Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Casner Canyon, Coconino NF, Sedona, AZ

Distance: 6.0 miles roundtrip (9.7 km)
Elevation: 4,450 - 5,950 feet (1,356 - 1,814 m)
Difficulty: Moderate
Time of Year: September - May (if you go in summer, get a very early start to avoid extreme heat)

Casner Canyon is probably the only hike in the Sedona Red Rocks area where you can have the trail all to yourself. That is probably because there is no large parking area and sign to make it obvious and you need to wade across Oak Creek in order to access it. But, what it lacks in human presence, it makes up for in spectacular views across the Sedona area and out all the way to the Verde Valley and Mingus Mountain. We've now done nearly every hike in the Sedona area worth doing, but this was basically the only one where we never saw another soul on the trail.

Crossing Oak Creek to access the trail on the otherside

To access Casner Canyon, you need to find the place to park, which can be tricky. Due to the high demand for parking, views and photographers, and other hiking options in the area, I recommend getting a very early start so you can find a spot along the side of the road to park. Just north of Grasshopper Point (which charges $8 for parking) and just south of the Indian Gardens Cafe and Market and the visitor center on AZ-89A, there is a pull out on the westside of the road. It is located about a 100 feet north of where some powerlines cross the road. Directly across from this pullout is a closed gate and a small sign for Casner Canyon. If this area is full of cars, try to find some other spot nearby or be willing to pay to park at Grasshopper Point and then walk the Allen's Bend Trail north to the Casner Canyon Trail.

The first views of the red rock after climbing out of Casner Canyon

Once on the Casner Canyon Trail, it descends to the stream bed of Oak Creek and then you will need to wade across the creek (usually calf to knee deep) to the cairns marking the trail on the otherside. In winter the water will be chilly, in summer refreshing, but crowded. Have some sandals and hiking sticks to get across. The trail then follows intermittent Casner Creek a short ways before ascending up the slope above the creek bed itself into open grasslands.

Approaching the rim

The trail will climb up onto a grassy openings on the south-facing slope which gets a lot of sun. In winter, that means stripping off the jacket you wore below in the shadows. In summer, this could mean oppressive heat, so be prepared. The trail is easy to follow as it climbs up the canyon, with ever increasing views of the red rock cliffs of Sedona and Mingus Mountain across the Verde Valley beyond. The trail will go through some dense thickets of scrub oak and thorny vegetation, so be prepared to get scratched legs if you are wearing shorts. Having those convertible pants might be a good idea. The trail will continue climbing until entering a narrow notch near the top of the canyon and passing a dry or frozen waterfall near columnar basalts.

Enjoying the view of Mingus Mountain from the rim

Once out on the rim top, the trail will be marked with large cairns to guide the way. The vegetation turns to pinyon-juniper woodland, with many small cacti and grasses. Once on the rim, the trail turns south to head toward Schnebly Hill Road, the infamously rough road the "Pink Jeeps" like to take tourists up to impress them. You don't need to go all the way to the road to enjoy the beauty of the area.

The pinyon-juniper grasslands on the rim top

Once you cross the intermittent creek bed that is Casner Creek on the rim top, go cross-country to the right to the peninsula of rock that juts out on the rim. In about 10 minutes you will arrive at the end of this cliff face with stunning views across the whole area and can see the Casner Canyon Trail way down below that you climbed up. Be aware than in winter, melting snow can make this section muddy, so you may be jumping from rock-to-rock to avoid sinking in the mud between them. Don't be surprised to see cattle in the spring or fall up here.

The view down from the rim's edge

Once you have had your fill of scenic views, return the way you came, descend down the canyon, cross the creek, and then you are back in the heart of civilization with the hoards of tourists visiting Sedona.

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