Whenever you put the words “canyon” and “hike” together you know it’s going to be steep. That’s a given. It’s also a given that you never completely appreciate a canyon by simply peering over its rim. With that in mind we added local guide Gustavo Lozano and local pony man Pepe to our motley crew and hit the trail to begin hiking in the Copper Canyon. We were bound for the Urique River at the bottom of the Urique Canyon, nearly 4,300 feet (1,310 metes) below us along with Dave Hensleigh of Authentic Copper Canyon.
Hiking in the Copper Canyon
Unlike other canyon hikes that we’ve done–including twice into the Grand Canyon (once from the South Rim and once from the North Rim) and, more recently, to Havasu Falls–this time we had the luxury of a mule to drag our camping gear down and back up.
Initially we had reservations about this. Over almost two decades of hiking and trekking around the world we have always carried our own packs–partly out of pride, partly out of an uneasiness about forcing an animal to do our work for us and partly out of sheer cheapness. The mule wasn’t our idea but since it was there we added our packs to its load with an apologetic little nod and took off with just day packs on our backs.
The first hour of the hike and two miles or so of trail took us up-and-down into the canyon past sparely populated Tarahumara/Raramuri villages surrounded by steep fields until we reached a saddle in the ridge with a huge mesa in the middle of the canyon visible to our left. This, we learned is a stop on a massive new Copper Canyon gondola (teléferico) being built.
A Copper Canyon gondola ride
When it’s done next year it will be take people in 60 person gondola cars more than a mile from a station on the rim near Divisadero to the mesa top in the midst of the canyon. Besides 360 degree views of the colorful rock, lush vegetation and awesome depths in this section of canyon, there are also rumors of a restaurant on the mesa.
Even more incredibly, there appear to be plans to ultimately extend the gondola from the mesa all the way down to the river at the canyon floor taking people down and back up in smaller 10-person gondola cars. Time will tell.
For now, the only way down is on foot or horseback so we pressed on.
Any reservations we may have had about not carrying our own bags disappeared as soon as we left the saddle and continued descending past the mesa. That’s when trail conditions went from “steep canyon hike” to “treacherous rock-strewn vertical obstacle course.”
One of the hardest trails we’ve ever done
Honestly, this trail was one of the hardest we’ve ever done, not because it was any steeper or any longer than other canyon hikes. Actually, it was much shorter than the Grand Canyon. What wore us out was the quality of the trail. Much of the hike required total focus just to stay balanced and upright as we hiked down steep inclines that were covered with 4″ of sliding round rocks and gravel then strewn with ankle-twisting mini-boulders. At times it was like walking down a slide covered with ball bearings and volleyballs.
Did we mention the giant swarming wasps and often sheer and substantial drop-offs along the trail?
Suffice to say we were glad for our boots and poles and our point6 wool socks as we slowly picked our way down, down, down–ultimately losing almost a mile in elevation over the course of about five miles from rim to river.
The canyon is so steep that the Urique River doesn’t come into view until we’re nearly at the bottom.
Spending the night camping in the Copper Canyon
After a great night of grilled chicken and a nice bonfire and no run-ins with scorpions we awoke knowing only half the job was done. We’d managed to walk into the canyon, now we had to manage to walk out. Despite our best intentions to get a bright and early start to avoid as much heat on the mostly-exposed trail, we still didn’t get packed up an on our way until after nine.
Walking up the trail proved easier than walking down since the risk of sliding was reduced so we were able to make fairly decent time, ultimately returning to the rim–hot and tired–in about five and a half hours. The mule, with our bags, made it in less than three.