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West Fork Day Hike
October 12, 2019
by Lin Chao
  Trail Map 
Ready to go at West Fork Trailhead. [photo by Li]
Michael, Connie, Carl, Carol, Li, Lin, Tom

West Fork Trail is touted to be one of the best trails in Arizona and one of the top ten trails in United States. We have hiked this trail many times before, but this time was different and absolutely the most fun, challenging, and the COLDEST experience ever.

The drive to the West Fork Trailhead was very smooth, even the always busy up-town of Sedona was quiet and empty. Ha-ha, it is good to be early before the tourists show up.

Li is set up to take a group picture. [photo by Tom]
No, we are not tourists, we are outdoor lovers. Finding the West Fork parking lot is always trickery—you are driving on the beautiful scenery road of Oat Creek Canyon (Highway 89A), you enjoy the view, see many of resorts on the side of the creek, here is Slide Rock State park and there is Butterfly Cabin resort… Oooops, if you are not paying attention, you just miss the left turn and you are on your way to Flagstaff. Ha-Ha, some of us did that before. Carl was driving, and he kept saying “Guys, I am just a driver, you need to let me know where to make a turn.”

“No problem”, Tom, Li and I answered, “we will help you to find the parking lot.” I kept my eyes on my phone (Google map), Tom and Li were on high alert constantly keep eye on the road signs.

“Here! Here! Make a left turn,” one of us screamed.

“OK, I got it.” Carl said.

We did sharp left turn between mileposts 385 and 384 and we were on entrance of West Fork parking lot. I looked at my watch, 7:59 AM. WOW, we were one minute before the gate opened. AWESOME. Wait, Wait a minute. Why the parking lot was almost FULL.

I looked the sign on the wall of the station: Open 8:00 AM. Ok, their 8 AM was different from my 8 AM. As we approached to the gate, I also noticed, the day use fee per vehicle was $11. It was $10 last year, inflation, guys.

Brrrr, it’s Cold!  Carl had a hat on, but Tom and Carol are still wearing shorts. [photo by Lin]

We quickly found our parking spot and rushed to use the bathroom, but Carol’s car was nowhere to be seen. There were only few parking spots left. I was getting nervous. Where are you, Carol? The line at gate was getting longer and longer. Just then, I saw Carol’s car make turn into parking lot, she quickly parked right next to Carl’s car. WOW, what a relief! Everything was perfect.

The air was COLD. To be exact, it was 39°F. That is cold for those desert rats, our blood was so thin, we can only handle everything above 65°F. We quickly put on hats, jackets, gloves and scarfs, but with shorts! Yes, that’s how we dress in Arizona in cold weather.

West Fork Trail, no. 108. [photo by Carl]

It was a small group today, only seven people: Lin, Li, Carl, Tom, Carol, Michael, and Connie. It was Connie’s first time hiking with this group. We did a quick welcome and introductions. Then we were ready for group picture. Li set up her Bluetooth remote control phone camera, we put up our smiles with unusual shivering body ... Cheese ... We were done with group pictures. Everyone was quickly taking off and started our hike. It was cold, and we were hoping if we keep moving, we will warm up soon.

Lin and Connie crossing the stream. [photo by Tom]
Stepping stones help us get across. [photo by Tom]
Carl, Li, and Carol pause for a picture. [photo by Tom]
Traffic jam. [photo by Tom]
One foot balance? [photo by Tom]
Follow Carl, everyone. [photo by Lin]
Super men and women. [photo by Lin]
Lin is trying her best to replace Tom’s position. [photo by Tom]
Michael is leading now. [photo by Lin]

The first few miles of the hike were quick and quiet. The canyon was not totally awake yet. However, we did see many people hiking out while we were hiking in. I wonder how could that happen? The gate opened at 8 AM, and there was no way those people already went to the end of maintain trail and back.

Tom and the autumn leaves. [photo by Lin]
There are only a couple answers:
•  They parked their vehicles on the side of Highway 89A and walked in before the gate was open.
The gate opened much earlier than 8 AM, as it stated.

We were here last year on October 21. The fall colors were spectacular and on full display. But I think we were a week early this year. Since most of us hiked this trail before, we did not stop very much until we arrived two-mile mark&msash;the HUGE boulder at left side of the trail.

This is my daughter Jade’s favorite stop. Every time we hike this trail, she will stop here and climb up to the rock and take a break. Well Jade was not here, but Li and Tom were here. Those two big kids challenged each other and climbed on top of the rock with few of us cheer out for them. After they started, a group of other hikers did same, as they tried to show who was more graceful coming down.

“Just follow my steps,” Li said to Tom. [photo by Lin]
Going up is easy. Coming down is the challenge. [photo by Lin]
Red rock and happy! [photo by Li]
Li, Tom, Carol, and the changing leaves. [Lin]

After numerous stream crossings, which were done with stepping stones and logs, we arrived at the end of the maintained trail, a pool of water surrounded by cliff. Yes, we are here, we are done! NO, Not so fast. Usually this was our turnaround point, but today we were planning to go beyond this pool of water—wading in the water, boulder hopping, and maybe swimming for next few more miles.

The air temperature still very cold, we were sure the water was colder. Do we really want to wade in the water? A few of us had second thoughts. There were a few boy scouts who had just hiked out of water (canyon), they were shivering while changing water shoes to hiking shoes. A couple of us asked them: “Is the water cold? How deep is the water?”.

“The water is COLD, most of time the water was knee high, but few places were about hip high.”

“Hip high? I do not know how to swim; I do not want to die”.

“Oh come on. If those boys can do it, we can do it.”

“I brought a life jacket. You can use it if you need it.”

“Lin, do not push people if they are not comfortable.”

“Let’s go, if in any time you do not feel comfortable, we will turn back.”

After few minutes of debating while we changed into our water shoes, Michael starting walking into the water. We were turned and watched him. Some of us were waiting to hear him to screaming “COLD!” Some of us was waiting for him to say, “It is not so bad, come.” But Michael said nothing.

We were guessing Michael was so cold that he barely can make any noise, but his lips were moving, and saying “XXX! Damn, it is cold!”

The train is leaving the station. We really do not have lots of choices but to start following Michael. So, one by one we marched into the water.

“Oooooh, it is cold!”

“Holy cow, that is cold!”

“Aaaaaaaaaaaah,” One after another, the screaming sound was echoing in the canyon.

After a few minutes, we met at Michael at small dry floor, everyone was shivering and screaming to each other “That is cold, my god, that is cold.” Then we heard Michael say: “This is the coldest water I ever hiked in here.”

Li is changing her water shoes. [photo by Lin]
It’s there if you need it. [photo by Lin]
“Michael, is the water too cold for you?” [Carl]
Man, is it cold! [photo by Lin]
Connie is testing the water. [photo by Carl]
Come on, Tom, the water is not so bad. [photo by Carl]
Li is on the way. [photo by Lin]
If feels good in the sun. [photo by Lin]
Cold but still smiling. [photo by Li]

Sunlight slowly warms up the canyon. But the air was still cold. We cannot feel our numb feet. However, the beauty of the canyon gave us so much energy, we were laughing, screaming, and just marching on. We totally enjoy the moment and lost our soul and mind in this wonder of a canyon.

The water is cold but we keep going. [photo by Lin]
Where are my feet? [photo by Lin]
The sun really feels good here. [photo by Li]
Lin is too busy to take pictures. [photo by Li]
Here we come, Li. [photo by Li]
Try to keep dry and keep warm. [photo by Li]
Arizona Trailblazer Wave. [photo by Li]
How are you doing? GOOD. [photo by Tom]
Follow me! [photo by Tom]
Yes, Lin is carried her life jacket. [photo by Tom]
Try to warm up and be brave. [photo by Tom]
Connie is trying to keep warm and dry. [photo by Lin]

In the middle of canyon, we were welcomed by a dry and warm and sunshiny island.

It was so cold, we all decided we need a break to warm up and recharge our cold body.

Our warm-up and snack location. [photo by Lin]
Time to dry it up, and snack time. [photo by Lin]

After a quick break under the warm sun, our bodies and feet were warmed up a bit (but not very much). Connie had enough of cold water, she decided she will sit and wait at the dry, warm island, while the rest of us continued our hike in the canyon. Some sections of water were hip deep. But most of the time, the water was about one foot to two feet deep. The view was breathtaking. We saw fall color on the higher cliff, there were red, pink and golden yellow. The water was so clear, you can see fish were swimming.

In some sections of a shallow pool, red, gold and green leaves floating in the clear reflecting pools under a canopy of solid color. It is so different from when we were here during the spring and summer.

This phenomenon of a cliff seemed beyond the comprehension of her sight. It looked a mile high. The few trees along its bold rampart resembled short spear-pointed bushes outlined against the steel gray of sky. Ledges, caves, seams, cracks, fissures, beetling red brows, yellow crumbling crags, benches of green growths and niches choked with brush, and bold points where single lonely pine trees grew perilously, and blank walls a thousand feet across their shadowed faces—these features gradually took shape in Carley’s confused sight, until the colossal mountain front stood up before her in all its strange, wild, magnificent ruggedness and beauty. “Arizona! Perhaps this is what he meant,” murmured Carley. “I never dreamed of anything like this...” (from Zane Grey’s novel, Call of the Canyon)
Keep each other warm. [photo by Lin]
Falling autumn leaves. [photo by Lin]
Michael and the canyon. [photo by Lin]
Reflections and a Cliff. [photo by Lin]
Carol wearing shorts and a T-shirt. [photo by Lin]
Keep Going. [photo by Lin]
Leaves, rings, and reflection. [photo by Lin]
Fall leaves and water. [photo by Lin]
What are you doing there, Lin? [photo by Lin]
Li, Michael, Carol, and Tom are wading in the creek. [photo by Lin]
Water, grass, and fish. [photo by Lin]
Fall colors are here to stay. [photo by Lin]
Fall color, family, and fun. [photo by Lin]
Light, Leaves, and Fall. [photo by Lin]
Changing color in process. [photo by Lin]
Is this beautiful? [photo by Lin]

The entire hiking trail—from the bottom of 89A to the Top of Forest Road 231—is 14 miles long. It is not recommended for a day trip. Today, our goal was to go as far as we could with some time to explore, to test, to prepare for our backpack camping trip in 2020. About 6 miles in, we decided it was time for us to turn around and go back to trailhead.

It was a fun and COLD day. I think we were laughing and screaming so loud and so often, we burned extra 1000 cal. Here are few lessons we learned from this trip: We need to do backpack camping trip in early September after the monsoon but before it gets too cold. We need to have warm clothes, even in the summer, because the sunlight only occasionally reaches the canyon floor, a hot day may still be cool. We need to have good water shoes, because you do lots of wading and boulder hopping in the canyon. We need to wear long hiking pants rather than hiking shorts. Tom said this is going to be last time to wear shorts for this year. We did not swim this time, we did not use the lifejacket, but it is a good idea to have it. Even a small inflatable raft, a river dry bag or two air mattresses will work well. Bagging everything in Ziplock bags is a good idea. Our pants were wet, the bottom of the backpacks were wet, but everything in the pack was dry.

So much fun, such a great experience, this is going to be the coldest hike for us ever. We are ready, and we are looking forward to our backpacking trip in 2020. Are you interested? Are you ready?

Here are few notes and experience from other hikers:

Note from Li:

This is my part! Thank you again for leading this fun hike!

West Fork hike this year was both physically and psychologically challenging, but I am glad I did it. It was more fun than I ever imagined. I have to admit that we had to be crazy enough to step into freezing cold water in the first place and the rest is history.

Tom and Carol’s painful faces, Lin and Michael’s calmness, my crazy screaming and our laughter formed dramatic effects for this enchanting hike. The only smart and rational person is Carl, but he does not know what he missed! Sorry Connie, when you realized that you made a wrong decision by following us, it was too late, but you would be glad that you did not miss any fun.

The scenery rewarded us as we passed many more creeks and corners. There’s nothing better than spending our Saturday surrounded with beautiful red rock mountains, theatrical sound effects, and great companions in this incredible canyon. What a beautiful day we had! I can not wait to do another camping trip next year!

This is the link to the photos I took:
→   More pictures, by Li

Note from Connie:

Good morning, Lin! I just wanted to thank you so much for making it possible for me to experience such a wonderful and fun day hiking with all of you on Saturday! Yes, the water was icy cold but it was worth it all. I would have continued on from the island, but from my experience while snow skiing once I got frostbite on my feet and the cold Icy water brought back those memories so thawing out on the island seemed like a good idea! LOL I look forward to speaking with you guys again and hopefully very soon. You guys ROCK!

Note from Tom:

Note from Tom: Imagine yourself hiking when the air temperature is in the high 40s, and then being challenged to take off your warm wool socks and start walking in 50 degree water. My feet immediately became numb and then I started shivering. After walking a hundred yards, my feet changed from numb to feeling like they were being sliced by knives. And then I’m challenged and I respond by walking in water up to my thighs, and now I'm breathing deeply and screaming, while looking for shallower water or maybe a dry rock to stand on momentarily, before continuing the agony and the cursing. And we do this for over a mile!

Here are more pictures links:
→   More pictures, by Tom
→   More pictures, by Lin
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updated October 25, 2019