Sedona: West Fork of Oak Creek Trail
Ask a few people in Sedona to recommend a hiking trail, and there's a good chance you'll hear "West Fork" or "Call o' The Canyon" mentioned more than once. This is definitely one of the most popular hikes in the Sedona area, and with good reason. The West Fork of Oak Creek Trail offers a little bit of everything: dense forests, a trickling stream, towering rock walls, and a complete departure from the stressed-out world.
The West Fork of Oak Creek trail is located about 10 miles north of Sedona, on AZ Rte. 89A. The trailhead is known as the "Call O'The Canyon" parking area, and you reach it shortly before 89A makes the twisty climb up the Mogollon Rim to Flagstaff.
Parking at "Call O'The Canyon" is $8. If you have a one-day Red Rock Pass, it will not be accepted. However, if you have purchased a weekly (or longer) Red Rock Pass, parking will be free. You'll probably also want to visit Red Rock Crossing, where the same rules apply, so go ahead and spring for the weekly pass, even if your stay is only a couple of days long.
As I purchased my Red Rock Pass, the visitor's center employee (in downtown Sedona) advised me to avoid the crowds and parking problems at Call O'The Canyon, by getting there early. I followed his advice, and parking wasn't a problem. What was a problem? It was so early, the sun still hadn't touched the depths of Oak Creek Canyon, and in the shadows (in November) it was COLD! It was also a little too shadowy here for good photography.
The trail begins by crossing Oak Creek, then takes you south for a short while, to the mouth of the canyon. Here, you're walking parallel to the highway and the creek. It's an easy part of the hike, where the trail is flat and wide.
After a few minutes of strolling along, you come upon the ruins of a couple of old buildings. It looks like an old home was once hidden in the trees...
... complete with an ivy-bordered path, leading to the creek.
All of these ruins are part of the old Mayhew's Lodge complex. The lodge opened in 1925, making it one of the first facilities to cater to tourists in the Sedona area. The forest service purchased the cabins in 1968, when the Mayhew family gave up the business. Mayhew's Lodge was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, but removed five years later, after fire gutted the buildings.
You can climb up and step inside this storage building, carved out of one big chunk of red rock.
Filmmakers used this area when making the movie, "Call of the Canyon" in 1922. The movie was based on the book by Zane Grey, who had a cabin in Payson, Arizona.
Just beyond the ruins, the trail makes a turn to the right, and you enter the mouth of the canyon.
This is one of the first places you run into the West Fork of Oak Creek. At first glance, I was fooled by the water's perfectly reflective surface. For a moment, I thought I was looking down into a deep canyon (until I got closer, and saw the shoreline).
I rounded a corner and, once again, I was in the chilly shadows.
I had just missed one of the most beautiful times to visit Oak Creek Canyon. All the fall colors were on the ground, instead of on the trees. Had I been there just a couple of weeks earlier (around the end of October, instead of the middle of November), the colors would have been spectacular.
There were several spots along the side of the trail like this one. I stopped here and spent a few minutes taking in the beauty of it all. I can't imagine how awesome this spot would have been, with all those leaves still on the trees!
A few trees were hanging on to their leaves, but not many.
While the trail spends much of its time amongst trees, it does break free from time to time, giving you great views of the sandstone rocks jutting out overhead.
You will need to cross the creek several times. The crossing isn't always clear, and you may need to backtrack. I even saw one family get turned around at one of those confusing crossings (they didn't realize they were headed the wrong way until they passed me and recognized me from earlier along the trail).
At a couple of those confusing spots, I began to wonder if I had reached the end of the trail. I hadn't--in fact, the end was still a long distance ahead.
And here's another creek crossing, complete with a perfect reflection on the water's surface. Beyond this point, the trail followed the slickrock at the side of the stream for a while, before cutting back into the forest.
At long last (a full 3 hours after I started), I reached the end... the real end, not just a confusing side path that stopped at the water or a thicket of weeds. Unless you're planning to wade your way up the stream, this is as far as you can go. Hop your way out that final string of rocks, onto that sandbar...
... and this is what you see. The canyon is so narrow here, the West Fork of Oak Creek has eroded a tunnel of sorts into the sides, forming something that looks similar to Zion's famous "subway".
There's only enough room at the end for a few people, so hopefully you can claim a spot on the sandbar and kick back for a few quiet minutes of reflection. During my visit, another couple was here, along with their crying baby, so it wasn't quite the moment of Zen I was hoping for. (It was the same couple that later got turned around, and passed me, headed back into the canyon!)
If you came prepared to wade, swim, and climb some boulders, you can continue to hike beyond the end of the maintained trail. From end to end, the canyon is about 14 miles. Have a friend pick you up at the other end, along Forest Road 231, south of Flagstaff.
It took almost another two hours to arrive back at the trailhead, for a total hiking time of 4 hours, 55 minutes. Signs give conflicting accounts of the actual length of the trail, but I think 3 miles (one way) is a good estimate.
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