Somewhere on the “trail” in Soap Creek.

Soap Creek

Decades ago, I backpacked into a place Soap Creek, tributary of the Colorado River in northern Arizona. It’s possible that just about everything about our trip was illegal – our dogs, our campfire on the beach, our feasting like Viking lords on a fat rainbow trout, howling at the moon. We did not have a permit.

The local fishing guides who put us onto the place were short on details. They said something about shimmying down a rope ladder, but nothing about permits. So we went, took advantage of the campfire ring that was already there and nature’s bounty. It is possible that all of this rogue woodcraft was legal back then, but I doubt it.

Times have changed. I’ve been back a couple of times, without the dogs, the campfire, and I’ve always had a permit. The park boundary is well posted, the rope ladder is gone, but the canyon is pretty much the same. Canyoneers come in from the north end with ropes and harnesses. Hikers will want to take the south fork.

The Soap Creek hike starts out as a delightful little romp down a sandy canyon that pinches in to a series of rock shelves, easily downclimbed. It’s all fun and games until you come to the boulder pile. It’s as if a bomb struck, or the gods were angry, and it’s no fun with a backpack.

The rocks range in size from bowling balls to bungalows. Most are solid, but a few are wobblers. There are cracks and crevices, sharp edges. In places, cairns lead in two different directions at once. I remember a rope assist to get you past this one giant boulder.

After this obstacle, it’s another few miles to the river. The whole hike is only about six miles, but on a warm day with a backpack it can feel like eight. Most of the hike is on Bureau of Land Management Land, but around the last mile, you’ll cross a Park Service boundary, which means you’ll need a permit to camp on the Colorado River. There’s a nice sandy beach there, and pretty good fishing.

The rockslide ends at a 15-foot pour-off, where the rope ladder was once located. It’s possible to skip this, backtracking and using a workaround to the right.

The nitty-gritty:

Details: Don’t be like we were, decades ago, willing but ignorant. Get a permit. No campfires. Leave the dogs at home. https://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/campsite-information.htm

Access: Access is off U.S. 89A, through a gate just past Cliff Dwellers Lodge and Mile Marker 548, that also leads to a local airstrip. Insider tip: Don’t drive on the airstrip.

Best time to go: Spring, fall, winter.

USGS maps: Emmett Wash, Bitter Springs. 


We live in a litigious, guardrail society, in which is necessary to state the obvious.

Hiking the Arizona backcountry is dangerous. There is a perception that when a trail appears in a guidebook, or on a website, or in a magazine, it has been “tamed.” It has not. You are responsible for your own safety. Arizona is home to rattlesnakes, Gila monsters, tarantulas, black widows, scorpions, javelina, black bear, a few wolves. You may encounter extreme heat, freezing cold, flash floods, unstable people, falling rocks, falling trees, wildfire.

On a hot day, you should drink at least one gallon of water per person, per day. There is water in Arizona, but water sources can be unreliable. Purify all water that you find in the backcountry. And eat something, for cryin’ out loud.  

It is a good idea to carry the 10 essentials on all hikes – day hikes or backpacking trips. The list can vary slightly but are similar. Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills breaks it down to the following: navigation, sun protection, insulation, illumination, first aid, fire, repair kit, nutrition, hydration and shelter. Put another way: knife, map, compass, lighter, fleece, food, extra water, water purification, first aid, rain gear, sunscreen, flashlight, duct tape, space blanket or large trash bag. Add judgment. Please note that a cell phone is not on the list. Cell phone reach is sketchy in the backcountry. Be careful. Have fun.