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Brown Canyon
Huachuca Mountains
Vincent Festa
physical Geology
Spring 2008

Brown Canyon-Huachuca Mountains, Arizona


Brown Canyon is located in the Huachuca Mountains in Southeastern Arizona, approximately 8 miles south of Sierra Vista. The Huachucas are located in what geologists refer to as the Basin and Range Province. The Huachuca Mountains are a complex mix of Precambrian granites, and younger quartzites, sandstones, limestones, shales, conglomerates and volcanic rocks. The entire range has been subjected to folding, faulting and deformation. Brown Canyon contains examples of many of these rock types and evidence of these tectonic forces. This student presentation is part of Dr. Roger Weller’s Virtual Geology Museum web site. You can find additional information and photos of the rocks and minerals mentioned in this presentation on Dr. Weller’s site.       

The canyon is popular with hikers, mountain bikers and horseback riders. The elevation at the beginning of the trail up the canyon is approximately 5100 feet and the trail climbs to about 6300 feet over the next 3.4 miles. There is shade along much of the trail. Motor vehicles are prohibited.

Access to Brown Canyon is generally made from Ramsey Canyon Road. (It is possible to enter Brown Canyon from the west by hiking up and through Ramsey Canyon. However you must go through the Ramsey Canyon Preserve to access Ramsey Canyon from this route. You can also hike in on Brown Canyon Road although the road has signs declaring it a “Private Road.”) Take State Route 92 south to Ramsey Canyon Road. Go west on Ramsey Canyon Road for 2.1 miles. There is a “gate” on the north side of the road and a parking area inside the opening. It is possible to drive closer to the canyon if you have a four wheel drive or high clearance vehicle. Trail access to Brown Canyon is located about .8 miles from the parking area. Follow the road from the parking area north and west toward the ridgeline. The road reaches the ridge and goes west up the ridge for a short distance. The path into the canyon is marked with signs. Photo 1.

photo 1

The path joins what was apparently an old road on the canyon floor. There is a normally dry wash cutting the canyon bottom which is lined with sycamores. Follow the trail to the left, up the canyon. In about .5 miles the trail goes through an opening in a fence line. On the right rocks rise sharply toward a ridge which runs north. If you get off the trail at this point and walk up the hill, you will see that some of the rocks have been bend and twisted. These appear to be sedimentary rocks that has been changed or metamorphosed. Sedimentary rocks are normally created deep within the earth under the pressure of overlying layers of material and heat from inside the earth. The process is called lithification. The sedimentary rock was then metamorphosed probably as the result of intense directed pressure on the rock.  Photo  2. Under such pressures the rock becomes plastic and actually bends and twists.


As you continue up the canyon about 100 yards, the trail divides at a small wash. The Brown Canyon Trail goes to the left according to Taylor, Hiker’s Guide to the Huachuca Mountains. However both trails rejoin each other in less than a mile and the path to the right is much more interesting because it gives you a closer view of the ridge. After the path crosses a small wash, you come to a small stock tank. The ridge is visible all along the path. As you look toward the top of the ridge, you see several white outcroppings of rock along the ridgeline protruding at about a 45 degree angle. Photo  3. It is well worth the climb to get a closer look at these formations. There is no path to the ridge so you must “bushwhack” up the hill. Exercise extreme caution because, in addition to the normal dangers associated with climbing, the Huachucas are home to several varieties of rattlesnakes.

photo 3

These rocks are a metaconglomerate, formed by extreme metamorphic activity.   Tectonic forces exerted shearing pressure on the existing, or parent, rock which crushed, reformulated and flattened the rock.  Photos  4 through 10.

photo 4

photo 5

photo 6

photo 7

photo 8

photo 9

photo 10

            A simple illustration of this process can be seen by taking a rolling pin and crushing Oreo cookies onto a flat surface.  The rolling pin exerts shearing pressure, crushes the cookies into finer pieces, combines them together and flattens the recombined cookies parallel to the direction of the applied pressure.  These rocks were primarily limestones which were metamorphosed into marble. The metaconclomerate also contains large pieces of chert which appear to have been crushed by the same pressures. Photos 11 and 12. 

photo 11

photo 12

 Phyllites, an intermediate metamorphic rock, which were also subjected to shearing pressure, are also found on the ridge.  Photo 13.  As you head back down to the trail, again be extremely cautious. Gravity often makes the descent more hazardous than the climb.

photo 13

When you return to the canyon floor, continue on the trail. You will come to a short, steep incline. In this area of the trail you see some of the Precambrian granite exposed.  Photo 14.

photo 14

 This granite has been subject to chemical and physical weathering for hundreds of millions of years. Although not as spectacular as some geologic events such as earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, weathering and erosion are among the principles forces that shape our physical environment.  Along the trail on the left, you can see examples of how the weathering process works. Photo 15 shows jointing in the granite.

