Big Kahuna Canyon


Mileage: 5.6
Elevation gain: 1709 feet
Time to complete: 5-7 hours
Stars: ★★★★½
Difficulty: 3/5 (Ratings explained)
Steep trail, slippery, water obstacles

Big Kahuna Canyon is an unexpected beauty in the Mazatzal Wilderness. It begins at the Barnhardt Waterfall and follows the drainage down a series of moss-covered waterfalls, blue-green pools, and beautifully sculpted features. At times, it’s hard to believe you’re in Arizona.

🪢 This is a technical canyon with 3-5 rappels up to 140 feet. You will need one 200-foot rope, a 200-foot pull cord, plus all the required safety equipment for rappelling and knowledge how to use it. If you bypass the first rappel, the tallest rappel is only 65 feet, so you can opt for a 100-foot rope and pull cord. This guide is not intended to provide instruction on how to descend a technical canyon safely.

Trail Description

I don’t know what took me so long to do this canyon except that I had no idea how beautiful it is. And it kind of has a goofy name, but now it completely makes sense because there were times you could have led me to believe I was in Hawaii, had the water not been so cold. Big Kahuna Canyon in May was simply spectacular. Because it was warm out and the water wasn’t more than waist deep, we were fine without wetsuits, but during colder times, you might want one.

Barnhardt Trail

This trail follows the Barnhardt Trail to the Barnhardt Waterfall, so you can read that trail description for more details, but I’ll copy the gist of it here.

The trail is easy to follow and a very moderate grade as it begins making its way up the canyon. Sections of dense vegetation will soon give way to cliffs dropping off to your right and thrilling vistas of the canyon ahead, the valley behind you, and the tree-filled creek below.

Hopefully you can hear the water at some point to let you know those falls are flowing!

Switchbacks will take you up higher on the side of the canyon until finally you start going up canyon again over a few small drainages.

Barnhardt Waterfall

The waterfall itself isn’t visible from the trail, so be on the lookout for water flowing into some pretty pools and the sound of gushing water to your left. You’ll know it when you get there. Follow the water, hugging the left side as you go. And then. . .

Barnhardt Waterfall

We came late in the snowmelt season, so it wasn’t gushing anymore, but sometimes it does.

Rappel 1 (Optional)

Surprise, the waterfall is rappel 1, but you’re at the bottom of it! If you are a completionist and want to start at the first rappel, you’ll have to go back out to the trail, turn left, hike up a little way, and then bushwhack your way up a steep hill to the start.

We were short on time because we planned to backpack the Barnhardt Y Bar Loop later, so we opted to skip it. Also, that bushwhacking sounded kind of horrible. If you do it, please comment and let us know how it went!

Note This option will add mileage and elevation to our totals.

If you’re too soft for the steep bushwhacking or just like taking the easy bus, all you have to do is follow the water downhill. It starts with a long section of boulder hopping, creek crossing, branch moving, foot slipping fun. If you’re like us, you’ll be doing everything you can to avoid the water until the last minute. We just send Heather ahead to swim through the deep pool with her water wings and then make her catch us when we slide down the steep canyon wall.

Avoiding a pool in Big Kahuna Canyon
Nope, wasn’t kidding

I hope I didn’t make it sound horrible because despite the challenging terrain, this area was absolutely gorgeous! So many little cascades and pretty pools, and let’s face it, scrambling down a scenic canyon is pretty fun.

Small waterfall in Big Kahuna Canyon

We had to do a little fancy footwork to get around this waterfall. Hug canyon left, find good pockets for your hands to hold, and carefully step across. Watch out for that wicked agave!

Or, if you’re on the easy bus anyway, you could set up a meat anchor (or “meat hook” as our friend called it), and go ahead and get wet.

Rappel 2 in Big Kahuna Canyon Mazatzal Wilderness

Rappel 2

Anchor Rock pinch LDC “in the hole”
Length 45 feet

Even with just a little flow, this waterfall is a delicate picture of beauty. Try to avoid destroying the moss as much as possible.

Rappel 3

Anchor Tree in the watercourse
Length 65 feet

This rappel has a couple of tiers, which makes it hard to capture in one picture. It appears people have avoided the waist to chest deep pool at the bottom of the second tier by scrambling around LDC and doing another short rappel. This looked appealing, but I followed the crowd and went in the water. It wasn’t bad.

Rappel 3 in Big Kahuna Canyon Mazatzal Wilderness

The waterfall splits in two at the second tier, and half of it goes left and then drops into the pool from the side. It’s the most tranquil, idyllic scene in the canyon, and you’ll be tempted to try to get a picture of yourself atop that insanely slippery log in the pool.

Which will be pure entertainment for your friends.

Very slippery log in Big Kahuna Canyon
Not a good spot for a photo op
Bonus rappel in Big Kahuna Canyon

Bonus rappel

Anchor Boulder LDC
Length 15 feet

The beta we had didn’t show a rappel here, but clearly people had done it before us, and it made a good photo op, so why not?

Rappel 4

Anchor Tree RDC
Length 50 feet

There’s a chockstone at the top of this rappel, which can make it a little tricky to get on rope. My strategy was to lean my back against the rock wall on the right and then put counter pressure on the rock across from it. Then we kept left in a slight crack on the left side to avoid being directly in the waterfall.

Rappel 4 in Big Kahuna Canyon Mazatzal Wilderness

Rappel 5 (Optional)

Anchor Rock pinch LDC
Length 25 feet

Or so we’ve heard. Apparently, we bypassed this one on the right by going through some brush. Oops. Wow, we really phoned it in that day.

Beyond this, it’s just a little bit more creek hopping before you get to a trail on the right side of the canyon that leads you back up to the Barnhardt Trail.

Map & Directions

Location Mazatzal Wilderness, Payson, Arizona

Google Maps Barnhardt Trail

Fees/Passes None

Trailhead Facilities None

Download KML or GPX

Preview this Hike

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Disclaimer Outdoor activities have inherent risk, and we will not be able to tell you all the risks you may face. You are responsible for your own safety, so prepare as well as you can and know your limits. Follow this guide at your own risk. And have fun!

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