The People's Guide To Mexico

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

Driving to the Copper Canyon from Arizona

published: September 2001

Dear Carl & Lorena

We are a church hiking club from Phoenix, AZ interested in exploring the Copper Canyon. We were told that the Canyon was in the vicinity of Puerto Penasco, but none of your articles mention driving from Arizona. Is this possible? Could we cross the border at Puerto Penasco for the shortest route, rather than at Nogales? This is my first question. I am still deeply engrossed in reading your website. It is wonderful!

Nanneygoat (Susan Dunnivant)

Routes into the Copper Canyon

Carl replies:

Susan, Mexico's Copper Canyon is basically east of Los Mochis and west of Chihuahua City, in the heart of the Sierra Madre and Sierra Tarahumara. To get there from Arizona, it is probably more direct for you to drive via Douglas or Nogales, rather than via Puerto Penasco (which is on Mexico's Sea of Cortez, above Guaymas). We call this route the "backdoor" into the Sierra Madre -- a beautiful drive, too.

There are at least 4 main routes from the U.S. into the Copper Canyon.

1) You can drive or bus from the U.S. border to Los Mochis and take the train from there into the heart of the Sierra Madre, passing through the area popularly known as the Copper Canyon. Rather than stopping in Los Mochis, however, my personal choice would be to continue on east for another hour, to El Fuerte. El Fuerte is much more attractive than Mochis and is also a more convenient place to board the train.

2) Cross the border at Nogales and drive down toward Hermosillo, then head east on Mexico 16 to Basaseachic, (the highest waterfall in Mexico), and from there to Creel. This is a very interesting drive on good paved roads with light traffic. From Hermosillo east, the highway winds here-and-there and progress can be relatively slow.

At Basaseachic our good friend Fernando Dominguez has a large eco-ranch with excellent cabins, hiking and guides. Cathy Waterman works with Fernando, and also assists Carl on some of his group hikes. Friends who visit Fernando's ranch are very happy with their adventures there.

"San Lorenzo" -- Fernando's ranch -- is very close to two of the major canyons (Oteros and Candamena) that make up the group of canyons now commonly known as the Copper Canyon. In fact, I have been exploring this region lately and I’m very excited about it. I helped lead a horse trip there earlier this year and will be guiding a couple of burro-supported hikes in the Oteros next spring.

For more specific information on Rancho San Lorenzo, we suggest that you contact Fernando directly. He speaks good English and checks his email fairly often.

3) Cross into Mexico from Douglas, Arizona and drive from there to Nuevo Casas Grandes. You then have a choice: continue eastward and join the 4 lane highway from El Paso to Chihuahua City at El Sueco, or take “the road less travelled” south from Nuevo Casas Grandes to Gomez Farias and Matachic, winding your way through beautiful rangelands and forest, eventually reaching an intersection to Creel (south) or Basaseachic (west). I love this route but you’ll need a better than average road map and a certain amount of patience.

4) Cross the border at El Paso/Ciudad Juarez and drive directly to Chihuahua City, and from there to Ciudad Cuauhtemoc and Creel, or Basaseachic
. This might be called the “no brainer” route, as it follows major highways, including quite a bit of 4 lane tollway. This is also the longer route, and scenically, the least exciting. But, easy is sometimes better, especially for first-time visitors.

Here’s an excellent but difficult to describe variation: take the tollway south from Ciudad Juarez to a point about an hour north of Chihuahua City. A narrow two lane paved highway goes westward, crossing a small range of mountains before descending again into the Mennonite “campos”, and from there into Ciudad Cuauhtemoc. This is an excellent shortcut, but unfortunately it appears on very few maps. I have more detailed info on how to spot this highway, but until I have time to dig through my huge pile of Copper Canyon notes....

5) Finally, a fifth, very rugged overland route is possible by four-wheel drive vehicle from Los Mochis to Creel,.

Once I’ve scouted it myself, I’ll also describe another, recently completed trans-sierra route that is said to connect Basaseachic with Alamos, Sonora. But... don't try to drive to Creel from Los Mochis or Alamos unless you're into serious adventure and have a very dependable four wheel drive vehicle.

Susan again:

Thank you for your info regarding entering Mexico from Arizona. But I warned you that I would have more questions, so here goes.........................

1) If our hiking group of 14 or so travels from Arizona, entering Mexico at Nogales and traveling to Los Mochis, where do we go from there?

2) How long would it take us to travel from Nogales to Los Mochis on the toll road and at what cost? Would this stretch take more than 1 day?

3) ) Also, is it possible to drive the entire trip to Creel and beyond? Is it necessary to take the train and the busses? Would we be better off driving 2 vans or using the public transportation?

4) Where would we leave our vehicles if we drove to Los Mochis and then continued on to Creel by train?

5) It now appears that the Copper Canyon hiking is between Creel and Batopilas; however, I cannot find these two places on the map.

6) What sort of local, unguided, hiking is at Batopilas and Creel? Would we get enough to "wet our appetites" for a return trip and trekking for those of us who may be more adventurous?

7) Where would you suggest staying to sleep for the night? We would be traveling with light gear (no suitcases; only backpacks, probably.)

8) Our tentative plan is to take 1 day to travel into Mexico, spend 2 or 3 days exploring and hiking and 1 day back to the border. Is this a logical plan? This trip is to "get our feet wet," but we want to see and do enough to make it worth the trip.

Thank you so much for this wonderful website. I await your next response.

Lorena replies:

Carl is traveling for the next two weeks, so he will get back to you after he returns. In the meantime....

1) From Los Mochis, you can catch the daily train into the Copper Canyon, probably getting off at Creel, especially if you only have a few days to spend there.

