Updated October 2011! I adjusted some of the descriptions below based on a trip taken in October 2011 to try to reflect a few small details that have changed – and I also added a few more pictures and links at the bottom of the post.
Seven Cataracts is a classic adventure in the Santa Catalina mountains. It requires technical canyoneering skills to stay in the canyon and takes you thru some amazing terrain. There are several possible places to start and end this adventure, but my favorite is to go from Windy Point to Prison Camp. Map.
Start at the Windy Point Parking lot. Walk down to Nancy’s Thumb on North Fin (both prominent landmarks for any local climbers – if you do not know these formations there is a good chance anyone with a rope in the parking lot can point you in the right direction). Head around North Fin on the right side and look for a faint trail leading off to the right, down the hillside and into the canyon. There are a few cairns and sections of ‘trail’ to help guide you down, it is fairly easy to work your way around any obstacles and it would be hard (impossible?) to miss the canyon if you keep working downhill. It does not take too long to reach the canyon bottom – once there take a left and head down canyon! (Note: If you feel like exploring there is a good chance that your drop in point from North Fin puts you under 15 minutes down canyon from a beautiful section of Willow Canyon – consider hiking up canyon to this beautiful spot before heading down to the first rappel).
Like most Santa Catalina canyons it is possible to skirt around many of the cliffs and obstacles by exiting and reentering the canyon. These directions assume that – for the most part – you are interested in staying in the bottom of the canyon.
**Alternate Start – In May of 2008 we did an alternate start that was great fun and I think worth mentioning. The starting point for this hike is just up the highway from Lizard rock. Parking: once you pass Lizard Rock you are looking for a parking pull out on the east side of the highway (climbers may recognize this as the parking for the Matterhorn climbing area) that is just past a road with a locked gate on the west side of the highway. After parking walk past the locked gate jump in the canyon that runs under Lizard rock on the west side – at the point the canyon is very small but easy to find. This canyon is not named on the map and is at times a little bushy, but it gets more and more beautiful and you get closer to the first rappel. I thought this was a great addition to this adventure.
Rappel 1 – Rappel from either a two bolt anchor (installed in the 2nd half of 2008 – still present and looking good October 2011) or from the tree about 6-8 feet above the bolted anchor – continue the rappel across the pool and down another small drop to a large boulder blocking the canyon. There is usually a pool below the first part of this rappel – I have not been in the canyon when this pool was more than chest deep – but it is always chilly! Alternate approach: Rappel into the pool and end your rappel there – then scramble down the right side of the canyon (easy but might not be the best for someone without much experience) – then make an easy scramble on the right side of the canyon down to the area above the boulder blocking the canyon (the next rappel).
Rappel 2 – If this drop was 100% dry it might be an easy down climb – but I have never seen it dry and the continual flow of water makes it incredibly slippery, think twice about down climbing (see the link at the bottom of this post to a video that shows how slippery this usually is…). There are several possible anchors for this rappel:
Anchor 1 – There is a pinch between the large boulder blocking the canyon and another rock coming out of the sand in the bottom of the canyon, this should be visible from the landing point of the first rappel. This anchor is usually easy to get to but it can be it quite hard to pull the rope unless care is taken to extend the anchor and/or keep the rope out of the crack on the left (inspect this anchor carefully before using!). Awkward start.
Anchor 2 – I have only seen this used recently (December 2008 – webbing there also in October 2011) but may be a good option depending on water flow, sling the pinch created by the large boulder where it presses against the right side (looking down canyon) of the canyon.
Anchor 3 – Scramble up/right/around the boulder blocking the canyon, then scoot down to a small ledge. Under the large boulder there is a pinch that can be used for an anchor. If the canyon is flowing and/or this scramble is wet use caution! This anchor has a hassle free rope pull (contrast with Anchor 1 which has a tricky pull) but requires a small amount of scrambling that could be tricky if there is alot of water in the canyon and can be slightly intimidating.
Rappel 3 – This is a very beautiful area of the canyon. There is a two bolt anchor located near the edge of the cliff on the right side. This anchor is in a great position for rappelling but can be awkward to get to. I think that traversing along the top of the waterfall is sketchy in this area so approaching the anchor from the right is likely the best idea – but getting to this station from the right is awkward. For those without long legs and non-climbers help from a friend both above and below can be very useful for getting everyone safely to the rappel station, this would be an easy place to twist an ankle. At times a pool forms under this rappel that makes the ending of this rappel even more beautiful (and slippery and cold)!
