West Fork of Oak Creek is one of the most popular trails in the Flagstaff/Sedona area, but you can beat the crowds by hiking the tranquil upper narrows of this lush river canyon. This makes an exciting overnighter or a grueling day hike. The major challenge is hiking through the creek, sometimes 100 yards at a time, where the rock walls close in. This is the only way to experience canyon solitude beneath 1000 feet of sandstone cliffs, proud pines, and cool green forest. The 14-mile journey ends at the popular West Fork Trailhead in Oak Creek Canyon, with the last 3 miles on the crowded maintained trail.
What Makes It Great
This hike is best in the summer when it’s hot. You will be in the water much of the time, and temperatures stay relatively cool in this shady canyon. Hiking in the creek is half the fun, though you should have a plan for keeping your gear dry. Though the water is rarely more than waist deep, the rocky bottom can be slick underfoot, and a fall means dunking yourself and your pack. Swimming may be required in deeper pools. Some rock hopping and scrambling is also required. There is no real trail for most of the journey, just follow the creek.
The scenery here is amazingly three-dimensional. You will crane your neck up, down, and all around to take in every facet of this landscape. The creek has cut deep into ancient sandstone, revealing wavy layers, crooked towers, and narrow slots. Along the way, you will pass side canyons with names like ‘Insomnia’ and ‘Illusions’ that reflect the mystery of this place. Adventurous climbing routes like ‘Into the Wild’ and ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ scale the daunting rock walls.
If doing this as a 2-day trip, you will want to spend the night within the first 8 miles of the trail, where camping is allowed and there is still dry ground before the canyon narrows further. There are no designated sites, but several popular spots are worn in. Camping is comfortable and peaceful in this secluded wilderness, though you may still share it with a few other groups so be courteous.
Who is Going to Love It
If you thirst for adventure, the wet and wild trip through West Fork will quench your desire. The out and back trailhead in Oak Creek Canyon gets hundreds of visitors per day, but the longer thru hike sees only a few groups in a day. Though it is “all downhill,” parts of this hike are strenuous where one must scramble down short boulders and ledges. Slogging through water all day is not easy either, so make sure you are in decent physical condition. Hikers must also be prepared to handle the elements. Summer storms can deliver sudden rain, and nights can be surprisingly chilly, especially if your gear gets wet.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Camping is not allowed within 6 miles upstream of the West Fork Trailhead in Oak Creek Canyon, so you should camp within the first half of the trail. Campfires and open flame are not allowed; you may only use backpacking stoves. No permit is required, but parking a shuttle car at the lower trailhead costs $10 per vehicle.
This lower trailhead, where you must set shuttle for the thru hike, is located along Highway 89A 17.5 miles south of Flagstaff and 9.5 miles north of Sedona. The entrance is well signed and has a fee booth and large parking area.
The start of the thru hike is from FR 231 (Woody Mountain Road). To get here, take Historic Route 66 west out of Flagstaff for about 2 miles to the signed left turn for Woody Mountain Road. This road soon turns to dirt and becomes FR 231. Follow this for approximately 15 miles until you reach a small sign that says West Fork. There is a pull out on the left. This is where you will leave a car and begin the hike by following the wash downstream.