The Road Trip Plan
Road trip theme: Copper Canyon, Mexico!
A friend of mine mentioned wanting to visit Mexico’s Copper Canyon. I’d heard about this place ever since I was a kid, though I didn’t know much about it. Looking at a few pictures convinced me – YES! Let’s go!
(It’s so hard to convince me to take a road trip!) 😉
We’d traveled together before, including a little while in Baja, so I knew she wasn’t somebody who would be scared off by a bad road or a Mexican checkpoint.
When to do a Copper Canyon road trip?
If you want to see both the top and bottom of the canyon, then spring and fall are your best times. There’s a 6,000 foot elevation difference, which means big temperature variations. In the summer, the bottom is unbearable, while in the winter, you could see snow at the top. In October, I was wearing a fleece at the top, and shorts at the bottom.
Aside from visiting the Copper Canyon, Paquime, and Mata Ortiz (spots we knew we wanted to see), there wasn’t much of a plan. We were just going to play it by ear, and go wherever we wanted each day.
The Road Trip Reality
The Copper Canyon Caper
- 14 days (for me, less for friends)
- 2 US states (Arizona, New Mexico)
1 Mexican state (Chihuahua)
- 1,299 miles
- Average 93 miles/day
- NOTE: Side trips by bus and train, too, not counted in the mileage
- Side trips without Zennie. Usually, Zennie and I are a team, and we travel around together. On this trip, I ended up leaving her parked in Creel for a few days while I went off by bus (to Batopilas at the bottom of the canyon), and by train (the famous El Chepe train down to El Fuerte and back). I’m not used to this multi-modal travel anymore, and it was delightful!
- Road conditions. I wrote a bit about roads in Mexico before, on my Sonora Sojourn road trip. Let’s just say they can vary widely, and it’s hard to know beforehand what to expect. For this trip, we stuck to all paved roads, and here’s what I found:
- 50% = Good roads. Mostly smooth, wide with shoulders, and Zennie could do her top speed (55 mph on the flats). We had just one short section of toll road.
- 45% = Moderate. Narrow, with potholes, rough patches, and topes (the serious Mexican speed bumps). These roads are slower and take more concentration to avoid hazards.
- 5% = Horrible. On these sections, you can’t dodge the bumps and potholes, because they’re everywhere. All you can do is go super slow (10 mph in places), and live with the bumps.
All in all, it wasn’t hard driving, Zennie handled it all OK, and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.
- Group travel? A third person joined us for the trip, so there were 3 of us traveling in 2 vehicles at first. Having friends along can be really fun, when you’re sitting around over drinks in the evening. It can also be pretty stressful, like when our group got separated on the road. I was worried sick!
After a week, the two of them had to head back to Tucson, leaving me back in my normal solo exploring mode for the rest of the road trip. I was sad that they didn’t have a chance to do all the fun stuff I got to do. On the other hand, to be totally honest, I do find it a whole lot easier traveling by myself!
- I’ve included the legs here that were done by bus and train, as well as the driving segments.
- I didn’t include the fact that one person went all the way to the city of Chihuahua when she got separated from the group! Thank heavens she made it to Creel and met us there, because I was really concerned, and had no way to contact her or know where she was. 🙁
Planning a Mexico road trip?
Be aware that driving times are going to be longer than you might expect. It’s also more mentally demanding than zipping along on the Interstate, so I really prefer shorter driving days.
Copper Canyon Road Trip – The Route
A couple of notes on the route map:
Moral of the story?
* Don’t pass the vehicle you’re supposed to be following.
* A cell phone that works in the country where you’re traveling is a safety precaution, not a luxury.
* Before I caravan with anyone again, I will make sure we’re agreed on these two points!
Copper Canyon Road Trip – Top 3 Highlights
- Copper Canyon, Barrancas del Cobre. What can I say? This was the purpose of the trip, and I was not disappointed! It’s an amazing place! 🙂
There are actually 5 canyons here, 4 of which are deeper than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. They all come together in this area, which means there’s a huge expanse of steep, twisted canyons and cliffs. It’s incredibly scenic, and more than you can really take in, when you stand on the rim looking at it. It seems to go on forever.
Of course there are spectacular hiking options, and a lot of spots with cultural and historic interest, too. The canyons were big for silver mining centuries ago, and you’ll see relics from that period. Also, these forbidding canyons are the homeland of the Tarahumara people, known for their amazing running ability.
Copper Canyon in green? I was surprised by how green everything was here! I’d expected more brown, like the Grand Canyon. It’s due to the season. If you come here between late Sept and early Nov, you’ll probably see a lot of green since this is just after the rainy season. The first frost is usually around mid-Nov, and the green at the canyon top disappears after that.
