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West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon
October 2, 2004
by Chuck Parsons
  Trail Map 
Chuck, Ben, Elaine, Linda, Darleen, and Wayne at the trailhead.

For most people, hiking the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon in the spectacular Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness area north of Sedona is one of those very special and unique hiking experiences in Arizona that always seems to stand out and becomes one of almost everyone’s favorite hiking spots in a state noted for having some of the best hiking to be found anywhere in the country. This area is even more special to some folks, since it is one of several “vortex sites” in the Sedona area. Whatever your beliefs or thoughts on that subject, the unique and almost spiritual beauty of this area cannot be denied by anyone among us.

Six members of the Arizona Trailblazers Hiking Club (Darleen Lindquist, Linda Elliott, Wayne Shimata, Elaine Cobos, Ben Velasquez, and hike leader Chuck Parsons) gather at the Call of the Canyon day-use area, three miles beyond Sedona’s famous Slide Rock State Park on Highway 89A. The trailhead for West Fork starts from the west side of the parking area. We can tell immediately that this is going to be a special day for hiking. The smell of fall is in the air on this crisp, clear morning with sparkling, deep blue cobalt skies overhead and the sweet smell of burning wood wafting lightly through the air. The air temperature stands at a cool and refreshing 60 degrees on this Arizona fall morning, and it feels good to be alive.

The sparkling waters of the West Fork of Oak Creek. [photo by Wayne]

Famous novelist Zane Grey, who spent much of his time in Arizona and maintained a cabin in Woods Canyon on the Mogollon Rim north of Kohls Ranch, where he wrote several of his best western adventure novels, including Under the Tonto Rim and To the Last Man, had a special love for this area as well. In the early 1920s he stayed here as a guest of friend Carl Mayhew and penned the words to The Call of the Canyon in the cabin – and later lodge – that stood on this beautiful spot so many years ago.

Grey would later convince some of his Hollywood connections to film a movie based on The Call of the Canyon, which became the first of many movies, television commercials, and later music videos to use the charm and mystique of Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon as a backdrop.

“The red walls seemed to dream and wait under the blaze of sun; the heat lay like a blanket over the still foliage; the birds were quiet; only the murmuring stream broke the silence of the canyon. Never had Carley felt more the isolation and solitude of Oak Creek Canyon.”

Zane Grey, The Call of the Canyon   

We soak in our surroundings, as we put on our hiking boots and adjust our day packs. We are in no particular hurry on this beautiful morning, since this is not a place to be worried or pressed for time. I feel almost guilty, as I glance at my own watch from time to time, and consider putting it away for the day, but cannot seem to escape totally our obsession with time and schedules. We pose for a few group pictures and wait a bit more for three more arrivals in our group. Finally, at about 10:00 AM we decide to start out and let the others catch up with us later on the trail. Some of us decide to take a short detour off the main trail and explore the ruins of the old cabin, which exchanged hands several times in the early 1900s, before Carl Mayhew acquired it in 1925 and expanded it as a grand hunting and fishing lodge.

The lodge was virtually self-sufficient, with its abundant supply of fresh fruits and vegetables grown on site, as well as fresh eggs and chicken from a chicken coop set into a shallow cave, which can still be seen today. The U.S. Forest Service purchased the property in 1969 as a historic site, only to have it burn to the ground in 1980. It’s hard to imagine now how it must have looked those many years ago in its heyday, as we walk through the overgrown ruins and study the still-standing brick fireplace and remnants of low-lying brick walls that must have once been part of a quiet courtyard, with a round portal style window looking into the surrounding woods. Was this where Zane Grey sat, as he looked out over this special setting and used the unique imagination only a novelist possesses to lay out the story line and write the words to his book?

Crimson-colored bigtooth maples are in their prime today. [photo by Wayne]

Did he take long walks after dinner and travel along much of the same trail that we will be hiking today? The remains of the old apple orchard still continue to supply small, sweet apples to passing hikers and visitors, as well as foraging creatures of the forest. Despite years of neglect, the ancient apple trees still stand proudly against the blue Arizona sky and defy both time and progress. It is with great reluctance that we finally say goodbye to this setting and strike out once again on the main trail to catch up with the others.

We had earlier crossed a long steel and wooden footbridge spanning Oak Creek, before reaching the ruins of the lodge, located about a quarter-mile from the trailhead. Shortly beyond the lodge, we encounter the first of many crossings over West Fork Creek, as the trail closely parallels the creek for most of its length. The water level is low enough today to allow easy crossings over the stepping stones in the creek bed. The West Fork of Oak Creek actually runs for almost twelve miles, as it penetrates deep into the upper end of the canyon, draining all of the canyon’s runoff waters directly into Oak Creek. The vast majority of hikers, including today’s Trailblazers, will hike to about the 3.25-mile point. From there, the canyon walls narrow down to the point where the creek touches the walls on either side, forcing the hiker to slough through the creek bed from that point on.

Reflection pool along the West Fork. [photo by Wayne]

The variety and mixture of vegetation along the full length of this trail is nothing short of amazing and one of the big attractions to this area, in addition to the more obvious and colorful towering canyon walls. Prickly pear cactus, agave, pinon pine, juniper, and hackberry mark the lower stretches of the trail, gradually transitioning into sycamore, cottonwood, box alder, mountain ash, and bigtooth maple, in addition to huge ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, as we move further up the canyon.

