A full day and night of rain had left the sky gray, the air wet, and the desert damp. I waited a few hours to confirm that the precipitation was cleared before taking the kids out to Willow Canyon Trailhead for a hike in the Goldfield range. The parking lot had a half-dozen cars and a single RV, plus plenty of deep, muddy tracks, and I was happily surprised that there wasn't more activity on this relatively easy destination a few miles away from the over-popular First Water area. We got out and started down the gated two-track towards Willow Spring Canyon under the gloomy heavens.
Once we reached the canyon proper we were faced with a shallow, yet strong, flowing creek to cross. One could tell that it was flowing something fierce just a few hours ago, with debris shoved up the banks. We easily stepped over it and made a quick hop to the left to follow a short two-track spur that was marked and blocked against motor traffic. Willow Spring Canyon is part of a larger ORV playground, connecting to Bush Highway in the north, and there are old spurs and footpaths that weave a tangled web around the main trafficked routes. Anyways, this spur ended and a path continued on to follow a lush, green wash, eventually crossing the small flow before swinging north into Last Chance Canyon.
A fork came up and I chose the faint option, hoping for a bit of adventure. It initially delivered in small doses, with exposed sections that overlooked the start of Last Chance, and trickling waterfalls sprinkling us from above. And then it suddenly ended some twenty feet above the bottom of the canyon with a steep slope that looked slick and terribly dangerous. Carefully I crept halfway down and instructed each kid to slide down on their butts, a move they have been well coached on, all while poised for an accident that never happened. After that excitement we decided to stick closer to the main trail.
Last Chance Canyon was a small, pretty thing, with a steady flowing trickle and plenty of green to enjoy. Even the lichen stood out in sharp contrast against the yellow rock, life clinging to the normally sun-baked surface. Our path crossed and re-crossed the creek, swinging lazily up the slopes just to dip back down, and was easy enough for all three kids to follow without much assistance. Too soon we had to haul up a small opening on the side and exit the canyon before it joined up with Willow Springs Canyon.
The next half mile was pretty dreadful compared to the lush, easy hiking. I mean, the trail was a neat thing, rolling up and down the rocky slopes, offering great views north over verdant hills. Most of the steep sections were on solid rock and there was few sections of loose scree to deal with. However, the kids were not feeling it, and their incessant complaining began to wear on me. When we finally reached the last crest and began a long, consistent drop, I was more than a little thankful.
We got spit on a few times on this section of trail, while we hiked through saguaro and cholla and brittlebush, and it was never enough to get concerned about. Instead I distracted the kids by quizzing them about the local flora, asking them about which cacti had the worst spikes and which trees were the spikiest. They're already good at names, now I'm trying to teach them why they're different and what they're good for (well, so far as my limited knowledge can go). And then we ran into a flooded basin.
This was unexpected. After admiring how much water was sitting out here, and picking out the path on the far bank, we backtracked until we found a good spot to crawl under mesquite and start working a way around. This turned out to be pretty easy - another one of those spur tracks showed up on the west bank and gave us a connection to the far side. A few short minutes later and we were back in Willow Springs Canyon, a few miles downstream from where we last saw it, up near the parking lot.
My kids had definitely earned their lunch, so I hauled out the standard sandwiches, juice, and yogurt, and we relaxed on a rock outcropping along the creek. There wasn't much to see, as the thin flow of water on the creek bed was no bigger than what we had seen in Last Chance or the other tributaries, and it would probably be dried up before the end of the day. After they refueled we began the long, muddy walk south along ORV tracks.
An hour of slow, tedious travel, where I let the kids burn energy by checking out deep pools of water and small alcoves, we ran into an obstacle that we couldn't get across. The creek narrowed into a bottleneck with deep pools of water under small waterfalls. To get past would have meant wading through muddy water, which had to be a few feet deep, and ferrying each kid across, all to reach the top of waterfall and who knows what beyond. It wasn't worth soaking my boots over.
A few weeks later I would redo this hike, on a smaller scale, with some friends, and I would learn that the area above this bottleneck is absolutely fantastic and worth the soaking. Not only is it too difficult for ORVs to reach, but there are numerous caves and ranching remnants and cool formations to explore. Hindsight.
For today we decided to backtrack and, after a brief exploration, found a tributary that led back to the ORV track. It involved a bit of climbing for each kid and a whole lot of trust, and they excelled at both, and soon we were back on FR 12, the named vehicle road, and on the home stretch back to the parking lot. There was more traffic to deal with this late in the day and we had to push off to the side numerous times. By the time we got back to the water the kids were exhausted in a few different ways and keeping dry was no longer important to any of us.
We reached the parking lot after five miles of hiking. On the way home I put on a family podcast and they were sleeping within a few minutes. This was the second time we've been in the Goldfields, a relatively easy and quiet area for us to explore, and it delivers.