- Paquime archaeological site. I’ve been wanting to go to Paquime ever since I read the fascinating book House of Rain by Craig Childs.
This is a World Heritage Site, and a major archaeological center, uncovering the ruins of an ancient city. Centuries ago, Paquime was the largest settlement in the region, and a trading center for goods from distant places. People here built multi-story buildings, and had a sophisticated irrigation system that brought water from high in the surrounding mountains, and ran it directly into buildings in town.
House of Rain ties Paquime into the story of the Anasazi, and the author traces their journey over centuries. His theory is that Paquime was the end of their story. Other theories are that this is where the Aztec people came from, or that the people here were ancestors of the Tarahumaras.
Nobody knows the whole truth, and perhaps we never will. All I can say is that it’s fascinating!
- El Chepe, The Copper Canyon train. When people talk about touring the Copper Canyon, they are often talking about taking this famous train. It’s an engineering marvel, with 86 tunnels and 39 bridges, and it passes through some beautiful scenery as it climbs from the coast to the mountains.
The train runs all the way from Los Mochis to Chihuahua, but the spectacular portion of the trip is between El Fuerte at the bottom, and Creel at the top. That stretch took about 7.5 hours, and the schedule is such that you can’t take it back and forth on the same day — you need to spend at least one night.
I nearly didn’t take the train trip, but changed my mind and spent the extra couple of days doing this. I’m certainly glad I did, because it was a highlight of the trip! 🙂
Copper Canyon Road Trip – Top Lowlight
Car trouble! Zennie started dying on me!
Fortunately, the problem turned out to be about the only thing I could fix by myself on the side of the road! 😉
The engine first died in the parking lot at Paquime. If you’re going to break down, this is a great location! A little investigation showed that the battery wires had come disconnected, because the battery slid out of position.
So, I hauled the battery back into position, secured the strap holding it in place, and reconnected the wires, tightening everything down as securely as I could. I figured this was a one-time problem, and we were good to go.
—> You can guess what happened, right? 😉
Driving up the steep, narrow, twisting mountain road toward Creel, I noticed Zennie acting funny. It was like the engine skipped a beat now and then, and it was making me worried!
As soon as I could find a place to safely pull off the road, I did. Sure enough, the battery was out of position again, and this time had broken off the wires I’d secured so tightly. There was just one teeny bit of copper still making a connection. But I knew how to fix this, so soon we were back on the road.
For the rest of the trip, I’d stop every hour or two (depending on road conditions), check the battery, and shift / tighten things as necessary. It was an annoyance, for sure, but I made it the rest of the trip without a problem.
Copper Canyon Road Trip – Key Places
- Nuevo Casas Grandes. This is where we spent the first night in Mexico. The town’s main attraction for tourists is that it’s close to the Paquime ruins, and the famous pottery town of Mata Ortiz. Another plus? There’s a good restaurant here that lets you free camp in their secure yard if you buy dinner.
- Creel. This is the main town at the top of the Copper Canyon, and it’s a good place to base yourself for some exploring. There’s an RV park, plenty of hotel choices, lots of restaurants, and tour operators everywhere. You can get tours to waterfalls, Tarahumara villages, and even see cave dwellings that are still in use. Creel is one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos (magic towns), and I’m hoping to visit as many of these as I can!
- Batopilas. From Creel, there’s a winding road (now paved) that takes you down to Batopilas, one of the tiny towns at the bottom of the canyon. This was a wealthy town back in silver mining days, and you’ll see historic buildings from those days. You can do some hiking here, and it’s also another of the Pueblos Magicos. It was balmy and tropical down here, while up in Creel, the leaves were changing.
- El Fuerte. The train doesn’t take you down into the bottom of the canyon. Instead, it descends towards the coast. You lose a lot of altitude going down, but end up in the flatlands, not the canyon. El Fuerte is the town at the lower end of the scenic train ride, and it’s another of the Pueblos Magicos. It’s an attractive town, with a pretty town square.
- Areponapuchi. Creel is not on the canyon rim, so it doesn’t provide those exceptional views into the depths. For those, the tiny town of Areponapuchi (Arepo for short) is perfect. I got off the train here to do some hiking and spend the night. There’s a nice hike along the rim, and it’s just one jaw-dropping view after another! From here, I caught a bus back to Creel, where Zennie was patiently waiting.
Cartel activity. Some of the remote canyon areas are being used for growing marijuana or opium poppies. If you wandered into one of these sections, you could be in trouble. Either stick to well-used tourist trails, or hire a local hiking guide who knows where to go and not go. I wouldn’t let the current situation scare me off, but it makes sense to play it safe, and not venture off on your own.
PHOTO CREDITS: Deanna Keahey