The lush mixture of riparian plants along the full length of West Fork Creek, ranging from maidenhair ferns and thick clumps of horsetails growing right out of the creek bank, to dense stands of dogwood and boxwood, all add to this wonderfully eclectic and colorful floral paradise. One of the oldest and most primitive of land plants, the horsetail grew in abundance in the ancient forests and swamps of this region, when the signature red rocks of these canyons was being deposited in deep sandstone layers over 100 million years ago. This summer’s rich crop of emerald green ferns now stands brown and brittle, testimony to the freezing nighttime temperatures and early morning frosts that autumn is now bringing to these higher elevations.

As we continue to move upstream, criss-crossing the creek from time to time, we begin to witness the fall colors this hike is famous for. Although we are probably at least two weeks away from the peak colors of the season, we begin to see some scarlet and crimson coloring spreading downward from the crowns of some of the bigtooth maples, while others are already sporting their full fall colors and are now fully ablaze in a cloak of bright crimson. We also spot a few scattered mountain ash with their bright yellow fall colors. As we hit the more deeply shaded areas along the trail, we can feel an almost immediate drop in temperature. At one point, I glance at my thermometer and am surprised to see it hovering at 55 degrees. Some among us are no doubt wishing they were now wearing long sleeves. However, as soon as we emerge into the filtered sunlight that is more common to most of this trail, the temperature rises again to between 60 and 65. The warmest temperatures we would see on this day would be around 70 degrees. One could not ask for more perfect hiking weather or a more beautiful area to hike in.

As we are admiring another colorful bigtooth maple after yet another creek crossing about a mile from the trailhead, we hear approaching voices and are greeted by our last three hikers – Kathleen Green, Emie Sorongon, and Don L. They had spent the previous night in a nearby cabin and gotten a somewhat late start in getting to the trailhead, luckily finding one of the very last parking spaces.

We are now nine in number, as we continue hiking and exploring deeper into West Fork Canyon. The trail starts to take on some twists and turns, as we climb and then descend again, always following the creek and looking for the rock cairns that indicate our crossing points. We occasionally spot a colorful butterfly or bird flitting about, and I discover Kathleen sitting alone by the creek at one point, carefully observing a small butterfly with delicate pale blue wings, as it sits perched on one of her shoelaces. She is careful not to disturb it, as she admires its delicate colors. It seems to have found a temporary safe haven and is reluctant to move.

Soaring walls of red Navajo Sandstone
reach for the skies. [photo by Chuck]

At about the two-mile point we come across the first of several massive rock shelves overhanging the creek bed, creating an almost tunnel-like effect in some places. These so-called “wave caves” bear a striking resemblance to a huge ocean wave caught and frozen in time. Although the seas did deposit these sandstone layers many millions of years ago, this is the work of periodic flash floods that rip their way through these canyons, as they undercut and sculpt the soft sandstone undersides of the canyon walls. Although very hard to imagine on this peaceful day, as we walk alongside and through a creekbed only inches deep in places, monster flash floods are the most dangerous aspect of hiking these narrow canyons. This tranquil and shallow stream can change in a matter of minutes to an angry, roaring torrent of muddy, raging water up to twenty or more feet deep, as it slams through the canyon like a giant pile driver, destroying and obliterating virtually everything in its path. Nature’s raw power is very evident here today.

Additional evidence of flash flooding can be seen in the large, tangled brush piles that we are occasionally forced to navigate over or around, as we make our way ever deeper into the depths of West Fork Canyon. These brush piles also contain tree trunks up to two feet or more in diameter, as well as large tree stumps and assorted rocks and boulders, all haphazardly jumbled together in larger and larger piles and deposited in place by the flood waters that help carve and shape this canyon. Further upstream, beyond our view, huge logjams and boulders the size of cars and buses block passage through the canyon. Deep, wall-to-wall pools of cold, dark water also force the hiker to revert to swimming in some areas. While traversing a couple of these brush piles, I spot both a garter snake and a colorful king snake, in addition to an unidentified skink, as they all quickly slither out of my way into the safety and security of the under brush. This lush riparian habitat supports a wealth of both plant and animal species that thrive in this streamside environment – a rich oasis of life surrounded by a much drier and harsher outside world.

The perfect secluded hideaway. [photo by Chuck]

We eventually come to what appears to be the end of a box canyon with no outlet, but the trail curves away and leads us on a meandering course for another half mile or so. We discuss stopping for lunch now, but decide to push on to the turn-around point for most hikers.

We take a short spur trail to investigate another wave cave and discover strange ridges and pockets carved into the walls about eight to ten feet above the trail.

Additional signs of nature’s handiwork in the form of flash floods? Natural erosion? Perhaps. It’s also interesting to note that a large ridge overlooking the south side of the upper canyon is referred to as Buzzard Ridge. One has to wonder if this is a good location for these winged scavengers because of the abundant food sources in the area, especially after major flash flooding.

The time is now almost 12:30, as we round a final bend in the trail and come to an abrupt end at creekside. From here the trail simply vanishes, as the canyon walls close in and West Fork Creek is forced to flow within the narrow confines of the upper canyon. This spot marks the turn-around point for the vast majority of hikers and is a great place to stop, admire the view, and enjoy lunch amid the boulders and trees. We park ourselves on the handiest boulders we can find and sit down to lunch. Darleen is the only one to bring along a pair of sandals for hiking the creek, so after lunch she wades out to the middle of the stream and starts hiking up the canyon, soon disappearing around a bend up ahead. A group of backpackers with a couple of friendly and happy labs starts out soon after, telling us they will be spending the night in the canyon at one of several campsites upstream. A few minutes later Darleen returns and sits down to dry and warm her ice-cold feet. We all gather our gear together and start our return hike along the same trail, carrying away great memories and pictures of another memorable hiking experience in the beautiful Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness area surrounding Sedona.

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updated October 23, 2015