Imagine standing atop a high canyon. There's a raging river below, shrouded with a blanket of treetops. Your eyes follow the canyon down, and you observe how the natural expressway of rock continues into the horizon, complemented by an enthralling sunset.
Welcome to Owl Creek. Surrounded by the Black Hills, it is the perfect spot for a weekend camping trip.
Depending on where you’re coming from Owl Creek is either the very first or very last stop on the Black Hills Back Country Byway. I usually go through the Clifton side. Just after the Coronado Trail goes from a four-lane road to two lanes, you take a left onto a dirt road identified as the byway by a brown sign.
The spot is special enough among friends and family that I make an annual trip or two to a very specific campsite in the very back corner. I always arrive a night early in order to beat the competition, as it is the only spot with direct access to the river. The campsites sit along the top of the canyon, most equipped with benches and a firepit. The path down to the river is more of a narrow deer trail down the cliff face, with light rock climbing required. Once you are down, however, there is an entire world to explore.
When you think of a forest you may think tall pines or oaks. This forest is different because one moment you are crawling on your hands and knees through dense thickets of mesquite trees that open up into stands of cottonwoods. If you look high you can see several bird nests, possibly homes to owls that reside in the area.
The forest flanks the river bank on both sides, but is broken up by sand. The sand is so fine and yellow it looks like a California beach. The towering canyon walls that surround you can make you feel like you're in a private world. The way they envelope you, I definitely wouldn't want to be down there during a monsoonal flood. Otherwise, the climate is ideal. The buffer the canyon provides against the elements makes it a perfect oasis for any desert dweller.
Going opposite of the river brings you to a long, narrow crevasse that slices the land for miles. You walk down a windy wash in between the walls that border the massive crack. It seems like the kind of place highwaymen might have staged a robbery. There's only about 8 feet that separates you from the 15 foot rock walls. The gap between the walls of the canyon gets very narrow, not recommended if you are claustrophobic.
The path seems to go on forever. I imagine that this is how the Grand Canyon first looked millions of years ago. The steam manages to cut deeply into the rocks to create a perfect shortcut through the hilly terrain, surviving tectonic plate shifts and drought. However, as tranquil as the water sounds, the thought of being stuck there in a rainstorm, and being carried downstream like a helpless piece of driftwood terrifies me. Although I've traveled this unique bypass numerous times, regrettably I've never managed to see where the path leads.
The river usually is of small concern in the summer month, because it’s normally pretty low, but it’s always raging in the winter. I would love to enjoy sitting on the soft sand under the shade of a cottonwood after a whole day of swimming, but our bipolar weather makes that difficult. However, when the stars align, the river makes for a great deal of fun. It makes for an ideal lazy river if you're willing to haul an innertube upstream.
I know from firsthand experience, the water in the winter is incredibly cold. I learned this when I took a plunge for an entire minute when I lost a bet. I squatted as low as I could in the rapids and tried my best to fight the pain.
Scientists say that if you think warm thoughts when you are cold, you'll feel warmer, but I beg to differ. It's hard to think about hot summer days when the water forces the air out of your lungs. The moment the time was up I sprinted toward shore. It felt like ice was being poured all over me but the outside air felt surprisingly warmer. If I’d been in there much longer, I doubt I’d still have a full set of toes.
Owl Creek is a prime spot for RV camping. If you are looking for a beautiful area in the middle of nowhere, you might want to bring a lot of free time. The canyons, along with the rest of the byway, hold natural beauty that reflect the best of Arizona. Be sure to take in the night sky. The mountains make the sky seem darker, yet clearer somehow, making the Milky Way pop out in contrast. Those nights are perfectly accompanied by the sound of complete and utter silence. The only thing that occasionally breaks it are the faint hoots of the resident owls for which it’s named.
It's a beautifully unique area that makes for the perfect weekend escape into tranquility and solitude.