photo 15

Granite is an igneous rock which forms under ground. As overlying pressure is removed either by the removal of the overlying rock or by the granite being thrust to the surface by tectonic forces, the granite breaks along joints. This process increases the surface area of the granite and, therefore, exposes more of the granite to weathering processes. Weathering wears off the sharper surfaces such as corners first, eventually leaving rounded boulders. Photo16. This process is known as ‘spheroidal weathering.”

photo 16

 Further along the trail are more examples of weathered granite. You can easily crumble this granite with you bare hands. The large 1-2 inch crystals in the granite or which have weathered out are called phenocrysts. These phenocrysts are made up of feldspar and feldspars are the most common mineral group in the earth’s crust.  Photo 17.

 Photo 17.

There is other exposed granite as you continue on the trail. Photo 18.

photo 18

The two trails join at the ruins of a house. The trail continues along the north side of the canyon on the remnants of the road. A little more than 2 miles into the hike, there is large, milky white rock which intrudes on the trail. This rock is composed of quartz, the most abundant mineral in the earth’s crust. Quartz occurs in numerous forms. This is massive quartz but quartz also has a crystalline and cryptocrystalline form. Amethyst and citrine are examples of crystalline quartz while agate, flint, chert and jasper are among the cryptocrystalline forms of quartz. Quartz is a constituent mineral of other rocks, including granite, is very hard and resists weathering. This quartz was probably introduced into cracks in the existing rock as an aqueous solution. That rock has weathered and eroded away, leaving the hard, more resistant quartz exposed.

As you continue on the old road you pass the Pomona Mine trail on your right. The Pomona Mine produced scheelite, an ore of tungsten. (There is a student paper on mines in the Huachuca Mountains.) In about .4 miles, you reach a concrete trough which usually contains water. The water is not fit to drink. Brown Canyon Road comes in from the left. (You can take this road to Ramsey Canyon Road and walk down to the parking area if you don’t want to go further up the canyon or return through Brown Canyon.)

The trail now enters the Miller Peak Wilderness Area and becomes more steep and narrow. This is a beautiful riparian area with hardwood trees. There is another example of jointing in granite shortly after entering the wilderness area. Photo 19. This granite has smaller crystals, no phenocrysts, and has not weathered as much as the granite in other parts of the canyon. Smaller crystals in granite usually mean the granite cooled more quickly which does not allow for the formation of larger crystals.

photo 19

The trail takes a 90 degree turn and passes in front of a rock-walled cistern. If you go up the creek bed for about 200 feet, you will come to the Brown Canyon Box. This requires some rock scrambling.  There is a circular pool carved out by water tumbling over an 18 foot drop from a small gorge above. The rocks above the right side of the gorge have been deformed by tectonic forces into an “s” shape. You can view the gorge and the rocks if you continue past the cistern and go up a series of switchbacks. At the top of the switchbacks you have a magnificent view of lower Brown Canyon and the San Pedro Valley. You can also see the rocks as you look across the gorge. Photos 20 and 21.

photo 20

photo 21

 In the gorge you can see a tree growing between layers of the rock, Photo 22, and a second tree, Photo 23, growing within pieces of rock. These are examples of mechanical weathering. The trees are loosening or breaking the rock as they grow larger. The rock on the far side of the gorge was probably twisted into this shape as a result of thrust faulting or folding. The constituent rock appears to be a siltstone or quartzite, both metamorphic rocks. The rocks end abruptly at the box. At some time in the distant past, this unit of rock likely extended further eastward.

photo 22

photo 23

Weathering has broken down and erosion has transported this rock. It is now down the canyon and out in the valley in front of you. Photo 24.

photo 24

The trail continues along the stream bed and then climbs to a ridge which divides Brown and Ramsey Canyon. You pass through the remains of a gate and begin dropping into Ramsey Canyon.  You have several options at this point. To stay in Brown Canyon you must retrace your steps. You can hike out on the Brown Canyon Road to Ramsey Canyon Road at the trough or continue down the canyon. Remember at the ruins you can take the trail on the right for some different views on the return trip. You may also continue into Ramsey Canyon. This route will give you several options including the west end of Ramsey Canyon Road. The get to Ramsey Canyon  Road you will need to go through the Ramsey Canyon Nature Preserve. It is approximately 1.5 miles to the Preserve and another 1.7 miles down Ramsey Canyon Road to the parking area.

A hike in Brown Canyon is well worth the time and effort. The scenery in the canyon is beautiful and contains many interesting geological features.  The hike is only moderately difficult and most of the trail is shaded. Don’t be satisfied to sit in front of your computer and take a “virtual” hike—go hike the canyon!



Taylor,  Hiker’s Guide to the Huachuca Mountains, 1991.


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