Copper Canyon Traverse Completed

Cam and I completed the traverse of the Copper Canyon region on December 12, 2013. At roughly 10:30 AM on the 12th we gained the rim of Sinforosa Canyon at the Cumbres de Sinforosa (Summit of Sinforosa) near the town of Guachochi. We followed good trail on this final stretch, probably the best of the entire trip, and completed our final canyon in the traverse of the region linking all of the major canyons in the canyon system. We followed the Candamena, Oteros, Tarecura, Urique, Batopilas, and Sinforosa Canyons, as well as some side canyons, leading us in a not-so-straight line from the northwestern corner of the region to the southeastern edge. Many of the canyons along the route were over 5,000 feet deep, and some as much as 6,000 feet deep. Needless to say, the terrain was dramatic and the scenery was great.

Here are a few highlights from the various segments along the hike.

Basaseachi Falls to Creel:

The location of the start of the hike was amazing. It set the tone for the entire trip. A powerful and beautiful waterfall, with a bit of unknown. How do we get to the bottom? Which trail leads where? The bridge over the creek at the top of the falls had washed out during the rainy season prior to our arrival. Sections were dangling and leading to nowhere. What could have been easy and thoughtless turned into an adventure within the first hour of the hike. There is a natural bridge over the river just before it plunges over the precipice, but the bridge was narrow and the rock looked slick. A fall would undoubtedly mean death. We were forced to ford the river immediately upstream from the waterfall. This set the stage for the next couple of days down Candamena Canyon. It was scrambly fun, which translates in hiker lingo to “you better pay attention at all times and often tediously slow”. On day 2, we only made about 7 miles of progress while hiking for over 10 hours. In the mid morning of day 3, we hit an unexpected dirt road being built due to resumed mining operations. We followed this for a few kilometers before it petered out and then the canyon opened up a bit and we could see another dirt road leading in our direction. A few hours later we hit that and were able to stretch out our stride and get in some miles on the 6000 foot climb out of Candamena Canyon. In a contrast to the previous days in the canyon, the following day we followed a dirt road, putting in about 35 miles in 11 hours of daylight to the town of Uruachi. We knew nothing about the town ahead of time, but it turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the entire trip. The town was clean and nice, with the charm of an old Mexican pueblo. It reminded me of the setting of a scene at Universal Studios where they showcase a Mexican style town. Everybody was super friendly. The shopkeeper even called the president of the village to come to meet us (which happened right after a guy in plain street clothes walked into the store with an AK assault rifle over his shoulder and told the shopkeeper to put the Coke and other things he bought “on his tab”). Heading out of Uruachi we plunged into the Oteros Canyon, which was easier going than the Candamena. We were able to make good time from there to Creel on a mix of canyon bottom travel, and trail and dirt roads leading out of the canyon and onto the rim. The terrain change was amazing on the rim. Frosts coated the meadows in the morning and pine forests lined the rim. Just a day earlier at the bottom of the canyon the temperature was in the 70’s during the daytime and 50’s at night and once out of the bottom where the water flowed the landscape was filled with desert cactus and shrubs.

Creel to El Divisadero:

We purposely planned our route to go through our hub, Creel, so we would be able to resupply easily and get any spare gear that we would need from our duffel bags stored at the hotel. We walked into Creel in the dark at around 7PM after a long day of well over 30 miles. We promptly had a double dinner and walked out of town the next afternoon. A few hours into the walk a junkie that would not leave us alone kept following us. He was chewing on a green soda bottle and had green plastic all over his lips. I am still not sure what drug(s) he was on but Cam finally had to give him a swift kick in the rear to get him to leave us alone. We hiked on and made good time as we dropped into the Tararecua Canyon passing a developed hot springs and a few cascades and waterfalls. The next day we passed a couple more hot springs that were less and less developed as we progressed down canyon. Naturally we had to stop at each one. At the last hot spring a Raramuri walked by as we were leaving. The speed of travel quickly slowed to a crawl as the canyon tightened up and boulders choked the bottom of the canyon. We luckily found one 10’ x 10’ semi-flat sandy area to camp on. The next day about an hour before dark we emerged at the confluence with the Urique River. This is a stunning area, but we soon realized the fords of the Urique would be very difficult with the high water this season. We forded the river 3 to 5 times, some chest deep and some a controlled (or semi-controlled) swim. The trail that was on the map that headed to El Divisadero (our resupply point) was pretty much nonexistent. We followed as best we could and made our way to the rim through dense plants, cactus, and everything prickly. This bit along the Urique River and the 6000 vertical foot climb up the canyon yielded remarkable views and had spectacular scenery. The day was an emotional rollercoaster with tough fords and slow going while trying to push to get to town, but was one of the highlights for me.

El Divisadero to Urique:

We hiked through a few nice rural villages and made our way through meadows and pine forests along the rim of the Urique Canyon. It was a very pretty section in contrast to the canyon bottoms that we had previously been following. We found a faint goat trail that took us to the top of the ridge right before we began our drop from the rim into the canyon bottom and to the town of Urique nearly 6000 feet below us. The goat trail faded as we passed through an old cornfield and were left standing on top of a steep, cliffy 3,000-foot drop with nothing to follow. We scoped things out and began the bushwhacking descent with only about an hour and half until dark. Luckily a few hundred yards down we came across a cattle trail that cut across our route. We decided to head left and shortly came to wood lying across the cattle trail in order to stop the cattle from going that direction (which could be a good sign since the people would not want the cattle to wander…..or a bad sign meaning that they would not want the cattle to wander over a cliff). We took it as a good sign and followed the cattle trail. Soon the trail got better and shortly after that it got even better. As we made our way down this slope we kept looking back in amazement. There was only one way down and we definitely would not have picked that way had we not found the trail! We got down the slope and hit a dirt road around dark. We walked a few hours into the night and arrived at the town of Urique for a late dinner and a toast (I had chocolate milk and Cam had a Tecate).

