The People's Guide To Mexico

The Copper Canyon
The Best of Mexico
Letters on the Copper Canyon

Copper Canyon

Burro Assisted Hikes in Mexico's
Copper Canyon

Published Feb. 08

Carl Franz Says: Tucson-based guides Mike Huckaby and Cathy Waterman have been exploring Mexico's northern Sierra Madre and Copper Canyon for many years. I first worked with them on treks we led for Adventure Specialists, the pioneer outfitter for serious Copper Canyon trekking. After more than thirty years of working with the Sierra Club and other organizations, as well as customized canyon treks for independent hikers, it gives me great pleasure to learn that Adventure Specialists has now “passed the torch” to Mike and Cathy's Copper Canyon Trails. In addition to their own considerable experience as guides and canyon explorers, Mike and Cathy's veteran Mexican and Tarahumara trail crew is without equal in the Sierra Madre. Jeronimo and Jilo Mancinas were young boys when they first worked on Adventure Specialists trips beside their fathers. In addition to being great companions, their first-hand knowledge of local customs, language and trail lore adds a wonderful richness to every trip.

Mexico's Copper Canyon remains one of the continent's “last great places”. If you are ready for an adventure that goes well beyond the ordinary, with experienced and trustworthy guides, I suggest that you contact Mike and Cathy at Copper Canyon Trails.

• Day One: Our first day together begins at the airport in Los Mochis, where you will be met by Cathy, your guide. There are convenient flights to Los Mochis from gateway cities in the American West and Southwest.

After exchanging greetings and introductions, we’ll load our gear into a suburban and head to the tropical town of El Fuerte, about an hour and a half away. Founded in 1564 by Don Francisco de Ibarra, this charming colonial town is steeped in history. We’ll stay at the unique Rio Vista Hotel, operated by our delightful host, Chal Gamez. This hotel sits atop a knoll above the beautiful Rio Fuerte, and abuts the historic fort and museum.

• Day Two: After breakfast, we’ll board the famous Copper Canyon train. The trip from the tropical coastal plain to the Sierra Madre mountains is considered one of the most spectacular train rides in the Americas. As the train winds through dozens of tunnels and over countless bridges, you'll be treated to a glimpse of the enormity of the canyon country and the adventure that awaits you the following day. It is also a journey back through time. The sight of horse-drawn carts, cowboys on horseback, and wood smoke curling from mud-chinked cabins makes us doubt our senses.

As much as its timeless nature may surprise us, however, the Sierra Madre certainly is real. In fact, it would take volumes to adequately describe the history, ecology and people of this amazing country. In the days to come we'll do our best to share with you some of the information and experiences we've gathered during our years here.

We'll arrive at the rim of the canyon sometime in the early afternoon and stay at a rustic lodge where we are treated to traditional Mexican fare and local family friendliness.

• Day Three: After breakfast, we meet our Mexican/Tarahumara trail crew and load the gear onto the burros. By mid-morning we'll begin our trek into the Urique Canyon region.

Our route takes us from Areponapuchic (7200 elevation) in a long and gradually descending northwesterly loop, winding through mountains, mesas and canyons. Allowing for the up-and-downs of side canyons, the elevation change on our winding trail is over 5,000 feet. The descent from the highlands to the bottom of the Urique canyon will take the better part of two days. We usually hike about 4 to 6 hours per day.

We arrive at camp under a grove of orange and banana trees planted with seeds given to the Tarahumara by the Spanish hundreds of years ago. We soak our feet in a warm spring nearby while our crew prepares supper, cooking over a wood fire.

• Day Four: Continuing our descent, we'll note the transition from the temperate highlands to the warmer, sub-tropical canyon. Hiking through a series of hanging valleys, our day begins with the clear, chime-like serenade of the Brown backed Solitaire-and will likely end accompanied by frantically squawking parrots.

The unique plant life of the Sierra Madre adds to this trail's interest. In the space of a few hours we might see cactus growing in Tarahumara apple orchards, kapok trees, cypress, organ pipe, wild grape and countless varieties of oak and pine.

Arriving at the Urique River in the afternoon, we'll camp for the next three nights on a sandbar. As the sun disappears behind the cliffs, we are free to relax or to seek a private nook among the huge, polished boulders. Though the river can be quite cool, someone inevitably finds the warm, sandy beach and turquoise-green pools to be an irresistible invitation to go swimming.

• Day Five and Six: You'll have two full days in which to experience the beauty of this canyon. Although we certainly encourage rest and contemplation, there are at least two especially noteworthy day hikes to lure you away from camp. The river passes through a very narrow gorge on these jaunts, so we'll be wading, helping each over boulders and dodging deep pools on our way to hot springs and hidden waterfalls. This is more of a scramble than a hike, so the pace can be slow and relaxed. Or we split in two, and allow the hardcore hikers to take the overland route for a truly world-class hike. The birding can also be good, so be sure to keep an eye peeled for parrots and trogons.

• Day Seven: It takes a while to break camp and load the burros, so we'll leave the crew to their chores and begin our climb out of the canyon shortly after breakfast. Now that we're all 'oldhands' at Copper Canyon trekking, you'll undoubtedly note many things that were missed on the inbound hike. If you're lucky, the intricate play of light and shadow on the cliffs above us may even reveal rock paintings or traces of ancient Indian dwellings. Whether you spy a simple shard of pottery beside the trail, or the tumbled stone walls of a shepherd's hut, there's always something new to discover.

To be truthful, there's also another reason to sightsee and take it easy: it gives the burros an opportunity to overtake and pass us. In fact, if we plan it right, we'll roll into camp just about the time the coffee perks.

A few words about the Tarahumara: According to the local people, we are the only outsiders to use this trail in many, many years. Although this particular canyon route passes through country that is very sparsely inhabited, there is always a chance that we'll meet Tarahumara, especially near our higher camps. It is important to know, however, that many of these people are so shy that they may prefer to observe us from a distance. When meeting on the trail, for example, it is not unusual for Tarahumara women and children to slip away as a stranger approaches, or to firmly turn their backs and refuse to speak.

Our crew's experience and rapport with the Tarahumara is considerable. To maintain relationships of mutual trust and respect, however, we must never impose by taking photographs or approaching occupied dwelling caves and cabins without invitation. As they come to know us better, the Tarahumara women may offer beautifully woven baskets, dolls, drums and other small handicrafts for purchase. We encourage this, as it provides their families a small but very important cash income.

• Day Eight: Our final day on the trail takes us back up the winding "staircase" trail to the top of the mesa. An optional side trek takes us to a Mogollon era cliff dwelling with potsherds and human remains. Depending on where we camped the night before, we'll complete our trek out of the canyon around early afternoon. Back at the lodge, after hot showers, we'll gather for refreshments and rehash our adventure together over a celebratory dinner.

• Day Nine: We'll begin by spoiling ourselves with a leisurely breakfast of huevos rancheros, fruit, biscuits and coffee. We'll pack our gear and say our goodbyes. You’ll have some time for shopping before boarding the afternoon train unescorted back to El Fuerte. You needn't worry! You are met at the train station in El Fuerte and delivered to your accommodations for the night.

• Day Ten: The next morning you'll be driven from the hotel to the airport in Los Mochis.

*Note: we may find it necessary to change our route due to weather conditions or other unforeseen events.

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For more information, including gear and customized trip see
the Copper Canyon Trails website.

©1972-2008 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens