If you ever wondered what Oak Creek Canyon might have looked like before it became the object of affection for so much of the world, then take the time to visit Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Area.
Its singular rugged beauty made it Arizona's first primitive area in 1935. Five years later, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes attempted to designate it a National Monument.
In 1964 the Interior Department's Bureau of Reclamation proposed building a dam for the Clarkdale Reservoir immediately downstream of the confluence of Sycamore Creek and the Verde River. It would have backed water two miles up the canyon. Fortunately it was deemed unfeasible the next year.
In 1972 it was declared the state's first Wilderness area, over the objections of many, including Salt River Projected, who felt it would compromise their ability to manage it as part of the Verde River watershed.
The spectacular canyon cuts deep into the Mogollon Rim exposing a geologic story over 400 million years old.
The layers of Martin and Redwall limestone, Supai and Coconino sandstone, overlaid by Kaibab Limestone and the Taroweap and Moenkopi formations, all of which are exposed in the Grand Canyon, provide a classical display of southwestern landscape.
Indelibly mixed with the colorful canyon walls are legends of Spanish gold.
Stories tell of a long abandoned gold mine discovered by Spanish soldiers, in which the Yavapai and Apache methodically killed off the miners until just two were left to escape and tell its rich tale.
In fact, before the stream that carved the canyon was known as Sycamore Creek, it was known as Dragoon Creek, in recognition of the Spanish soldiers who allegedly worked the mine.
Treasure hunters have searched the canyon for years, to no avail. It should be noted, there is a minimal likelihood of gold existing in the canyon, as the geologic makeup of the canyon does not lend itself to precious metals.
What the canyon lacks in precious metals, it more than makes up for in scenic beauty.
Early visitors dubbed it the Little Grand Canyon, because it is relatively wide (up to seven miles), and deep (2,000 feet deep in places), and breathtaking whether you are looking from the top down or the bottom up.
It is home to a wide variety of wildlife, including mule deer, elk, black bear, gray fox, javalina, coatimundi (ring tailed cats), mountain lions, bobcats and a host of birds including bald eagles and the melodious canyon wren.
The canyon is also historical home to some cattle grazing allotments, a legacy that lives on in the form of two historic line cabins, Taylor Cabin and Winter Cabin.
Taylor Cabin, built in 1931, is unique in that it was constructed using a sandstone cliff as the north wall and incorporating a natural crevice in the cliff as the fireplace chimney. It is located on the canyon floor about mid way through the 21-mile long canyon.
Winter Cabin is a log cabin that has slowly settled into the landscape on the upper east side of the canyon. Its origin is unknown. A grizzly hunter named Jack Tooker is alleged to have once used the cabin to recover after being mauled.
There are nearly a dozen trailheads from which to approach the canyon, ranging in altitude from 3,600 feet at Parson Spring Trailhead to several in the 7,000-foot range on top of the rim.
One thing to keep in mind is that the only perennial flowing water in Sycamore Creek is the lower three miles from Parson Springs to the trailhead at Packard Ranch. There is no overnight camping allowed on the three-mile reach. Plan accordingly.
However, the Parson Springs trail offers the easiest way to get a taste of the canyon. To get there turn on the access road to Tuzigoot and drive about 11 miles past the monument on Forest Road 131 to the trailhead.
Trail maps are available from the Kaibab, Prescott and Coconino National Forest. There is also detailed information on the individual trails available on the Internet and through several good trail guides.