Hiking to Hells Hole

On May 2nd, 2018, 6 students from Miami High School saddled up for a massive adventure. Our mission was to hike to a remote place called Hells Hole in the Salome Wilderness, discuss the variety of biomes and their many species of plants, and explore the rumored pools and waterfalls that are said to exist in the depths of this canyon. This hike is an 11 mile out and back trip, with 3,005 ft of elevation gain, and a steepness that would make a big horn sheep sweat. I was worried that this would be too difficult for the students, but my worry was very unnecessary.

As we drove north on Hwy 288, the road took on a very different feel. It became remote and mountainous, winding through waves of lazy low clouds. May in Arizona is an indication that the brutal desert summer was soon approaching, but on this day, cold winds and scattered icy rains fell on and around us. As we ascended into more mountains and plateaus, we left the saguaro cactus and grater Sonoran Desert and made our way into thick pine forests.

It was under the evergreen canopies that we began to drive through snow, a sight that startled team. Suddenly the strenuous and remote 11-mile hike to a place called Hells Hole just became more intense and magical.

Our hike was amazing. The path took us through dense forest, through riparian corridors, then into high desert biomes before dropping nearly 1000 into the canyon. The forests had considerably less obvious biodiversity until we reached a riparian gallery forest. Here the students became hypnotized. Even in a pine forest, the green that exists in these areas is evident and bright. Wild mint was abundant, bringing massive smiles to each students face and joy to their noses. Minnow fish were swimming freely under gargantuan cottonwoods. Together we talked about how to identify where water may be in the desert, and how to find it. They were pleased to learn that if there is an abundance of cottonwood trees, depending on the season they have a higher chance of finding water near them.

When we ventured through the high deserts, we were easily able to observe nearly countless species of plants, including a manzanita bush that grew as if it were a tree, with a thick trunk nearly 8 ft tall, and even a small canopy. It seems as though hundreds of agaves were flowering, each stalk taller than the next. The juniper was fragrant and distinctly different than their piney cousins we had just left behind. It was through this biome that made our way down the seemingly endless steep switchbacks to “Hells Hole.”

With knees aching and feet throbbing, we finally made it to the base of the canyon. Again, we were underneath tall water-loving trees, but this time the water was loud and obvious. Due to time, we were unable to move further into the canyon. Luckily for us, the pools around us were swollen and ready for us to take a plunge. So, while it was raining and hailing, the kids jumped in. In the water were large trout that nibbled on the toes of the students. The cold water was a huge reward after a long and intense hike, the perfect remedy for achy muscles and joints. It was serene to swim in a place that was so beautiful, so remote, and so pristine. None of us had ever been here before, and it might be likely most of these students won’t return. We soaked up all we could, but eventually, we had to put our gear back on and begin our journey back.

The 5.5 miles back were strenuous. The 1000+ ft climb out of the canyon pushed us to our limits, but with strength, we all made it out. Then it was a race against time, pushing fast and strong down the trail. Through rain, hail and mud we trudged on, past all of the wonderful places we had previously encountered, and to our van. Before we knew it, we were back, and loading into the van. The adventure was a massive success, one the students from Miami High School would never forget. 

Thanks to Resolution Copper for their support of this outing!