Only 1 or 2 miles of this is the technical canyon, the rest is hiking in the bottom of the gorge.
Destination Distance From Downtown
4 of 5 diamonds
Easy relative to other technical canyons, but requires specialized skills and equipment.
Time To Complete
Roughly 5-6 hours to complete the canyon and rest of the hike. This does not include time to set shuttle.
The water is cold and the canyan shady, so summer is best.
James Canyon, just south of Flagstaff, is a scenic slot canyon that makes a great introduction to technical canyoneering. there are narrows, pool swims, downclimbs, and rappels, but nothing too tricky and there are multiple routes by which to hike out if necessary. Car shuttle is long but simple, or the canyon can be done as a loop hike with only one car. A little-visited destination, its quiet solitude makes a refreshing retreat during the heat of summer, with permanently cool water and shady enclosure.
What Makes It Great
The topography of this region is formed by hardened volcanic rock that sits atop softer sandstone. these lower layers are exposed on the edge of the plateau, where water rolling off the rim carves out deep gorges. James Canyon is one example, which feeds into the larger Pumphouse Wash, in turn leading into the area’s most dramatic feature--Oak Creek Canyon.
Exploring this complex watershed via James Canyon is a full-day adventure that requires sturdy shoes, clothes that can get wet, and rappelling gear. There are two rappels, the longer of which is about 40 feet. Webbing anchors have been left above both, but established anchors should always be inspected and replaced if necessary. There are many permanent pools that remain after spring runoff. Most of them can be navigated around but there are a handful of mandatory swims. Be prepared for stagnant water that is surprisingly cold, but a wetsuit is not needed if the weather is sunny and warm.
The rappels and narrows are definitely the adventure highlights of James Canyon, but the majority of the experience is hiking and boulder scrambling through the rarely-seen sandstone wonderland that hides down here. A somewhat long hike out is required through incredible Pumphouse Wash, or up Kelly Canyon, depending on which route you take (see Directions below).
Who is Going to Love It
James Canyon is perfect for beginner canyoneers to practice setting rappels, dropping into pools, negotiating downclimbs, and being comfortable with cold swims. As always with technical canyoneering, however, inexperienced groups should be accompanied by a competent leader. Those with more canyoneering experience will still appreciate Jame for its varied rock types, unique scenery, and feeling of remoteness. The hike out of Pumphouse Wash is truly spectacular, as you navigate a microcosm of sculpted passageways in the bottom of a massive gorge.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Take I-17 S from Flagstaff and get off at Exit 333, turn right on Kelly Canyon Rd, and park along this road. Walk south from here, generally following a powerline, until you get to the rim of James Canyon and find a route to scramble down.
To hike down Pumphouse Wash, you will need to have shuttle set in Oak Creek Canyon. Leave a car parked along the road, near the bridge below the switchbacks on Hwy 89A about 15 miles south of Flagstaff. This is the bridge across Pumphouse Wash, where you will finish your hike.
To do James Canyon without car shuttle, you must hike upstream (right) at the confluence with Pumphouse Wash and then right again at the intersection of the next side canyon, which is Kelly Canyon. Follow this for a few miles back toward the interstate. There is a good trail through Kelly Canyon, but a map will aid in staying on track.