Salome Jug is a canyon in Arizona located approximately 35 miles south of Payson and 100 miles or so northeast of Mesa. It’s a technical canyon with only 1 rappel but a lot of sketchy downclimbs. My friend Jim and I decided to run this canyon on Monday the 6th of April.
Although the temperature would climb to around 85 degrees, we planned to hit the trailhead at around 1:30 or 2:00 p.m. The approach/exit trail to Salome is about two miles long and is downhill on the way in. Since the exit trail from the canyon comes out and reconnects with the approach trail, this makes the majority of the approach trail also the exit trail. The altitude gain is not especially aggressive and the switchbacks are relatively gentle so the climb out is not unbearable, but I prefer to do it near or after dark so I can avoid hiking uphill in the sunlight. Being in the desert, the trail is fully exposed to the sun and is rocky so care must be taken to prevent dehydration as well as rolling an ankle on the approach/exit trail.
The day looked great as we pulled up to the trailhead. We were right on schedule and looking forward to a great day of fun in the water. Our only detour was a quick stop for a cheap outdoor camera (disposable) and we made up our time easily on the 100 mile drive from Gilbert where we live. After a brief moment to gear up and apply some sunblock, we were off on our march. The mood was fantastic and jokes (usually bad ones) were plenty as we began our trip to the canyon. We were all hoping for good water levels as this canyon is at its best when the water flows. It is almost always wet and you will be in the water the whole way through – with the exception of some boulder hopping. Low water means stagnation and lots of slime so timing with this canyon is important. Spring time is safest because the water levels are a bit more predictable but you will need a wetsuit if you run it before May. There is a place on the dirt road that leads to the canyon where the water crosses over it. You can usually tell the condition of the canyon by how much water is over the road. If it is flowing over the road at a trickle, it will be clear but low. The ideal is about four inches of water flowing over the road. This usually means the water will be clear and flowing down the slides with good volume through the falls. Water on either side of the road with no flow means stagnant slimy water.
Needless to say we were sweating heavily by the time we reached the entry of the canyon. After a run in with an angry prickly pear (it won), I hit the water. The conditions were great. The water was warm and just a touch lower than optimal, but the canyon had been cleared of the slime and debris that tends to accumulate there over the course of the long hot summers. After a few minutes of cooling off, we began our trip through Salome Canyon.
The canyon starts out wide and shallow. It is all pink granite flecked with copper that is decorated sporadically with large slate gray boulders as well as sedimentary boulders washed down from somewhere upstream. This is still my favorite canyon from the shear beauty of it. Anyone who has seen the pictures of the slot canyons of the southwest with their beautifully carved sandstone walls can appreciate the spectacular sight of very similar shaped smooth granite. The granite of this canyon was uncovered by the waters long ago and over the course of thousands and thousands of years, sculpted into what we see today. Completely the opposite of the jagged granite of the San Gabriels, this whole canyon has been carved by water and the debris it has carried.
As we traveled deeper into the canyon, the walls began to become gradually closer and the canyon deeper. This seemed to cause the water to carve out many interconnected mini “chambers” where eddies must have formed. Although the walls never really come closer than about eight feet from one another, they are high enough to really make you feel small. We stopped for food just upstream of where a large column of granite has broken away from the wall and formed a doorway beneath it that you must cross under to continue. Although not much of a squeeze as the height of the opening is around fourteen feet, it is still a cool feature of the canyon that will be remembered and talked about on the trail back.
The holes of water start to get deeper around half way through. There is a lot of scrambling to find the best way through some pretty tricky areas. Patience and assistance are the key for safe passage. The granite can be slick so don’t underestimate it. There are two really good slides in this canyon if the water is flowing. They are not especially tall or long but they are a lot of fun as they dump into small pools of water. One of them was only partially wet and needed us to bail water into it. As the holes get deeper, the swims become longer. I usually place a couple of empty water bottles in my pack to help with floatation. This turns a swim into a leisurely cruise and allows more time to admire the canyon. Following this advice, we took our time and were relaxed as well as comfortable during our swims.
We reached the rappel down the water fall at around 6:30 after taking our time through the canyon. There are two bolted locations here where anchors can be built. The first is to canyon right at a height of about eight feet just over a ledge. There are three anchors here including two expansion bolt style and one glue-in eye bolt style. Don’t use these without inspecting them carefully. These anchors are often beat flat after a good storm from the debris carried down by the flood waters. Be prepared to shuffle across the ledge to the more exposed anchors further out. The first anchor station allows you to descend the waterfall itself which is the narrowest part of the canyon and can be a bit of a squeeze. If water levels are up, the the force of the water can easily push your feet out from under you and put you in a jam so avoid this rappel during times of good flow. The other location requires you to climb a ledge out about fifteen feet where there are more expansion bolt style anchors that offer the opportunity to rappel straight down through a brief free hang before landing on a shallow – and narrow – ledge in the water below the falls.
We took the time to replace the webbing at the first anchor as we didn’t know how long it had been there and proceeded to line up for the rappel. We wasted no time as it was beginning to get dark and we wanted to be on the exit trail before the sun fully set – for no other reason than our headlamps would attract hundreds of flying bugs.
After the rappel we began the longest of the swims which begins in the legendary Jug. This is the feature the canyon is named for. The water has carved out a large chamber from the bottom up forming a granite “Jug” with a relatively narrow exit. This is truly something worth seeing and I would be proud to take anyone interested at any time to go through it. After exiting the Jug, the swim continues to a rocky shoal where you will climb out of the water just long enough for your pack to drain before scrambling over more boulders to re-enter the water for the final swim to dry land and the exit trail.
The hike out was a nice one. The air was hot but the wet clothes kept us cool until we reached the car. The sun had just set when we left the water and the half moon was high during our exit. The road home was long and the excited chatter slowly gave way to tired satisfied silence. After returning home I quietly gave thanks to whatever powers that be for a great day with a great friend in a truly epic setting. Days like these aren’t as common as they should be. I guess that makes the time that much sweeter. I wouldn’t trade a day like this for anything.