However, another excellent place to detrain and explore a small portion of the canyons is at Areponapuchic. Carl always stays at the inexpensive Cabanas Areponapuchic, owned by Lupe Mancinas and her husband Guillermo. They also arrange guides for day trips and horse back riding.

2) The highway from Nogales to Los Mochis is a fairly good (depending on how recently it was repaired) divided tollway. We usually average around 50 miles per hour, or even better if the highway is freshly patched. So check the mileage on your map and figure your own time.

Since we always seem to have last-minute shopping and errands in Tucson, it's often noon before we cross the border. After crossing the border we usually spend our first night in Mexico camping at San Carlos Bay and arrive in Los Mochis the following day.

I can’t recall the total cost of the tolls, but they are quite reasonable on this stretch. I'd guess $30 to $40 U.S. There is a Mexican government website that lists all highway tolls. The site is in Spanish but is easily puzzled out: SCT Tolls page, hiways & bridges,
(For help figuring out this site see Mexico’s Toll Highways on our site.)

In Los Mochis (and El Fuerte), the Copper Canyon train leaves very early every morning for Creel and Chihuahua City. This is an all day trip.

3) As for your question of whether it is best to drive your own vehicle to Mexico or to travel here by bus or train: the answer depends on the time you have available, and the route you choose. The main roads are surprisingly good, but the choice depends so much on what you plan to do, where you want to go, and how much time you have, that I’ll have to beg off on making a specific suggestion.

4) As for where you'll be able to leave a vehicle in Mochis, I don't know offhand but I'll ask Carl to find out before you leave. Our personal choice, however, would be to drive on to El Fuerte, and leave the vehicle there. “El Fuerte” is a new, small RV park just on the edge of town, where I'm sure you could make arrangements. (email owner Bill Trimble at <> )

5) I'm (almost) surprised that Creel isn't on your map. It's about 3/5 of the way from Los Mochis to Chihuahua, near the end of the "old" highway. (A newer highway called the Gran Vision is not shown on all maps. This highway goes south of Creel and connects back to Parral.)

Batopilas is not on all road maps, but the town is at the bottom of the Batopilas Canyon, about 6 very slow hours from Creel. This road is one of the most spectacular in Mexico, not for Sunday drivers or the faint of heart. There is one bus that runs a-few-times-a-week from Creel to Batopilas. The bus usually goes down to Batopilas one day and back up to Creel the next. Weather and rockfalls can affect the schedule. You can also hire a van and driver in Creel to take you down.

Although the area around Creel and Batopilas is probably the best known to hikers, it is really just a small part of what is available in this fabulous complex of canyons. As mentioned above, Carl has been focusing on the Oteros and Urique Canyons lately.

6) As for hiking: Carl strongly suggests that you have a local guide for all but the shortest day hikes. The trails are very confusing, and go everywhere and nowhere. It is extremely easy to get lost. However, you can find guides for day hikes or longer in Creel. Carl will probably have some suggestions when he returns.

7) Where to Stay: In Los Mochis, we used to stay at the hotel Lorena -- for obvious reasons -- but it is badly rundown now, and up for sale. As mentioned earlier, our first choice is to catch the train from El Fuerte, where you'll find several hotels in a wide range of prices. In Creel, Margarita's guesthouse is the "in spot" for international budget travelers and backpackers. You'll meet some interesting people and probably get suggestions for guides.

8) However, I don't think you'll have a chance to see much of the canyons if you only have 4-5 days. Even moving fast, it's a full day’s travel to Los Mochis, and another full day from there by train to Creel or Areponapuchic.

How far are you from El Paso/Juarez? If you get a very early morning start out of Juarez, it's about 4-5 hours to Chihuahua City on a four-lane tollway. But... as Carl mentioned above... if you're driving to Creel, you can cut over to Ciudad Cuauhtemoc about an hour north of Chihuahua, and save a lot of driving. From Ciudad Cuauhtemoc to Creel is another 3-4 hours on good highways. This same route can also be done on the bus, though for a large group, driving would probably be cheaper.

You can certainly arrange day hikes or a bicycle tour around Creel after you arrive.

But, even going this way, you will be really pushing yourselves. You certainly won't have time to see much. Can't you add on a few more days?

¡Que le vaya bien!

Susan replied with even more questions for Carl:

When would you suggest making this trip? It would not be until next year.

I think we could probably stay longer, possibly taking 2 days in and 2 days out and 3-4 days at the canyon hiking and exploring. That sounds more feasible. The ranch sounds like a nice option, however, and would be great for a shorter trip. I will get the info from your friend, Fernando, and bring it up to our group with all the other info I am getting.

I think it is wonderful that you are answering my email. I never expected to get this much information.

Thanks again.

Carl again:

My favorite time in the canyons is from autumn to spring, especially mid-Oct through mid-December, and later, in late winter and early spring (before Easter). Temperatures are moderate, though cold snaps can and do occur. More importantly, the heat in the canyon bottoms isn't bad at this time of year. There is a chance of rain (and snow in the highlands), but I prefer to deal with cooler temperatures rather than sweltering.

I don't believe we mentioned that in addition to large comfortable cabins, Fernando also has a very nice campground, which is very close to the remarkable Basaseachic waterfall. Autumn is a good season to see the falls, as they tend to diminish and even dry up by late spring.

We’re glad that you find this information useful. In fact, we’ve been wanting to share some of the information that is accumulating in our notebooks about the canyons and Sierra Madre. The canyons and Sierra Madre are very special places. To be honest, if you’d asked us for such detail about Cancun or some other popular tourist spot, we would have suggested that you consult one of the usual guidebooks!

©1972-2002 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens