Ray is a writer, photographer and video content creator based in Arizona that focuses on the American Southwest region.
As an avid hiker and photographer based in Arizona, I am often asked what my favorite trail to hike is in the Sedona area. Without hesitation, I generally reply that the West Fork trail in Oak Creek canyon is my favorite as it checks the boxes I look for to enjoy a good hike, which includes water mixed with surprising and constantly changing scenery. The only negative mark for this trail, in my view, is that it can be very crowded at times. Despite its popularity, I still encourage friends and family to visit and hike this beautiful, and relatively very easy, trail if they can.
The fee-based parking lot (just $11 for cars) for this trail can fill up very quickly during high season, so picking a weekday or early morning time to visit is recommended.
Before Reaching the West Fork Trailhead
Before you reach the trailhead will see some historic structures close to the beginning of the West Fork trail including the old stone and wood fruit and food storage building pictured above. There used to also be an active fruit orchard here (apples) and you can still see a few trees in the narrow meadow along the pathway as you approach the trailhead. In addition, there was also a rustic resort here (just several ruins and foundations now) called the Mayhew Lodge that opened in 1926 that was frequented by old Hollywood luminaries including Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart. The lodge eventually closed in 1968 and the land was sold to the National Park Service.
As the trailhead sign indicates, the entire length of the trail is nearly 14 miles. However, in my experience, the vast majority of hikers never go further than three or four miles in. In fact, I'd recommend to first time visitors to just hike in about an hour or so and then turn around. This should make your turn around point at approximately three miles which still covers a lot of scenic sights along the well-marked trail.
You will notice there are a few hiking sticks propped up on the sign. There are several sections along the trail where you will have to cross the creek- which is very shallow. Hiking sticks or trekking poles can be helpful when crossing the creek either on stones or logs. Or you can just wade across the shallow creek bed if you don’t mind getting your feet wet.
Trees Along The Trail
Many first-time visitors to Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon and the West Fork trail are surprised by how heavily forested this high desert environment is. The surprise is warranted. Many of the pine and fir trees you will see along the trail are more commonly found at higher and cooler elevations in the American Southwest. Ponderosa pines are generally found at elevations of 6,000 feet and above. Douglas fir trees are generally found at 7,500 to 8,000 feet and above. The primary reason why these trees can thrive at an average elevation of only 5,400 feet is because of the cooler micro climate that the canyon provides.
Many of the bigger Ponderosa and Douglas fir trees you will encounter are definitely considered "old growth" and are well over 200 years old. There remote canyon home provided them protection from logging efforts before it became a National Forest.
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Crossing the Creek
By my count, there are at least five or six times you will need to cross the creek to continue on the generally well-marked trail on the other side if you do hike three mile or an hour long route as I suggested. As you can see in the image above, the West Fork is generally very shallow and slow moving stream. In addition, most of the spots where there is a crossing you will find an unorganized bridge of stepping stones and logs to help you cross and keep your feet dry.
West Fork Trail Hiking Video
You can see some actual stream crossings in the short video below. This video footage was shot during the fall of 2021 and will give you an excellent summary of what it's like to hike on the West Fork during the fall. The fall season is by far my favorite time to hike this trail because of the brilliant colored fall foliage. It regrettably is also probably the busiest time of year for this hiking trail. I would definitely recommend trying to plan a hike on a weekday during the fall season.
Hiking in the Creek
To get away from the sometimes crowded trail, I actually prefer to hike in the shallow creek bottom for many stretches of the trail. As a photographer, hiking the creek bottom also gives me the opportunity to get some unique shots (including reflections) and perspectives as demonstrated in the images below. The sounds of this beautiful slow flowing creek can also be very relaxing.
Towering Canyon Walls
One of the unique and awe-inspiring attributes of the West Fork trail is the scale of the canyon walls that surround it. Many of these cliffs and rock formations soar well over 1,500 feet above the actual creek bottom. You will notice many of these canyon walls precariously hold large Pine trees that thrive in the cooler reaches as well as shade and provide a stark contrast in colors.
Although it can get crowded at times, planning and doing a hike on the West Fork trail is well worth the investment of time, in my opinion. Because this trail is relatively level and offers an abundance of shade, other than some moderate stream crossings that need to be negotiated, it's well suited for the average hiker. Dogs are welcomed but must be on a leash at all times. There are restrooms and a number of picnic tables adjacent to the trail parking lot as well.
You can view more images of the West Fork trail here.
© 2022 Ray Redstone