Rappel 4 – After rappel three walk down canyon looking for a two bolt anchor on the left near a nice sunny ledge. This rappel is more than 100′ if you try to go directly to the ground – if you rappel with on single 200′ rope head for a ledge with a large block and green plants instead of the ground. From the ledge/block you can walk right and scramble to the canyon floor. (The ledge is less appealing when the canyon is flowing in this area – on the past three trips we have carried a pull cord so we could rappel to the ground and found that, for us, that is more fun). This rappel can be bypassed by strong scramblers on the right side – although this bypass looks like it would be pretty slippery when there is enough water in the canyon to be flowing thru the right side…
Rappel 5 – Another beautiful rappel that seems to have a small flow of water all year. There are several possible anchors here – in late 2008 a bolted rappel station was added (present and in good condition in October 2011), for an alternative natural anchor use a long piece of webbing to sling the large boulder on the ledge above the drop. To be safe bring a 35′ section of webbing if you want to sling the boulder (I usually have a 30′ piece and that works but 1″ webbing is rarely measured with extreme accuracy when sold so it might be best to be cautious and get a slightly longer length) – I highly recommend grey webbing and rap rings that have a matte finish to minimize the visual impact of the anchor (the pool below is a hiking destination with low but regular traffic). Using this anchor the rappel is about 105′-110′, make sure that you are ready to deal with the length of this rappel – a single 60m rope may leave you in a very uncomfortable position from either the bolts or the boulder! There is a very nice pool below this drop that can be avoided by traversing just above the pool.
At and after Rappel 5 it is slightly more likely you will see hikers who have hiked up from Bear Canyon.
Exit possibility: It is possible to avoid any more rappels and exit the canyon at this point to a car parked at Green Slabs/the area where the highway crosses Bear Canyon. This exit is shorter than exiting to Prison camp and takes you thru a really beautiful section of Bear Canyon. Look for a small trail that leaves from the left side of the canyon very close to the pool (the trail starts with a small rock step that can make it hard to see) – the trail leaves the canyon before the drop described below as optional Rappel 6. This trail will take you into Bear Canyon just above the waterfall. Continue hiking up canyon and exit to the highway near where it crosses Bear Canyon. This exit is not ideal if you want to continue down Bear Canyon (exiting to Prison Camp for example) because it deposits you above a slightly tricky scramble down a waterfall.
Rappel 6 (Optional) – It is easy to walk around this drop just down canyon from the deep pool, but for fun and to stay in the bottom of the canyon rappel from one of the large trees on the left side of the canyon.
Rappel 7 (Optional) – Scrambling down the canyon will take you very close to the exit into Bear Canyon. Just before Bear Canyon there is a another drop that can be rappelled if you want to stay in the canyon. One possible anchor is slinging a crack twenty+ feet up canyon from the final drop – be careful using this anchor, the length of the rappel may leave you with an awkward/slippery down climb if you use a 200′ rope. There are a number of natural anchor options, but be sure to carefully evaluate anything you use.
This is the end of the technical obstacles – from here some folks leave a car at the Seven Cataracts pull-out and hike back to that. The Seven Cataracts pull-out is likely the quickest way to end this hike but involves an unpleasant hike up the side of Bear Canyon (much more grueling than scenic).
Another longer and more beautiful option is to continue down Bear Canyon to Sycamore Reservoir and then take the Sycamore Reservoir trail up to prison camp to finish a great adventure.
Update! 2007-10-29 – There is another description of this hike in Arizona Technical Canyoneering (this book was published recently and looks very interesting!). This route is #41 – Willow Canyon/Bear Canyon Loop – (Seven Cataracts is a section of Willow Canyon), here are a few notes comparing the description above with the description in Arizona Technical Canyoneering (referred to here as AZTC):
The starting point in the AZTC book is different from both of the starting points described in this post.
The rappel 1 area for AZTC is the same area as Rappel 1 and Rappel 2 described above.
AZTC rappel 2 is Rappel 3 above – There is a fairly recent 2 bolt anchor on the right side of the canyon (just before you would climb under the boulder described in AZTC) that, in my opinion, makes for a much nicer rappel than using the tree described in AZTC. (This picture shows the 2 bolt anchor)
Rappel 4 above is bypassed on the right in the AZTC desciption.
Rappel 5 Is the final rappel described in AZTC – I have not done the rappel on the left mentioned in AZTC.
Rappels 6 and 7 that are marked optional above are not mentioned in AZTC – which also correctly mentions scrambling/downclimbing on left side/(ridge) of the canyon into get to Bear Canyon.
AZTC gives a better description of exiting to a car at the Seven Cataracts Vista and a good description of exiting up Bear Canyon.