Tucked in the hilly backcountry between Interstate 17 and the feeder gullies of the Agua Fria River, the Little Grand Canyon segment of the Black Canyon National Recreation Trail offers easy access to a remote-feeling hike escape.
The 1.4-mile slice of the more than 80-mile route that runs between Carefree Highway in north Phoenix to the fringes of Prescott National Forest near Mayer showcases a rugged, water-ravaged landscape entrenched by mountains, mesas, washes and mineral-rich foothills just over 30 miles north of downtown Phoenix.
Named more for the presence of the Little Grand Canyon Ranch on the banks of the Agua Fria rather than for any resemblance of the real geological deal to the north, the segment delivers a pleasing rotation of eye-popping vistas served up by way of edge-hugging switchbacks and slinky single tracks.
Hikers should be aware that the area is also a popular draw for recreational shooting and OHV use. Expect to hear a constant pop-pop of rifles and the rev of quad engines during the first half-mile of the hike.
The trail itself is open only to foot, horse and non-electric bike travel, so the noise is soon absorbed in stony clefts and acres of pristine desert.
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To find the route from the trailhead, follow the short access path to a T intersection, go right and hike past a chain of RV campsites. The trail is well-signed throughout.
Right from the start, mountain views command attention. To the southwest, the distinctive slanted flattop of Indian Mesa stands among stone sentinels at the remote upper finger coves of Lake Pleasant.
As the trail makes an easy descent along a narrow trail cut from buff-colored compacted volcanic ash, scaly metamorphic shelves and quartz outcroppings, views of the Bradshaw Mountains to the north peek out over vivid green foothills covered in paloverde trees, creosote, cholla and massive squads of tall saguaros.
At the 1.1-mile point, the trail crosses a major wash with scoured caves and quartz-laced boulders polished smooth by years of rushing water. To stay on track at this and all wash and drainage crossings on the hike, be sure to locate the trail signs placed on the opposite side before trudging forward.
The route then passes a rustic gate and the unnamed junction for the Little Pan loop segment before making a dive into the wide floodplains and chiseled channels of the Agua Fria River.
At this point, the trail enters its Williams Mesa segment, heading downhill on a loose-rock cliff face to meet a forest of willow and mesquite trees at the river’s edge. The sandy waterway is strewn with haphazard deposits of rocks, pebbles and flood debris.
Water lingers in pools below sheer cliffs and in glassy rivulets flush with spent cottonwood leaves.
The route crosses the broad desert stream and picks up where a few trail signs cling precariously to a sheer rock face where the path heads directly up and on for another 3 miles to its connection with the Cheap Shop segment near the Little Pan staging area on Azco Mine Road.
The river makes for a nice turnaround point for a 4.2-mile trek. Consult Black Canyon Trail maps for ways to build a loop or longer hike in this gorgeous pocket of foothills that’s not too far from civilization.
Black Canyon Trail: Little Grand Canyon route
Length: 4.2 miles round trip as described here.
Elevation: 1,699-1,939 feet.
Getting there: Use the Table Mesa Trailhead. From Interstate 17, take Table Mesa Road (Exit 236) which is 36 miles north of downtown Phoenix. At the end of the off ramp, turn left, go a few yards and then veer right onto Frontage Road (the unsigned west end of Table Mesa Road). Continue to the large Table Mesa West sign, turn left and continue to the Table Mesa trailhead at kiosk No. 5 on the right, 3.1 miles from I-17. Roads are maintained dirt/gravel, suitable for all vehicles.
Details: Black Canyon Trail Coalition, https://bctaz.org.
Read more of Mare Czinar’s hikes at http://arizonahiking.blogspot.com.
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