Take HWY-87 north from Payson, past the towns of Pine and Strawberry. After passing the town of Strawberry, turn left onto HWY-260 (Northwest). Drive 3.1 miles on HWY-260, turning right onto signed FR144. Take FR144 for 1.8 miles, turning left onto FR149. Take FR149 1.2 miles and turn right onto road FR142. Take FR142 for 1 mile and turn left onto FR142E. Take FR142E 2.7 miles to a parking area.
Hiking, rappelling, and swimming through Bear Canyon on the Mogollon rim, Arizona.
While you've probably guessed that I enjoy hiking in Arizona a great deal, I also enjoy rock climbing. It's rare that I get an opportunity to use the skills of both at once. Canyoneering through Bear Canyon was an excellent opportunity to enjoy both of these activities. The skills needed to successfully navigate through the narrows of Bear Canyon are not trivial. You need hiking route finding skills as well as boulder hopping ability. You will also need to be comfortable rappelling off of natural and fixed anchors, as well as be able to swim in a wetsuit.
WARNING: Make sure you have experience with rappelling and cold water swimming before considering this canyon. The day before we went down this canyon, another hiker was evacuated out because she fell on the third rappel. Mistakes can have serious consequences here. Even if you have all of these skills, make sure you take a buddy with you.
From the parking area at the end of FR142E, start walking back up FR142E for about 0.5 miles. You'll see an unnamed dirt road that takes off to your right (West). Walk on this dirt road until you see Bear Canyon on your left through the pine trees. There's no trail down to the bottom of Bear Canyon, you'll have to go cross country. There are a few ribbons hung in trees to help you navigate, but otherwise, you'll have to rely on your route finding skills.
Once at the bottom of Bear Canyon, head right. You'll be boulder hopping and scrambling down to the narrows. There is some down climbing required, but no rappels needed in this section. When you start to see the canyon narrow and the walls climb higher, you'll know you've reached the technical section of this canyon. Put on your wetsuit and your harness.
The first rappel drops about 20 ft into a small pool. The stone wedged into the canyon is a good place for your anchor. Continue down canyon to a slide into a deep and cold pool. When I say cold, I mean cold. It doesn't matter how hot the temperature is outside, this area never sees the sun, so it remains very cold year round. You will be glad you wore the wetsuit. This pool borders on a keeper pothole, so make sure you have a plan to get out of it before getting in it. This is the most dangerous part of this adventure, as the cold water will quickly drain your energy. Make sure you are able to get out of the water quickly. At the end of the 20 yard swim is a ridge and the second rappel (about 30 ft). There is a bolt on the right side you'll use to rappel off of. Continue wading and scrambling down canyon to the third and final rappel into a small pool (about 20 ft). When we were here there was a large log that was wedged into this pool that made the rappel a bit awkward. You can use the chock stone or the log (if it's still there) as your anchor for this rappel. There is a bit more wading and swimming before you exit the narrows and Bear canyon opens up again.
You can remove your wet suit and harness now, as it's straightforward rock hopping and scrambling to get to West Clear Creek. Turn right at the lush perennial creek and walk about 0.1 miles to the trail out on your right. There are usually a hand full of people hanging around here in case you can't see the exit (it's not easy to spot until you're on the trail). This steep but easy to follow trail leads back to your car in a short 0.3 miles.