Lions In Hell: A Passion for Hells Canyon

night fall
Night Falls, A. Sato

There is a small wilderness area that most people do not know, a hidden wilderness that receives minimal curiosity from the normal hiking crowd. It is comprised of jagged rock and deep washes, wild burros and javelinas. It is also a place of archaic sites, an historic resort, and former ranches. This place is Hells Canyon Wilderness.

Hells Canyon has many appeals to me and some of them are, I confess, of the spiritual nature. It was one of the first wilderness areas I traversed back in 2010, when I was employed with the Arizona Wilderness Coalition. It was then I was first exposed to the need for wilderness protection and the incredible blessing we have in this state, with over 90 designated wilderness areas.

I spent many a night under the stars in Hells Canyon. Believe it or not, one of the coldest nights of my camping history (and I have winter camped before in the Midwest) was a night in January with a friend. It must have been that we camped next to a wash, where the cold air and moisture made a sort of frigid “lid” over us, but I woke to a frozen water bottle in my tent and frost everywhere.

Cold morning along Burro Flats Loop


Other times I fell in love with this place was when I crossed through the heart of the Wilderness, down Garfias Wash, with all of the riparian wonders of many desert streams. Garfias Wash makes a natural divide between east and west, spilling out onto Castle Creek, not too far from the historic Castle Hot Springs Resort. For those who love old architecture of the late nineteenth century, this is a rare gem. The former resort used to provide a getaway for the rich and famous who wanted to reap the benefits of hot springs and is now open as a high-end resort (also for the rich, with its 1400$ rooms).

The Hieroglyphics is of the few places in central Arizona that I have seen pictographs, which is a very special sight as they are uncommon around here. For the protection of the sites, I am not linking to or describing any of these. You will just have to wander/wonder.

A. Sato

Aside from the history, what’s most meaningful to me about Hells Canyon is the feeling of a Great Spirit(s) here. I’ve been hiking alone and have felt the presence of a watcher. No, I am not delusional. I had to double-check my tracks and look behind me, but I could have sworn there were things watching me that were much more than the wildlife. Call it a feeling of reverence, for those of you who are scoffing atheists. That could very well be, but I could have sworn…

I’ve wandered down through Burro Flats to find a javelina head on the trail. It must have been some hunter’s idea of fun. Through Little Hells Gate, numerous javelina crowd in to emerge themselves in water from a nearby spring. There appears to be enough to keep wildlife hydrated through the intensity of summer.

Javelina, A. Sato

As much as I love those crazy peccaries, I come here for lions.

I’ve sat quietly in my favorite mountain line cave and looked out across the flats below. Evidence of their presence is in their scat, mostly, which is aplenty in a few rock shelters and washes, but I’ve found the occasional soft paw step in the sand, or in the dirt after a heavy rain.


I’ve monitored mountain lion movement here and through the Wickenburg and Weaver Mountains, where there is intense call to kill them. Arizona Game and Fish have an additional bag number for cats in this region over the usual 1-per tag allowance. This is mostly in response to pressure from hunting groups who want the bighorns and other ungulates to themselves. Then there’s the growing expanse of shitty pop-up homes that gaudily line what’s known as the suburbs, former wilderness and habitat of mountain lions and other species.

Of course, predators get the blame for a decline in prey species, without thought to actual factors like habitat loss, noise pollution, increased roadway kills, invasive species, disrupted travel corridors, and on and on, and oh, the damned trophy hunters too.

A. Sato

The idea that we can manage nature is blatantly self-centered, human-centric and also just wrong. Rarely do our attempts to manage succeed, except when we point to a usual natural process  and call it resource management success, like reintroducing predators to former areas that were once their home and realizing that they actually help the ecosystem thrive. Go figure. A “win” for science when nature is just doing what it does.

Back to lions…they are here. I wonder if the mystical force I feel while walking are the watchful eyes of pumas, rather than floating orbs of the spiritlands. I am open to either.

Their scat tells me that they subsist mostly on javelina and smaller game and less so on deer. I have yet to see a mule deer in the ‘Gliphics. I have seen more burros in this region than deer, and that’s a shame. As much as I love burros and dislike said management styles to control them, their impact on vegetation and wildlife is clear. Cattle, too.

Burros, A. Sato

At a recent job interview, they asked me what animal I would most like to be and I said a mountain lion without pause. It’s seems like a popular answer, how much we desire to be great, sexy predators, and yet, fear and loathe them when they wander into our backyards.

They asked me why. I said how much I admire their need for space to roam, their solitary nature, their graceful silence, and their strength. I left the interview wondering what they thought about that and whether I’d get a call back.

Wild One, A. Sato

One of my favorite trails in Hells Canyon is Burro Flats Loop. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone on this trail, and the trail log shows that perhaps one or two visit here every two months and usually that’s the BLM.

This winter I made the (happy) mistake of going to the Wilderness after it snowed. If you have ever been on Castle Hot Springs Rd, you go down through a creek, up steep hills, and around sharp curves, which is all fine when it is dry…but wet, not so much.

Sliding my way down the road and to an even worse road, I made my way to the trail, covered in mud. Outside the air was still a metallic chill as I looked out over the Bradshaws and Weavers covered in snow. It was beautiful and silent, so still I couldn’t even hear the birds.

Winter day in Hells Canyon

Walking through the Flats, I scared up a posse of coyotes who were out on their morning hunt. Cattle grazing and burros have had their impact on the namesake flats, but the steepness of the jagged Hieroglyphics make for a great wonderland of bighorn and puma. Unfortunately, the sheep are scarce, if not nonexistent, here.

Hells Canyon Wilderness gets overlooked because of its small size and foreboding volcanic landscape, but I can expect to see more wild species for that simple reason. Phoenix hikers prefer other popular wildernesses, and tend to leave Hells Canyon, Tres Alamos, Arrastra, and other less glamorous wilderness areas alone.



As for me, I’m committed to the underdog. I go to Hell to find my own form of heaven, resting in the sharp outline of volcanic mountains, rumbling up through the washes with Gila Monster dreams and hopes of deer and bighorn sheep.

That faithful watcher in the perimeter is my Muse. Or maybe I am its? Whatever the case, there is a spirit of wildness here that is undeniable, that grabs my attention and leaves me with a heartbreak each time I must leave and return to Phoenix.

I pledge to lions in Hells Canyon over any nation. And where I stand is among the refugees of real home.

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