Variable. The shorter sections are each about 3 miles, but are more or less roadside so can be abbreviated
Destination Distance From Downtown
4 of 5 diamonds
The lowest section gets 3 star difficulty for easy rapids, but still requiring a roll and whitewater skills. The middle section is 4 star difficulty rating and the upper is 5 star, averaging out to 4 star difficulty all around
Time To Complete
Variable. Running one of the shorter sections can take as little as 2 hours. The longer runs can take all day or multiple days
Spring and Winter
Late winter and early spring is usually the only time of year with flows high enough for paddling
Oak Creek is Flagstaff’s backyard whitewater. Though it only runs after significant rain or snowmelt events, flows are fairly frequent during late winter and early spring. It is the only creek that makes before- or after-work runs possible for paddlers in Flagstaff and Sedona, but longer trips are possible, too. Rapids range from class I to class IV depending on the section and water level. Beginners can practice on the lower reaches, intermediate kayakers can push themselves on the middle, and experts can get their rush on the upper stretch.
What Makes It Great
Arizona is not famous for its whitewater, but paddlers in this dry state are able to get their fix on Oak Creek--a perennial stream within a deep gorge in between Flagstaff and Sedona. Thousands of people visit Oak Creek Canyon every year, seeking the grandeur of massive sandstone walls and the serenity of streamside forest. But for a short part of the year, paddlers can enjoy all this while taking it to the next level, by charging the rapids that take over the creek during high water.
Oak Creek is only a short drive from Flagstaff, and its different sections offer a surprising variety of whitewater. South of Sedona is a long stretch of intermittent class I-II that goes all the way to the Verde River. There are a few options for take outs, depending on how far you want to paddle. This is the stretch sometimes done as an overnighter. The middle section, from Indian Gardens Market to Highway 179 bridge in Sedona, is pool-drop class III. The upper section, for advanced paddlers only, starts above Bootlegger Campground and ends at Manzanita Campground, and is fairly continuous class IV.
Note that the creek hardly runs some years, and other years the rapids may be much rougher than expected. It's an unpredictable creek, but worth it for the experienced and brave.
Drop off and pick up are recommended, as there is no easy way to get back up the creek, and parking near Slide Rock is extremely limited in the summer.
South of the Slide Rock area, Oak Creek offers some excellent whitewater opportunities for experienced kayakers. There aren't many established tours running in the area, as the rapids vary wildly depending on rainfall and season, but there are class IV and V rapids for self-directed rafters. Just south of Slide Rock (suggested parking at Slide Rock or along one of the small dirt parking lots nearby) the creek starts seeing rapids, mostly III and IV with some V spots, turning to mostly IV around Indian Gardens and eventually mellowing to class II south of Sedona. The creek peters out at some point, depending on the year.
Who is Going to Love It
This run is best for whitewater kayaks and canoes. The predominant style is “creeking” but there are playboat spots to be found on the Indian Gardens section. Paddlers of all abilities can find thrill on Oak Creek. This is the perfect run for 9-to-5ers and weekend warriors because the short upper and middle sections are easily doable with only a few hours’ time commitment. Even if paddling an easy section, boaters should always go in groups with at least one person who is familiar with the run, and all members need to be on the lookout for river hazards. This dryland-system creek is really only runnable at flood stage, so brush and logs are likely to be in the channel. Boaters should know how to deal with these dangers.
Directions, Parking, & Regulations
Driving directions for Oak Creek are simple. Drive along 89A until you reach your desired put-in/take-out location. If paddling south of Sedona, you may have to get more creative with side roads. Be careful of leaving cars on private property.
Runnable flows are sometimes tricky to identify and catch. In general, the higher the flow the more challenging the whitewater, but too low and the river isn’t navigable. Look for at least 300 cfs on the Sedona gauge (see ‘Land Website’ link) for Indian Gardens section to be runnable, and roughly twice this for the the Upper. It can be run really high (1,000 cfs and above) but is full on at this level and should only be attempted by expert paddlers.