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East Clear Creek is one of the best, and most easily accessible swimming holes in Northern Arizona, and also boasts some of the best deep water soloing in the region.
Winslow, AZ, once a bustling stop along Route 66, is a quiet but surprisingly beautiful town about an hour east of Flagstaff along I-40. It’s most notable for its starring role in the Eagles Song “Take it Easy”, and for the beautiful Mission Revival-style hotel La Posada designed by the Fred Harvey company and famed architect Mary Ann Coulter. However, in the oppressive heat of the Northern Arizona summer, we have not come to Winslow to engage with its cultural offerings. Instead, we come to find relief from the heat in a desert oasis. East Clear Creek is one of the best, and most easily accessible swimming holes in Northern Arizona, and also boasts some of the best deep water soloing in the region.
About 10 minutes south and east of Winslow’s famous man on the corner you will find Mchood Park 34.968299, -110.644635. The park offers utilitarian concrete picnic shelters, tables, bathrooms, and a boat launch all in various states of disrepair. The central feature of the park is the reservoir created by a dam on East Clear Creek. Entrance to Mchood Park is free, and on a summer day, you will find crowds of people picnicking, fishing, paddle boarding, and kayaking. However, the real treasure lies just upstream, and the best way to explore the upper reaches of East Clear Creek is by Packraft.
East Clear Creek flows north from the high wooded elevations of the Mogollon Rim to the parched interior of the Colorado Plateau where it joins the Little Colorado River. During its track north, East Clear Creek meanders through a narrow canyon of elegantly carved sandstone. The fluted walls rise nearly 80 feet tall in places. The creek is fed primarily by runoff from C.C. Craigin reservoir near Payson, but also from a number of seeps and springs discharging from the Coconino Sandstone. As the name suggests, the water is generally clear, unless you happen to show up after a recent monsoon, and comfortable with water temps in the mid-70s during the summer.
My most recent trip to Clear Creek was in August, a stretch of blazing hot days drove us to skip work and head for Winslow. As we drove east on the I-40 from Flagstaff, we noticed clouds building to the south. During July - September the North American Monsoon envelopes Arizona. Moisture which is blown in from the Gulf of Mexico builds into towering cumulus clouds which form over the high terrain during the mornings and unleash torrential storms in the afternoons. We carefully examined the forecast and determined that we would be we would be safe til at least noon. East Clear Creek, being a narrow canyon in the desert is subject to flash flooding, so it is definitely important to check the weather before going, and specifically to look at projected rainfall around Payson, AZ in the headwaters of East Clear Creek.
Once we arrived at Mchood Park, we parked near the boat ramp, unrolled our Kokopelli Packrafts, inflated them, and ventured upstream. Near the boat ramp, the sandstone walls are low, covered in graffiti and crowded with sunbathers. Seeking a more intimate experience, we paddled on. As we paddled the crowds gave way to a quiet canyon, the walls rose around us. After about a mile the colorful graffiti tags faded away. A more subtle form of human expression became visible. Petroglyphs carved hundreds or even thousands of years ago begin to show up on the walls. This creek, as a perennial source of water, has been important to indigenous peoples for thousands of years.
The creek offers numerous opportunities for deep water soloing, the rock here is similar in quality to what you might find at Red Rocks with flakes of patina on course grippy sandstone. However, on this particular day, we decide to be lazy, instead of trying to climb anything serious we just scramble up to some cliffs and take a few plunges in the cool, clear water. We paddle upstream with no real urgency marveling at the petroglyphs. Likenesses of alien-looking men with great horns, snakes, and bighorn sheep, and countless other designs are carved into the patina under rock overhangs. We wonder what the ancient ones meant? Perhaps they were describing the location of good hunting grounds, other water sources, or just showing that they were here like the contemporary graffiti downstream.
After about two miles we reach the crumbling edifice of an old stone pump house. We feel like we could go on forever exploring this place, but the bottoms of the clouds begin to take on a darker hue. We decided not to tempt fate in a flash-flood prone canyon. We head back towards the car. Having been here before, I know that not far past that pump house the flat water of the dammed lake gives way to the flowing water of a creek. Vegetation crowds in around the channel and riffles form. In places, the water becomes to shallow to paddle with pools in between. Having a packraft is nice for portaging past the shallow stuff and paddling the pools.
If you get far enough upstream, you reach a place known as Winslow Wall, renowned as some of the best sandstone climbing in Arizona. But today, the gathering monsoons force us back to the car. Once the boats are deflated, we hop in the car and stop at Las Marias. Las Marias is a must try when in Winslow. This small restaurant on the main strip offers a burrito the size of my forearm for under $10. East Clear Creek is a special place, where you can spend an entire day swimming, climbing, floating, cliff jumping, or just admiring the ancient art. It has become more popular recently, and the increase in visitation has also meant an increase in litter and graffiti. If you do visit, please keep this place special and pack out all your trash, refrain from spray-painting the rocks.