Sycamore Canyon Wilderness
Arizona's Wild and Weird
by Christine Maxa
The landscape seems to always be in motion in the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness. Shadows drift around outcroppings, peaks and spires like ghosts playing hide-and-seek. Red, orange and cream-colored sandstone walls marbled with piñon, juniper and cypress trees bear deep gashes with stratified buttes topped with unfinished statues sliding imperceptibly toward the canyon’s belly. Light flares on the cliffs and then evanesces with the whim of the sun. A stifling quiet swallows up every sound.
After hiking just over five miles through the canyon’s peculiar terrain on the Dogie Trail, my friend and I made camp near the trail’s juncture with Sycamore Creek. While ground covers rustled, cookware clanged, and noisy ziiippps opened and closed gear, twilight started to edge its way into the largest, and definitely the wildest, canyon in the red rock country near Sedona. The canyon walls appeared to burn like embers. The air grew still as a child holding its breath. We both stopped and look around, as if something was going on.
“Whatever you do,” I said, “don’t signal your flashlight at any lights tonight.”
A Flat-Out Weird Place
Besides having a reputation of being wild and remote, the wilderness has accumulated some interesting lore, which includes hikers being transported into a spacecraft after they aimed their flashlights at strange stellar lights. Stories say this is where transdimensional beings appear, where UFOs abscond with unsuspecting hikers, and where Bigfoot lurks.
“Sycamore Canyon is just a flat-out weird place,” said Sedona author, Tom Dongo, in a phone conversation. Dongo has written several books on the paranormal activity around the Sedona. “I wouldn’t spend the night there by myself.”
Once a cattle route between the Verde Valley and Flagstaff, Sycamore Canyon never held much attraction to sheepherders because of Bigfoot. Though Dongo conceded that there hasn’t been a Bigfoot sighting for more than 20 years, he insisted that there is a lively amount of UFO action.
“People from Sedona often see things going in and out of the canyon,” Dongo said. “I’ve seen UFOs many times. There seems to be an alien/government tunnel system there, too.”
And the transdimensional beings?
“They’re more or less a psychic thing,” Dongo described the dimensional interlopers, “where people encounter an unseen being or sense one walking next to them.”
National Forest Service officials remain unfazed by these reports of otherworldly activity. More concerned about hikers getting hurt or overextending themselves on the wilderness’ rugged trails that head to the middle of nowhere and miles away from help, the NFS dismisses the reports as rumors.
The late Ron Plapp, who worked with the NFS as a fire official and became a local authority on the trails and history of Sycamore Canyon, didn’t believe in the sensational reports of UFO activity, either. However, he hinted that a legend of a lost treasure could have some credence. Tales hold that a Spanish gold mine lies buried in a spot called Geronimo’s Cave along Sycamore Creek. “When I was working for the Forest Service,” explained Plapp during a phone conversation in the mid-1990s, “two men took up six mineral claims and opened a mine just above the fabled Spanish mine. To my knowledge, they never found any gold.
“But,” he added, “one of the workers is said to have found Spanish armor.”
A Protected Wilderness
Protected within the 56,000-acre Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area, the namesake gorge measures more than 21 miles in length and, at points, seven miles in width. Prehistorically, the canyon accommodated the Sinagua Indians and, in the early 20th century, cowboys. An old cowboy line shack built in 1931 for rancher Nick Perkins nestles right in the wall of the canyon along the creek. Backpackers use the red rock relic, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, as a primitive shelter. Cabin rules, inscribed by Perkins in the cupboard door, request that guests replenish the water jugs and firewood for future travelers.
Water or the lack of it is always a big issue in Sycamore Canyon. Outside of a section along the Parson’s Trail fed by springs, Sycamore Creek fits the genre typical of waterways in Arizona. It runs mainly in wet weather. It leaves pools lingering in deep pockets of shaded sections. Oftentimes hikers get clues about what kind of animal life has foraged around the area by the tracks in the moist clay creek banks near pools and puddles.
