Moving forward, I will be bringing you trail reviews! This week is the West Fork of Oak Creek, just north of Sedona, Arizona. If you haven’t ventured up Oak Creek Canyon, you should. It is beautiful, wooded, and highlighted by red rocks, white rocks, and the glistening, babbling gem of a trout stream Oak Creek. The West Fork of Oak Creek has carved some breathtaking, tunnel-like overhangs along its bank. This area is not to be missed.
This is a fairly easy trial, measuring about 3.3 miles each way for a total round-trip hike of just under 7 miles on the maintained part of the trail. The cool thing about this hike, is that you can take it far beyond the average day hiker’s stroll, but I’ll get to that in a moment. The trail starts at about 5,300ft and only gains about 400ft of elevation, but has a few steep spots. On the maintained trail, there are thirteen river crossings, but most have stones or logs you can carefully navigate without getting your feet wet. This is a great early morning hike on a hot summer day because it is mostly in the shade of the deep, narrow canyon, and the fairly dense tree canopy. If you only plan on hiking the maintained trail, expect it to take you approximately three and a half hours. I find that with stops to take photos and enjoy the surroundings, an average of just under two miles per hour is typical. Also, in times of high water, it can take extra time to find your perfect stream crossing spots.
Because of the water crossings (missteps do happen), you are best served by a pair of water hiking shoes. I use Merrell “All Out Blaze Aero Sport Hiking Water Shoes” for this.
I have hiked many miles, including the Narrows at Zion in these shoes. They still look brand new and have never given me blisters or any trouble at all. I can’t say enough about these shoes. Sue wears Keen Newport H2s and has good luck with them. Every foot is different, so your experience will likely vary. Shoes are a such a personal item that even though I recommend a pair based on my experience and the shoe’s quality, they may not necessarily be right for you.
Just because you’re walking in water doesn’t mean that you don’t need to bring water. Unless you want to bring a filter and get your water from the creek, you’ll need to bring drinking water. We find that 1 liter of water is about right, for the round trip, unless you go a mile or two beyond the maintained trail like we did. You can use water bottles, but I like the convenience of hydration packs. Sue uses her small Camelback Rogue 1.5-liter pack and I use either my Deuter Speedlite 20 or Osprey Stratos 26 National Parks Edition. (I’m very excited about this special bag. Review coming soon!). I put my Osprey 1.5-liter hydration pack in whichever pack I’m taking. We always mix a bit of electrolyte replacement with the water. We don’t bring trekking poles, but don’t hesitate to do so. If you tend to struggle at all with water crossings or balance on rocks and logs, trekking poles are very helpful.
The trail itself meanders over the river and through the woods (literally). With gradual climbs and descents, it is a fairly gentle trail. Like any trail, watch out for loose rocks and tree roots.
There are usually two or three places to cross the stream at each of the thirteen crossings. If you choose carefully, and are on the lookout for loose rocks, you will stay dry (if the water level isn’t too high).
There are a few signature spots on the trail for amazing photos, including a giant rock overhang that is frequently used for a “stop and picnic” spot.
Beyond the Trail:
The real fun begins when you reach the end of the maintained trail. Not only is there a sign that tells you that the trail ends at a widened pool in the river, but you will know the trail has ended because you will have no choice but to get your feet wet and start forging up stream. Depending on the time of year, it can get deep and require a bit of swimming.
At this point, the maintained trail ends and you will have to find your own way. That being said, there are still some clearly worn paths to follow and it is difficult to get lost since you are following the creek in a narrow canyon. Additionally (and I can’t stress this enough), be sure to check the weather forecast before you go. The threat of deadly flash flooding is real and incredibly dangerous. The canyon is deep with mostly vertical cliffs and you may have difficulty finding a quick way out in the event of flooding. Once you have hiked at least 2 3/4 miles past the end of the maintained trail, overnight camping is permitted. If you plan to camp, try to find an elevated ledge that is away from the water, both for your safety and the health of the water.
A thru-hike is possible in lieu of the out and back, with a pick-up location off of a complex system of rough forest roads. More to come on this, as we plan to do an overnight thru-hike in the coming months. Stay tuned!