Clear Creek Canyon


I don’t know if I should be writing about this…. When you Google “Clear Creek Canyon” you find out about a place near Denver, CO. When you Google “Clear Creek” you learn a lot about water treatment plants. Even “Clear Creek Reservoir”, the official name of the place, you have to go about 5 links down to find it. I have no idea how Dan came across this oasis. I think he was trying to impress his rock-climbing girlfriend and so trawled through Mountain Project app until he found gold.

I flew into Phoenix Friday afternoon and we left the oppressively hot place that night armed with an aged Kevlar boat, a couple of paddles and no less than three eskies (albeit all of them small) to fit beers into. There’s nothing like driving off into the sunset for a weekend, especially with cold beers in hand and Cleo in the back. It was all familiar territory, climbing north out of Phoenix and feeling the temperature drop as gradually as we climbed.

The sun had gone down when we stopped in at Payson’s Walmart for some dinner. All gas’d up and food’d up, we were off to make camp. A lady in the carpark warned us that all the National Forests were closed because of fire danger but we assumed she had incorrect information. Ten minutes out of Payson, we discovered she was right. Barricades crossed every National Forest entrance we saw with threats of felony charges. Not willing to stumble around in the dark to find somewhere, we u-turned back to Walmart and drove by the swarm of RVs and campers in the main parking lot to a dead-end road right by the forest. This was the best Walmart camp yet, we might as well have been in the forest! Another good find by Dan, at least three cars came down wanting our spot since we parked and they all had to turn around. I cooked us some steak for dinner while Cleo got lost in the dark chasing something that was way bigger than her. Dan had widened the bed for my sake and we enjoyed all the extra room. First night sleeping together in a van for over 6 months! Felt like home.

After a lengthy breakfast cooked by the man of the van and eaten by a topless me, we hit the road continuing north. We drove through beautiful pine forest, still climbing in elevation so that the temperature was almost pleasant. Above the trees, we drove past a cabin that Dan’s parents used to own and vacation in and not long after we were in the middle of nowhere. It was typical Arizona desert except without the vegetation. The place was so desolate it couldn’t even muster a cactus! Dan was midway through telling me a story when he let out an almighty yell and ducked to the left to avoid the bird that was coming straight for us. With a huge “WHACK!”, the speckled bird collided with the front of the car and ended its life. We pulled over, Dan convinced he was still alive, but upon closer inspection, his neck was completely broken. At least it was a quick death. We placed him gently in a bush and carried on into the desert.

Starting to think this whole thing was a scam, Dan turned off the highway just before Winslow to take us further into the nothing. It was exciting just to see a bush. Then it suddenly appeared below us – deep blue/green water snaking its way through tall rock with a little greenery either side of the 20m wide “creek”. We parked in the dirt parking lot where we were surprised not to see any “no camping” signs. This place really was untouched. It was still relatively early which meant the carpark was a long way from being full and we got a Colin Edwards park. I was ecstatic at the day’s prospect ahead of us. We faffed around getting the boat ready and packing essential supplies for the day (beer and food). Dressed in our swimmers, Cleo in her lifevest, we hit the water.

We launched right near the car, me holding the boat while Dan and Cleo got settled then getting in myself. We tried double paddles for a while then decided it was better to do singles and so took one end off. We still couldn’t paddle in a straight line to save ourselves, but we managed well enough to make our way upstream.

In the first few hundred meters, the banks were crowded with school holidayers and families blasting music and grilling while others splashed in the water. The water was beautifully clear and cold enough to relieve the surrounding heat, it was gorgeous. As we paddled gently up river people watching, we were astounded to see teenagers leaping from the very top of the cliffs into the water below. It had to have been a 20m jump at least. Bloody crazy if you ask me, but it was all for the entertainment of their friends. Dan picked out the first climbing spot. It was the place he’d parked before when he’d come to scope the place out a few weeks before. It was a section of rock only a few meters tall but a good bouldering problem to get started on.

