West Fork Trail, Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona Arizona

Posted in Sedona Red Rocks and Hiking Trails

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West Fork Trail in scenic Oak Creek Canyon is possibly the number one Sedona hiking trail in popularity, and certainly her most famous. During most days out of the year, the only fork flowing into Oak Creek is a gentle stream meandering beneath towering ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, and steep red rock and cream colored sandstone canyon walls. The forest is a cooling respite during the heat of summer, a calming wonderland of wildflowers, birds, and butterflies during the spring, and of course, a spectacular pageant of autumnal colors in the fall.

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To get there from Sedona the route goes through Uptown following SR 89A as it winds up beautiful and historic Oak Creek Canyon. A little ways up the highway is Indian Gardens, the site of the J.J. Thompson homestead, and now home to one of Arizona’s top-rated restaurants, the Indian Gardens Café and Market. This is an excellent place to stop on the way to pick up a picnic lunch or snack; they have cheese and fruit plates, as well as other goodies, all packed up and ready to go.

Next up is Slide Rock State Park, now known as a famous and popular swimming hole where Oak Creek glides over naturally formed, slick rock chutes beneath colorful canyon walls. The park is located on the Frank L. Pendley Homestead, where apple orchards and several of the historic buildings still stand. An annual Fall Festival is held on the park grounds each September when visitors are allowed to hand pick apples.

West Fork Trailhead

Approximately 11 miles from Uptown, the West Fork Trail parking lot is on the left. There’s a Call of the Canyon sign post evoking memories of Zane Grey’s famous western of the same name and the time of a different era. Grey is said to have written the novel in one of the historic cabins that eventually evolved into the Mayhew Oak Creek Lodge and the 1923 movie was filmed here.

This is a special fee location that is not part of the Red Rock Pass program and parking is limited, an unfortunate circumstance for many would-be visitors. It's advisable to plan your trip early or late in the day, and weekdays are better than weekends, especially during the prime months in spring and fall.

There’s a brief walk, part of it paved, to and across the bridge spanning Oak Creek. Not too many years back, the hike began with a scramble down and up the creek’s embankment, and the “new bridge” is a nice enhancement that increases accessibility. After crossing the bridge, a dirt path follows a small, historic orchard of fruit trees, and an introduction to the canyon’s magnificent red rock and sandstone façade.

About a quarter of a mile in are the ruins of what was once Mayhew’s Oak Creek Lodge, known for its celebrity, good food, and generous hospitality. Very little remains: a few crumbling walls and the old fireplace. Ivy that once covered the lodge’s venerable walls now snakes up the trunks of ponderosa pine and across the archway leading to Oak Creek. The chicken coop remains standing, though in a state of disrepair. Above it is a niche in the cliff wall that was used for cold storage; the historic lodge for many years of operation had no plumbing or electricity. (Clark Gable is said to have been especially fond of the place.)

Just past the ruins, the West Fork Trail begins at the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness sign post and sign-in box. The trail veers to the right as the canyon walls narrow and the scent of pine wafts on the cool mountain breeze. Unlike the upper desert climate found in Sedona and the Verde Valley, Oak Creek Canyon is a wonderous forest, dense with pine and fir.

Creek Crossings On The West Fork Trail

The trail is three miles one way and the first of 13 creek crossings is straight ahead. The absolute beauty of the West Fork trail emerges — with simple gardens of agave and fern clinging to red rock walls, the forest floor lush with lupine and fern in the spring, or the transformative display of leaves changing colors as summer advances into fall.

There’s little elevation change as the trail crosses the gentle turns in the water’s course, in places undercutting the cliffs into stunning grottos and shifting into wide green pools of water. There’s plenty of opportunity to find a ledge or boulder close to the water to enjoy a picnic and contemplate the simple, yet spectacular beauty of Mother Nature.

The wild flowers bring birds, bees, and butterflies, all seasonal visitors to the canyon, and much appreciated by human visitors bringing with them these special interests. High water during flooding season brings with it drift wood mosaics, downed trees, and other debris, somehow fitting into the perfection of a forest hike almost any day of the year. Some guides caution against hiking during winter months when icy conditions may exist, but this hike is accessible most days out of the year and beautiful throughout each season.

Rocks have been positioned across the creek at the wider crossings. I learned that it’s a good idea to take along a walking stick for balance, and to have a change of shoes back at the car.

West Fork Trail view of Oak Creek, Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona, Arizona.

Stepping stones can be slippery and loose. I was impressed by an obviously experienced West Fork hiker who just sloshed his way across, indifferent to the water. The 13 creek crossings deter some area hikers but the beautiful forest setting and riparian habitat is well worth the effort.

Additionally, this is one hike that can be as short or as long as you want to make it. A friend of mine who recently visited the trail spent her time wandering through the Mayhew Lodge ruins while her daughter did a power hike up the West Fork. This is truly a something-for-everyone destination.

The return trip allows time to notice some of the trail’s features other than its spectacular scenery and awesome foliage; in particular the birding opportunities that abound in this rich, riparian environment. On my first trek on the West Fork trail, I was startled to catch a glimpse of a bird—crimson and black—flash across the branches directly overhead. After several seconds of standing completely still, I spotted the bird, tiny as a parakeet, jet black in color with a bright burst of red on its breast, and distinctive white markings on the wings. According to my neighbor Randy Miller, area-expert on birding in the Verde Valley, people come from all over the world to hike the West Fork Trail just to see the painted redstarts in this locale.

Once off the trail, it’s a great time to consider heading back to Indian Gardens Café and Market for one of their craft beers and incredible sandwiches. The weather is usually comfortable to enjoy a meal outside on the garden patio. Take time to explore the Garland’s Native American Jewelry Shop next door, and be sure to spend a moment with the “talking deer.”

Hikers on path, West Fork Trail, Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona, Arizona.

Fast Facts about West Fork Trail

Location: Oak Creek Canyon.

Elevation: Approximately 5200 feet at start, with 300 foot elevation gain.

Rating: Easy to moderate. There are 13 creek crossings on the three mile trek in.

Red Rock Pass: Not applicable; special day-use fee required.

Amenities: Paved parking lot, including spots for RV parking (that can fill up quickly during seasonal months). Concrete picnic tables. Accessible (vault type) toilets. Oak Creek Canyon Visitor Center and Indian Gardens Café and Market on Highway 89A have some groceries and supplies.

Oak Creek Canyon Lodging: Briar Patch Inn and Junipine Resort are ever-popular places to stay in Oak Creek Canyon; both offer excellent amenities and a spectacular, scenic location by Oak Creek.

Directions from Uptown Sedona: Take State Route 89A north for approximately 11 miles; Call of the Canyon parking lot on the left. Turn with caution.

Other: Due to the popularity of this trailhead and limited parking, the lot can fill up rapidly, especially on weekends, and the trail can be crowded. Try for week-day hiking and earlier in the day, if possible. There are patches of poison ivy along the trail and a sturdy hiking stick is essential.