Trails of Arizona: White Rock Canyon (Arizona Hot Springs) - STRENUOUS
The area of Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam is surrounded by adventure. Be it hiking, water sports or camping, there area is just waiting to be explored.
After taking on the Historic Railroad Trail only a few days before, we decided we wanted to up the intensity and take on a hike that was a bit more of a challenge. After exploring the many options in the area we kept circling back to one which intrigued us, the Arizona Hot Springs Trail.
We weren’t aware at the time we decided to take on this hike that it was ranked “Very Strenuous” by the National Park Service. But upon taking on the hike it was a manageable course to traverse despite the extremely rocky conditions. I will say that unlike the Railroad Trail, the trail itself is uneven and would not be for those which suffer from numbness in their feet. While many wider trails exist that are ADA accessible, this trail is the opposite to say the least.
Located off Highway 93 at mile marker 4 on the Arizona side of he Hoover Dam, the parking lot is late and can accommodate many hikers on a busy day. Even on a busy day, the likelihood of you seeing other hikers before arriving at the Hot Springs is rare unless in passing. The trail is a winding 3 miles toward the springs with various forks for those hiking to make decisions as to their preference for their hike.
Being our first time on the trail we had very little knowledge of what we were getting into. Knowing mainly the distance and destination only, we traversed the course with full packs in preparation of just about anything we could encounter. In retrospect, we could have managed on a single backpack, but better prepared than not.
With a map in hand, I will say that it was a bit deceiving to navigate and we ended up finding that the path spoke for itself far better than the map which had been issued. Just half a mile into the 3 mile course there is the first split option in the road. Traveling to your left you are taking the Hot Springs Canyon Trail while to your right you are embarking on the Liberty Bell Arch or White Rock Canyon Trail option.
We took the right path on this first hike taking us upward through the highest of the heights and some of the most spectacular views of the area. The steep incline and slight altitude change was enough to take the breath away for someone who struggles with altitude change like I sometimes do. But slowly but surely we made the climb upward. It was then that we reached the second fork I the road splitting the Liberty Bell and White Rock Trails. Liberty Bell does not take you to the springs but instead to an Arch, a hike in itself for a different kind of beauty to which we will return to see on another day. We elected to continue on path for the hot springs taking the left fork.
As we reached the top we noticed the path narrowed on the descent and became more about grabbing the correct footing along the way down. For this I found it easiest in some areas to brace myself on rocks and use them as handles for securing myself down the large step downs. For someone like myself with shorter legs this was a task in some of those areas while not so much for my tall counterpart.
Narrow paths at times were cliffside following the lay of the mountain in a precarious way which would not be for those fearful of heights, though most areas were wide enough for passing with care other hikers.
After managing to navigate over the rocky pass we wound down to a slot canyon which was lined in a sandy textured rock and made for heavy steps. This area is considered a wash as during the rains of the season it becomes the first area to flood and let water pass.
Walls surrounded on both sides and dwarfed the light on a bright day making for a spectacular sight for the next mile and a half with brief openings along the path. For the most part this section was less strenuous, however it did have a few challenges all its own as numerous shelf like rocks made for rock scrambling to get down to the lower portions. These were challenging for myself because many were like little slides to come down but became a challenge to climb back up when leaving later in the day. Slick to the touch, very little grip for going upward, without my hiking boots and a little boost in some of these cases I would have been stuck on the return.
Perhaps the most challenging of these was the last just before arriving to the Hot Springs itself, a near 5 foot wall with no apparent grips on the way down. Best navigated by sitting down and then a small hop off, we later discovered there was a narrow pass on the opposite side which made for an easier climb out of the area when leaving.
Upon reaching the Hot Springs you can hear the natural waters flowing and in many cases people talking who have arrived before you. The springs are frequented by many naturists however those not into the lifestyle also visit including families. Fair warning however, if you do have children with you, make sure you first explore upon arrival if you are easily offended by those in the nude.
There are three large deep pools and a shallow pool each ranging in heat level. From the route we hiked the first pool is the hottest, around thigh deep on most this pool is 110 degrees on a typical day however can exceed 130 degrees on warm days in the desert.
Each of the pools are divided by a sandbag structure which allows the waters to gradually flow into one another but retain the heat intensity in each for those wanting to enjoy the feeling of the various temps. These sand bags were recently replaced after weather conditions flooded the springs and forced many of these to fail. We spoke to one man while at the springs who was responsible for this restoration, he is a regular at the spring which has been going to this oasis for over 10 years. We quickly learned there is a community which flocks to this site regularly.
The second pool is a bit over waist deep for most and more tolerable in heat, thus one of the more popular starting places for most hikers. It is one of the smaller pools but plays a large part into community chat when people are visiting, we found this to be one of the most interesting places to get to know the people also visiting. This pool is on the bend of the springs canyon and turns into the third pool, a shallow mild pool perfect for sitting in. The pool itself is only to the knee but when sitting inside it is perfect for long term soaking.
Exiting the third pool there is a small beach area where many stow their gear while in the springs and then a final pool which is the coolest of the pools. Still a warm pool it is perfect for those wanting to lay back and seek rest from the long hike for an extended time.
With the time change (despite the fact that Arizona does not observe) it begins getting dark very early. We had started our hike later in the day than originally anticipated and thus at around 4:45 we knew we were going to be making our hike back to the parking in semi darkness. While we did want to take the Hot Springs Canyon trail back we opted instead to go with what we already knew in darkness for safety, leaving that trail for another adventure day.
In reverse, this path proved to be more challenging than the initial hike to the Hot Springs. I found the upward climb from the slot canyon to the peak of the mountain to be very challenging not only because in darkness, everything looks like a path but because of the aggressive steps upward being harder than they were while going downward. The brief rock scrambling areas were negotiated with assistance or through determination. Despite the challenge the hike through the darkness was well worth it seeing the illumination of the night sky and the millions of stars you typically miss being close to the lights of the city. Those looking to see a different kind of lights need not miss this trip. My tip to those fearful of the challenge, come to the area and make the .5 mile hike down the wash to the first split and look up, that in itself at night is an adventure.