Urique to Batopilas:

This section, of about a day and half (45 miles or so), was supposed to be the main trail in the region and on the most popular tourist hike of the entire trip. However in the past ten years things have changed and the number of hikers has diminished from 600 a year to just a handful. The second half of the hike had been replaced by a dirt road and the trek had subsequently decreased in popularity. I have seen this countless times, including on the Annapurna Trek in Nepal. It’s a mixed bag; it can really hurt the local economy, but also can make things easier for locals.

Anyway, there are three things that stand out for this short stretch. The first occurred just a few miles outside of the town of Urique. We had already been asked if we wanted to buy marijuana a few times, once even by a man doing road construction in a huge front loader. As we were getting ready to cross the river and head off the dirt road, a man in his twenties or early thirties came over to us and tried to start passing handfuls of marijuana to us. He kept reaching into a shopping bag that was full of pot and trying to pass them to us as he smiled and laughed. We politely refused, but that was definitely a lot of pot and he was not trying to hide it at all.

In another few hours of walking up a really good trail we met a really nice Mexican guy named Prosperino. He lived in an idyllic oasis setting with banana trees, grapefruits, oranges, tangerines, and avocadoes. He even gave us a few tangerines for the road!

The last and probably most memorable thing from this section was the rain. Here we are in one of the driest regions in North America and they had already had a record breaking rainy season that ended a month prior. All the rivers were already running very high. A few hours after dark it starts pissing rain and kept up all night. We were camped on the rim and it was windy and cold. We stalled in the morning for about 30 minutes thinking that the rain couldn’t keep up much longer. Well we were wrong, it rained all day and all that night. Luckily we dropped 5000 feet through the day and the rain went from cold, windy, and freezing to warm and tropical. We walked into Batopilas an hour before dark and could dry out. The rivers were muddy and running huge. There would be no way we could ford them for a few days until things settled down. When we arrived in Batopilas the power was out to the entire town. Phone service had already been out for a couple of months since the monsoon season. At least we had a roof over our heads and a dry area to sleep.

Batopilas to Guachochi:

It was scheduled to be a couple of days until we dropped into the Sinforosa Canyon. When we dropped back in at El Realito we realized the river was still running huge and that we needed to get above a confluence of a large tributary that was about 10 miles upstream before we might be able to ford the river. We adapted on the fly and asked the locals to get their input. One of the locals invited us in. Along with the local’s insight he gave us, he also put some coffee on the table and his wife brought us over some fresh, homemade tamales while we stewed over our plans. We decided to ascend a side canyon and gain the rim and then drop back down the next day. In the side canyon we passed a couple of areas that seemed to be drug fields. This was just the beginning of what we would see over the last few days of the trip. Other than that, the side canyon and the climb out were remarkable and a true highlight of the trip.

The next day along a road walk, we spotted marijuana strewn all over the side of the road on a curve. Over the first half of the trip we had hardly seen any signs of the drug trade, but now things were starting to come to the surface. When we dropped into the Sinforosa Canyon along one of the side canyons we passed a few young men hiking out with backpacks, presumably transporting their “crops”. A few hours later we began crossing through various agriculture fields located on steep hillsides. The main harvest had occurred in the previous month and the farmers were beginning to water and plant the next crop. I quickly recognized some of the “volunteers” sprouting up in the fields. I was mainly expecting cannabis and was surprised at what they were growing. I presume that with many States in the U.S. legalizing pot that it has lost some value to the drug cartels. They were growing poppies. Upon entering any of the fields we would start yelling out “Hola, Buenos dias” repeatedly. The last thing we wanted to do was come up on anyone and surprise him. At the bottom of the canyon we crossed a few fields over the next day that were two kilometers long and had sprinkler heads rotating around. We ran through and dodged the sprinkler heads, not at all like little kids screaming and giggling in the yard in the summer. Needless to say, the southern part of the Copper Canyon region, including Sinforosa Canyon and Guachochi, seem like the epicenter of the drug trade in the area. It is a shame because this is also one of the most amazing and scenic canyons. The walls are red and rugged. It is steep and deep and remote. Travel is a bit faster than the Candamena and the Tararecua. Basically everything a hiker, naturalist, and conservationist would want……..except the added risk of the drug trade.

 

All in all, the hike went really well. Adaptability and getting on the ground beta from the locals was an ongoing key to the trip. Everybody was friendly and helpful, even many of the drug farmers. At one point we were a bit misplaced and cliffed out since the trails that were going to the drug fields were better than the point-to-point trails. The farmer was super friendly and excited to see us. He chatted with us and gave us directions. Very unexpected since it could have been a bad situation, but I guess the farmers are just doing there job and trying to make a living. Our timing was good too because they had already harvested and the plants that were in the ground were just seedlings. We could play dumb and we didn’t mention that I was from the U.S. I morphed back into part of my ancestry as a German and with Cam being from Australia we became neutral, like the Swiss, in the drug cartel’s eyes. Well, that was our hope anyway.

Links to pictures and a couple of videos from the trip are below and if you would like any information on the hike or the region just let me know. I have digital maps and intend to plot our route on the maps and write up info and logistics on the hike in case anybody wants to head down and do something similar.