When I headed down to the creek for cooking water, I noticed barefoot-shaped black bear tracks and heart-like deer tracks. I couldn’t wait to get back to tell my friend until I remembered her car got raided by a black bear a couple years ago. The thought of a black bear roaming the area would put more fear in her than any chatter about extraterrestrials. I waited until morning to give the wildlife report. Besides, that night Sycamore Canyon had worse vermin, which did not hesitate to attack.
By the time night fell, my friend and I discovered recent rains created ripe conditions for mosquitoes. In order to keep the vespertine predators at bay, we deviated from “Leave No Trace” ethics and built a fire, creating a perfect atmosphere for creepy Sycamore Canyon stories. As the fire popped and flickered, I recounted Dongo’s story about two backpackers captured by a UFO.
The UFO Experience
“About 15 years ago, two backpackers saw a UFO and started signaling it with a flashlight,” Dongo said. “The ship reversed course, and a red beam of light hit both the hikers. One guy was knocked out and the other dragged half way up the canyon. When the first guy woke up, he felt like he was kicked by a mule. The other was missing all night. Under hypnosis he reported he was transported up to a ship filled with people with large heads and almond-shaped eyes.”
Neither of the men, Dongo said, was quite the same after the strange encounter. Nor could they be contacted for comments as, Dongo added, he lost touch with them.
Given the scary Sycamore Canyon stories, we discussed the pros and cons of using our flashlights for a middle-of-the-night call of nature then went to sleep. At least we tried to sleep. Relentless mosquitoes buzzed around our heads, and the bold harvest moon poured a pale stream of light that flooded the canyon. Both kept us awake intermittently all night. Nevertheless, my friend and I made it to daylight seemingly unscathed.
However, when I open my eyes, a hazy fog enveloped everything. An eerie coldness prevailed. I couldn’t see my friend. I blinked my eyes a few times in disbelief, never quite able to bring things into focus. Finally, the haziness cleared, and I remembered: I had fallen asleep with my contacts on.
SYCAMORE CANYON TRAILS
Length: Five miles one way
Elevation: 4,200 4,900 feet
Season: October - April
Maps: USGS Loy Butte; Coconino National Forest
Directions: From Cottonwood, go east on AZ 89A for nine miles, and turn left (north) onto Red Canyon Road (FR 525); drive three miles and veer left (northwest) onto FR 525C, and drive nine miles to the trailhead. A high-clearance vehicle may be necessary for a couple spots on this road, and certainly for the last half-mile.
This trail takes you right into the wilderness interior. The path rubs shoulders with fantasia-type formations as it drops down to the creekbed, which usually has no water. Once there, you can head up- or down-stream to explore further.
Length: Four miles one way
Elevation: ;3,600-3,800 feet
Season: October May
Maps: USGS Clarkdale S.E., Sycamore Basin; Coconino National Forest
Directions: From Cottonwood, go north on AZ 89A for one mile, and turn right (north) onto Historic 89A; drive 1.9 miles through Old Town Cottonwood, and turn right (east) at the Tuzigoot turnoff; drive 0.5 mile to FR 131 (Sycamore Canyon Road), and turn left (north); drive 6.7 miles on the mostly-unpaved road, and veer left at a fork; drive three miles to the trailhead. This road is best suited for high-clearance vehicles.
Located on the southern edge of the wilderness, the atmosphere feels a little tamer along this trail. The path follows a perennial segment of Sycamore Creek under a lush riparian cover.
Sycamore Rim Trail
Length: 11-mile loop
Elevation: 6,500-7,280 feet
Season: May - October
Maps: USGS Bill William Mountain, Sycamore Point; Coconino National Forest
Directions: From Flagstaff, take I-40 west about 28 miles to Garland Prairie Road (exit no. 167) and drive south 8.6 miles; turn right (southeast) on FR 56; drive 1.7 miles to the trailhead.
This trail takes you where the canyon gets its start when the path dips into drainages that define the canyon’s northern head. Then the path teeters on the northern rim for several miles, giving you an overview of the canyon’s colors, sandcastle formations and immensity.
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