Agua Fria National Monument
Badger Springs Exit #256, Interstate 17
Arizona is a magical state. In no time at all, a traveler can move between ecosystems, leaving the Ponderosa Pines and cottonwoods for the saguaro cacti of the Sonoran Desert. When one lives in Prescott, Arizona, a town that is not quite Northern Arizona and not quite Central Arizona, a day trip can bring one to the snowy ski slopes of Flagstaff or to the shimmering blaze of Phoenix. Or, one can stay in the woods and granite of the Prescott National Forest.
Agua Fria National Monument, a generous parting gift from President Bill Clinton, is midway between Prescott and Phoenix. As one pulls off of I-17, dusty pickups are likely to roar past, towing four wheelers and dirt bikes. It is easy to feel like a minority as a hiker- so many Arizonans seem to prefer mechanized transport. But a gravel road will lead to a parking lot and a government issue pit toilet and soon, a hiker is off into the Agua Fria.
Agua Fria means cold water in Spanish. The water doesn’t feel cold on a spring day, as the sun pushes on your shoulders and singes your nose. The water is not deep and allows for multiple crossings as you wander. Canyon wren calls echo off of the rocks as you stare at willows and, for the first time since leaving Prescott, you notice saguaro cacti on the southern face of the hills. The water slides over rocks, pours through narrow channels, and seeps into sticky mud. If you are lucky, a rattlesnake may have left its shed skin for you to find. Or perhaps you’ll spot sacred datura or desert tobacco near the edge of the water.
You are not the first to enter this area. Ancestral Pueblan peoples have left their thoughts and designs on the rock walls. Don’t be fooled, however. There are an equal amount of counterfeit pictographs and petroglyphs, undoubtedly drawn or chipped into the stone by bored teenagers or other visitors with something to prove.
One of the great joys of the Agua Fria is a sense of solitude not provided by the ant farm of Phoenix or the din and roar of Interstate 17. Sit on a sun-warmed rock and lean back into the water-worn wall. You can hear that canyon wren and the whoosh of the willow leaves in the breeze. A raven will gurgle its call and you’ll be able to hear the feathery flap of its wings.
How far you go down the Agua Fria is up to you. But you need fresh water, and lots of it, so plan accordingly. It would be possible to do a multi-day backpack trip or an overnight campout. But perhaps what the Agua Fria is best for is an afternoon of re-centering and renewed focus on the environment that surrounds you. The office or a lingering school assignment can wait; take a moment to put your feet in the water and stare at the sky.
By: Celeste Roberts