James Canyon is one of many secluded retreats that carve through Northern Arizona's ponderosa forests. Once down in the canyon, you will be walking through a surprisingly verdant oasis of oak, elm, boxelder, cane grass, horsetail, and wild iris that grow between craggy canyon walls forested in pines, firs, and aspens. This ecological microcosm is a pleasant retreat during the heat of summer, featuring permanent pools and plentiful shade.
James is a technical canyon descent, as it contains two rappels that are not easily bypassed. These are short and simple, however, and the canyon is never completely boxed in without an escape route. For these reasons it is considered a relatively easy canyon that is suitable for beginners. It does contain mandatory pool crossings, some of which require swimming, but they are not long, nor are they especially cold during the dry season. Be prepared for stagnant water and lots of wood in the pools, however. Water flows through this canyon during winter snowmelt and spring rains, but by the time temperatures climb in summer, the leftover water and debris has been sitting for multiple weeks.
The scenery down here makes the few smelly pools more than worth enduring, however. The numerous sandstone slots and other rock formations within this canyon are witnessed by very few eyes, so you will likely have the canyon to yourself on any given day.
Because this is a technical canyon, you will need a harness, rope, rappelling gear, and the skills to use it all safely. Webbing anchors have been left above both rappells, but these should always be inspected and replaced/moved if necessary. A rope of at least 100 feet in length is recommended, as the longest rappell is about 40 feet.
There are a few options for James Canyon logistics. A dirt road parallels the canyon above the rim to the north (right side if looking downstream) and can be accessed by bushwhacking any available route out of the canyon. This is useful in case of emergency, because following the road east will take you back to your car and the interstate.
If you'd like to comple the canyon without a shuttle, the recommended method is to turn upstream (right) once you hit the junction with Pumphouse Wash and follow it until you reach the junction with Kelly Canyon, then hike this up, finishing a bit north of where you parked for James. When Kelly Canyon forks, be sure to follow the main canyon (to the right if traveling upstream) rather than taking Kelly Pocket to the north. This option cuts out a lot of driving but adds some hiking as compared to the car shuttle option. While it adds one scenic basalt pool (a waterfall during the wet season) and the verdant tranquility of Kelly Canyon, this route avoids the remaining sculpted sandstone awaiting downstream in Pumphouse Wash.
To explore this natural wonderland of rock art, leave one car near the bridge below the switchbacks on Highway 89A. Then drive back up 89A for about 10 miles and get on I-17 S to start the canyon at Exit 333. Shuttle time is less than 30 minutes one way.