Predictably, the rock underneath the water was mossy and slippery but the hand holds were good enough to extract our bodies from the water and top out. Dan found it easier than I did, maybe because of his fancy mesh water shoes or that he’d been here before. I didn’t let him embarrass me though. Even jumping from a few meters I was uncomfortable, stuff jumping from anywhere near the top!

On and up the river, we cracked a couple of beers as we made our way up. The people thinned out as we got away from the car-accessible areas and we climbed a few spots, stopping at anything that looked good.

We were happy to find a sweet spot in the shade where the cliffs were higher than what we needed. I climbed first and tucked my arms and legs into the rough crevices to pull myself up. Dan and Cleo tied off to a tree and watched from the boat. I was height-limited instead of ability-limited, stopping my climbing at a point at which I was willing to jump from. Once off, I played around on another small feature more in the sun, but being out of climbing form, I found myself getting tired very quickly.

Dan’s turn! Me and Cleo sat on the small bank, me trying to warm up after being in the cold water. Dan followed my route and made it to the same height after working on one move for a while. By the time he got on the wall we had an audience on the opposite bank and he didn’t disappoint. Even though our arms were getting tired, we carried on up river to see what else we could find. More beers to get us through to the next spot. We didn’t have to go far before we found the feature of the day. It was a perfectly horizontal overhanging shelf that I wanted to hang off.

To get up to it, we did our first climb-start off the boat, Dan paddling us close enough in to the nose of the rock so I could stand up and get on the rock without getting wet. It was a bit of a tough start with toes in small pockets, but I was on top of the feature after a few pushes. Now to get underneath the ledge! I tried going directly over the top but there was nothing for my hands to purchase on so I went from the side which worked a treat. It was unnerving to drop my body down knowing I wouldn’t be able to pull myself back up but that was all part of the fun! I hung there for a while, posing for the camera before I let myself fall into the blue water below. I swung out a little to make sure I avoided the fallen shelf of rock just below the surface. As soon as I was in the water I wanted out of it so I could do it all again.

I climbed a slightly different route up this time and had an easier time getting to the top. Same approach to the shelf, once I was hanging, I edged myself further along the shelf before swinging around and falling again. So much fun.

Dan’s turn! He took the easy route up, taking Cleo out with him on the slanted bank so she could stretch her legs. At the top, he followed my moves and let his body slide down and under the shelf. He was yelling as soon as he was hanging, flapping his legs around and doing pull-ups to get the whole experience. It was a pleasure to watch as he flung himself out and into the water.

It was getting cooler (a good thing!) and our arms were proper tired from tall the hanging but that only meant we were done climbing, we still had plenty of cruising the river to do yet, we wanted to see what else we could find. Other people were scarce this far up river, we figured we’d gone a mile or two away from the car. The cliffs became steeper and the creek was narrow in spots, probably 20 feet wide at its narrowest. We started seeing chalk marks on the walls and realised just how big of a climbing mecca this was. We came upon a big group of climbers floating around in one area on a huge variety of flotation devices. It was typical end-of-day atmosphere with only a few climbers on the walls and most others just chilling on their floaties watching. They were all having a good time and we enjoyed watching as we paddled past.

We probably said “just around the next bend” three times before we actually turned around. This canyon was endless, the depths of which were only accessible for those with motors. Happy that we’d been travelling upstream, we hardly paddled on our way back, letting the gentle current carry us back as we sipped our beer. We re-passed the climbing group, seeing some drama as a climber dislodged a good amount of rock from underneath him which made some in his party panic thinking it was his body that splashed into the water with the rocks. Thankfully all was well.

Most of the parties had died down by the time we approached the main carpark which was now full. We docked at the same place we’d launched with Cleo happy to be out of the water. We carried the boat to the nearby car and since it was 4pm, thought we’d better have some lunch. We happily sat at the sheltered concrete tables by the car and watched the boat and party pack-ups happen around us. We were pretty stoked at the amazing day we’d had. The sun wasn’t due to go down for a while but we wanted to suss out camp and get a change of scenery. We crossed over the road to where we’d seen people grilling and managed to tuck in next to a bit of a cliff in the shade and got the cards out while Cleo slept.

