Thru-Hiking the West Fork of Oak Creek
Trail & Trailhead Information
Total Miles: ~14
Elevation change: ~1,200 feet (6,500 feet - 5,300 feet)
Upper Trailhead: FR 231/ Woody Mountain Rd., Flagstaff -- The trailhead is about 18 miles down unpaved Woody Mountain Rd. at the West Fork Bridge. There's a small pull-off to the left and a small "West Fork" sign.
Lower Trailhead: SR 89A in Oak Creek Canyon, "Call of the Canyon" recreation area -- This recreation area is 17.5 miles south of Flagstaff and 9.5 miles north of Sedona. There's a fee to enter the parking lot. If leaving a vehicle overnight, the fee is currently $18. The gate to the parking lot is closed and locked at night.
See a topo map of West Fork here.
Except for the last three miles, at the lower end of the canyon (at Call of the Canyon Recreation Area), this is not a trail at all—it's a route through a canyon. If you're starting your West Fork thru-hike at the upper end on FR 231 / Woody Mountain Rd., there is a faint use trail in the forest, but that trail soon peters out. There really isn't any question about which way to go, though — just follow the canyon, weed-whacking, rock-hopping, bouldering, wading and swimming as you go. Although it's pretty obvious, when Casner Cabin Draw comes in on the left, stay to the right to continue in West Fork.
You'll start off hiking on a faint trail through the ponderosa pines.
Once on the trail, there's a large Forest Service sign letting you know you're in the correct canyon.
As you continue....
The walls of the canyon will grow higher — or the canyon deeper, depending on how you look at it — the further you go, and the water pockets and pools become more plentiful. In the lower third of the canyon, we were walking through water, anywhere from ankle- to hip-deep, almost constantly. And while there are plenty of places you can make your way through the grass and brush to avoid the water, much more often than not the water was the easier and more pleasant and refreshing way to go.
The route is very overgrown in many areas, with some downed trees to navigate over, under and around.
While this was my first time thru-hiking West Fork, my companions had each done the 14-mile trip multiple times. Based on their descriptions of trips past and others I've read, the number of swims can vary by year and by season. This time, we had three swims, one of which was fairly long and had a bend in the canyon where you couldn't see the end of the swim from the beginning. Several other pools were deep enough that I (being the shortest of the group at 5'4") could barely walk through on my toes or hug the underwater shelf along the edge. Any deeper and I would have been swimming through those too ... and could have if I'd chosen to go down the middle. Some people have reported as many as six swims.
And even though the air temperature warmed up quickly and I got warmer and sweatier too, the swims were COLD. The first one literally took my breath away. If it weren't for the summertime heat and the fact that you can warm up pretty quickly once out of the water, I'd say packing a neoprene wet suit would be a good idea.
The first pool we encountered was just a quick wade--a chance to get our feet nice and wet.
The swims vary in length ... but they're all cold!
When you aren't swimming or wading, you'll be doing a lot of rock-hopping and bouldering, and much of the way is overgrown -- my friends said more overgrown this year than in years past -- and sometimes you can't even see where you're stepping unless you part the tall, thick grass or brush to get a look at what's beneath. I relied a lot on my hiking poles to keep from twisting an ankle.
Also, be aware of what you touch, because there was a lot of poison ivy in the canyon. I've also seen (and gotten a severe reaction from) poison oak in the area.
But aside from the "beware ofs," you'll be treated to 14 miles of stunning canyon and, for the most part, solitude. We saw LOTS of wildflowers in a rainbow of colors, some interesting bugs (including a little bright red somethingorother) and butterflies, tons of tadpoles, a few wee baby snakes (not of the rattling kind) and birds galore. This is a challenging trip in some ways, but well worth the effort.
A Long Day or an Overnight Trip
While we did this as one long day trip, many people who thru-hike go for an overnight. There are no designated campsites, but you will see some popular spots that are worn in along the edges of the canyon.
Be advised that camping is not allowed within 6 miles of the West Fork "Call of the Canyon" trailhead in Oak Creek Canyon, so you'll need to camp within the upper half — or 8 miles — of the trail if starting from FS 231 / Woody Mountain Rd. Though we did see old fire pits, campfires and open flame are not allowed; you may use backpacking stoves only. No permit is required to camp overnight.
If doing this as a day-trip, I recommend allowing at least 12 hours to reach the end. That's how long it took us, and we were moving all but about an hour and 15 minutes of the time, other than a few breaks for lunch and snacks and to sit for a bit to enjoy the canyon. Some people take hours longer to hike the length of the canyon.
Clothing & Gear Recommendations
Not including camping gear if you're doing an overnight or your food and personal items, consider bringing or wearing these things if you're going to thru-hike, or even go out-and-back, in West Fork.
- Long pants: There's lots of poison ivy in the canyon and thick brush to push through. Sometimes you can't even see your feet.
- Wet suit: The swims are cold, even in the warmest months. We hiked in late June, and it was hot enough in the canyon that we warmed up immediately after getting out of the water. But in other conditions (e.g. overcast) or time of year (spring, fall), you may want a wet suit. Hypothermia is no joke.
- Dry bag and other waterproof containers:You and your gear WILL get wet, so protect your stuff accordingly. I used a dry bag inside my pack, along with baggies and small plastic bottles to keep my extra gear and food dry. Two friends carried dry bag packs.
- Sturdy shoes:You'll be rock-hopping and bouldering most of the time when you're not wading or swimming, other than the last three miles of trail at the lower end of the canyon. So, to us it made sense to wear one sturdy pair of shoes the whole way — I wore trail runners -- and just get them wet, rather than constantly switching out footwear for swimming and wading. We also carried a lightweight pair of extra shoes or sandals for using during breaks. If you're camping, you'd probably want a dry pair.
- Hiking poles: Two of us in our party of four used trekking poles. I carried mine the whole time and relied on them a lot when rock-hopping and for testing the ground and rocks in front of me in thick brush. I just held them in one hand when swimming. My friend telescoped hers and put them on her pack for the swims and when just wading.
- Water filter: While it's very doable to carry all of the drinking water you'll need for the entire hike, especially if doing this as a long day-trip (I had a gallon total between my Camelbak and bottle), definitely bring a water filter for the group. (We had a Steripen with us.) This is not water you should drink without treating it first — we even saw a dead beaver floating in one of the pools. Also, I would keep mouthpieces of water bladders out of the water when swimming.
More Information About this Hike
- West Fork of Oak Creek
- Secret Canyon to West Fork Thru-Hike Backpacking | RootsRated
Overnight or day hike in the stunning narrows of West Fork Oak Creek Canyon
- Coconino National Forest - West Fork of Oak Creek No. 108
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2019 Deb Kingsbury