flash floods may linger for weeks under pouroffs, giving the ground around them the consistency of peanut butter. A secluded beach at the canyon’s mouth, along the Colorado River, gives backpackers and fishermen a segment of the Colorado River nearly all to themselves, with only a few river rafters passing by.
The hike down Soap Creek gets pretty challenging. The four-mile hike usually takes about three and a half hours. An early afternoon start lands most backpackers on the banks of the Colorado River with enough time to set up camp and relax before dark, and maybe even land a fish for dinner.
Those who feel uneasy with exposed scrambling should turn back at the first pouroff, a 10-foot beginning of a series of dryfalls that, collectively, drop100 feet. Up to that point, the route is a trudge for three-fourths of a mile along the gravelly canyon floor, past ledged Kaibab limestone cliffs the color of dirty dishwater. The mundane rocks show occasional crusts of calcite crystals that glisten in the sun. Fossils of coral and brachiopods reveal that the area once lay beneath an ocean. At the pouroff, where the route begins to require some mild scrambling, the whole character of the canyon changes. The rocky walls take a tawny tinge as the ledge-forming Toroweap Formation joins the scene.
By mile 1, a platform of rock overlooking the ever-descending canyon overlooks a jumble of huge limestone boulders piled on the floor below. On the canyon walls, boulders wedge and lean upon one another so precariously that they give the impression that the slightest tremble could set the whole wall in motion.
After a bit of scrutiny, you will discover two different routes among the riot of rocks. One string of cairns leads to the boulder field in the canyon. Another leads to the bare suggestion of a path that climbs nearly to the top of the talus slope on the north wall, then skids down the slope at the other end of the boulder pile. Two choices. Neither a cinch. I took the first.
Hiking through the boulder field requires hopping, twisting and squeezing among square, house-sized boulders; giant dimpled slabs; and round, elephant-sized rocksall of them jammed together. Gaps between the boulders call for careful sidestepping. Sometimes gaps wide enough to swallow a large man’s body drop further than light can reach.
The next challenge comes at a sliver of a trail, often less than a foot wide, which skirts mid-slope around a 100-foot pouroff. When you consider the alternative, a traverse along a narrow 50-foot ledge with a down climb with a difficult technical last step, the first trail doesn’t seem so bad, at least until you hit another 10-foot down climb a quarter mile away.
At first blush, this down climb looks like it offers no handholds and requires an unsteadying drop across a boulder, then a three-foot jump onto canyon floor. A handhold on a boulder does exist, however, and changes the whole character of the climb from a difficult drop into an easy traverse. Whether you find the handhold or not, if you have a pack, you will want to lower it here.
The terrain becomes more tame after another mile of hopping on, squeezing between, and dropping down boulders. The last mile simply weaves around boulders on the canyon floor to the junction with the Colorado River.
Soap Rapids, just outside the canyon’s mouth at Mile 11 on a river runner’s map, offers a feisty ride. The rapids rate 5 or 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. Up until 1927, however, the water was so shallow that boats had to portage around the rapids. A giant rainstorm rearranged things in the stream, moving boulders around, opening the channel and making it deep enough to run.
During its portage years, the rapids caused several deaths. In 1889, a survey team from the Denver, Colorado Cañon, and Pacific Railroad Company lost Frank Brown, the company president, who drowned in the roil after portaging the rapids. Five days later, two other surveying team members drowned. The team abandoned its work and climbed out of the canyon.
When you get there, 50 fish or none, you will discover that Soak Creek is more than just another fishing or hiking trip.
WHEN YOU GO
Getting there: Drive southwest from Marble Canyon (about two hours north of Flagstaff) on Highway 89A for about nine miles, to a point just past mile marker 548. Turn southeast (left); go through and re-latch a gate, then drive one-half mile to the trailhead.
Managing agency: Bureau of Land Management, Arizona Strip Field Office (1-435-688-3200), www.blm.gov.
Best time to hike: Fall through spring. Do not hike in wet weather.
Special considerations: Only experienced and well-conditioned hikers should attempt the route in Soap Creek, especially if they plan a day hike. Plan on an average speed of one mile per hour.
Route conditions: Flash floods and general erosion can change the character and conditions of the canyon overnight. Call the Bureau of Land Management before starting your hike.
Permits: Overnight camping requires a permit from Grand Canyon National Park.
Fishing: Only licensed fisherman with a trout stamp can fish the Colorado River. Fishermen may keep six fish each day, and may use live bait.