Distance: 6.0 miles (10 km)
Elevation: 6,000 feet
Time of Year: Anytime, but October is best!
When people think of fall colors, they usually think of New England, or the Appalachians, or Wisconsin. But, rarely do people say Arizona. But, there is one place in the Desert Southwest where the fall colors rival anything in the east...The West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon. Located a few miles north of Sedona, at 6,000 feet in elevation, the high walls of the canyon provide critical shade for a myriad of species that could not ordinarily survive in the region. The year round flow of water in the creek also provides the necessary moisture to support riparian deciduous trees like ash, alder, Arizona walnut, box elder, gambel oaks, and most significantly canyon maples.
The West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon is very popular, especially during its peak colors in mid-to-late October. So, get there early and be prepared for crowds (especially along the first mile). The site is run by a concessionaire authorized by the U.S. Forest Service. Parking in the lot costs $8, and they charge $2 per person if you park outside the lot and walk in. But, it is worth the cost.
To get to the site, drive up AZ-89A from Sedona about 10 miles. Look for the lot to the left, which will be hard to miss since there will probably be cars lining the highway with people trying to save a buck. You can also access it from Flagstaff by driving AZ-89A down just a couple of miles below the switchbacks.
|Red and white cliffs rise above white firs, alder, and canyon maples|
The trail begins by crossing an old apple orchard and some old farmhouses. Once it enters the canyon proper, red-orange cliffs rise over 1000 feet above the canyon floor. The vegetation is remarkable for this arid ecosystem. In addition to the previously-stated deciduous trees, there are a number of conifers that typically occur at higher elevations including Ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, and white firs.
|Sophie turned orange by the dappled light through the canyon maples|
The trail leisurely follows the canyon bottom, crossing the creek several times, with amazing views all along the way. At the creek crossings, rocks strategically piled up make the crossings pretty easy, unless heavy rains raise the water levels. At no stage is it difficult, but you will definitely see the crowds thin the further you go. Most of the people linger in the first mile.
|We tried to tell Hilina that maple syrup is in the bark, not the leaves! :)|
As the trail nears its established end, it rises up a slope into an upland forest, before descending to a narrow section of canyon where the water covers the entire section. This is the end of the established trail at 3 miles. However, if you are adventurous, have wading gear, and are prepared to swim across a few pools, then you can continue hiking up the canyon for many miles more. Camping is not allowed until you are at least 6 miles up. But, the canyon itself continues for 14 miles until reaching the top of the Mogollon Rim.