When it was cool enough to go outside, we ventured over to the water again to watch the sunset. We walked past a lot of rubbish and evidence of old dwellings, unfortunately the result of being in a place that doesn’t charge an access fee. The sunset over the dusty horizon was bright and red, then it was gone.

Even though we had food, we elected to drive into Winslow to see what trouble we could get in to. We were on the hunt for a dive bar and some pool. We found PT’s and the vibe inside was a little less than what we were expecting but we stuck with it. We got a pitcher and ordered some wings and played pool while we waited. The wings were surprisingly good, but we didn’t linger after I got slammed at pool, we had a camp to enjoy. Dan used his 4WD’ing skills to find us a flat spot in the desert and we slept with the doors wide open to the full moon and cool breeze.

The next day we had nowhere to be in a hurry, so a decent shower in the creek sounded like a plan. We walked down to the water and since we had the place to ourselves, I took my clothes off. It was shower time anyway! Dan did the same and did a front flip into the water to top off my head-first dive. Not long after we got into the water we had company in the form of kayakers. The clear water wasn’t hiding anything but that didn’t matter to us. Once they’d moved on, we got out of the water, sudded up to get clean then dove back in again.

Still sore from yesterday’s paddling and climbing we decided we wouldn’t go back on the water again and so we soaked it up from the shore. We sunned our white arses on the warm rock as we watched the earlybird climbers paddle by. Inspired by our nudity, one of the climbers proposed they go topless today on the rock which I fully condoned. Another kayaker said, “hopefully by the time we come back they’ll be flipped over”. Ha ha, it was hard not to have a good time in a place like this.

Once it started getting too hot, we clothed up and moved on. We drove away from the oasis just as people were starting to show up and unload boats. It was hard to go into the desert and leave such a beautiful place but we’d be back. Dan took the wheel and I actually napped as we drove down through the forest that we’d come through. When Dan also got sleepy we stopped at one of the national forests that were open and had a midday nap while Cleo ran around chasing squirrels.

The simple beings we are, once we’d slept we were looking for food. Both of us were on the hunt for an acai bowl but we weren’t lucky with the small town fare and so stopped in at a pub in Payson. We sat ourselves in a corner outside where Cleo cowered into the corner after being barked at by a small yappy dog. We lingered here for a while after we’d finished our food, enjoying the free top up of softdrink that soothed our beer-soaked mouths of yesterday. We weren’t looking forward to going back to the heat of Phoenix but we were also happy I didn’t have to fly out today which would have rushed us a little.

After getting home, we hung out with Dan’s parents and swam in the pool to cool ourselves down. I prided myself on pushing Dan in when he was off-guard, but I submitted when he came after me and manhandled me into the cold water. The chlorine just wasn’t the same as the water we’d just been treated to but it still cooled us off plenty.

Still needing our acai bowl fix, we drove down to Glendale for a frozen bowl of healthy goodness and sat in out usual spot watching the traffic go by. This time, there were no Uber self-driving cars to observe because they’d been taken off the road since I’d last been here. By the time we got home we were ready for an early night. Since I was leaving early in the morning I said goodbye to the Phoenix parents and we crashed for the night.

Monday morning was a super-early start to the day, but that didn’t matter, I’d be able to sleep on the plane. Dan woke up easier than I thought and after a quick shower we were out the door. As I walked into the terminal I thought maybe we’d cut it a little too fine, but I ended up with plenty of time to get a breakfast burrito and walk onto the back of the plane (as usual). Another great weekend in Phoenix, thanks Dan. Next adventure is in Cali!

58’04.9″N 110°38’49.0″W

One Comment Add yours

  1. Doug Van Campen says:

    You two are adventurous and have much fun! This spot must be mostly known to just the locals. What a place, I would love it!

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