West Fork of Oak Creek has long been one of the most popular hikes in Sedona, and justifiably so. Even getting to the trailhead, the drive up scenic Oak Creek Canyon, has the effect on me of heightening my anticipation. A relatively level hike, crossing back and forth over the creek, framed within towering red rock walls, it offers reliable shade and cooling breezes in summer and surprises and delights in every season. In guidebooks, it is generally listed as a hike of 3 hours. We never, EVER, make it out in less than 5, and often linger much longer, our attention invariably being drawn by seasonal treats: wildflowers, butterflies, color changes, reflections. We had fallen in love with it all over again in recent years, making a point to hike it whenever we were in town on a weekday.
We were looking forward to more in-depth exploration this year, when news of the May 2014 Slide Rock fire reached us in San Diego, a few weeks before a planned trip. San Diego had just cooled down to normal May temperatures, ending a tense week of searing heat, dry winds, evacuations, speculation and anxiety, when word came of the outbreak of fire in Oak Creek Canyon. Not again! Friends and neighbors in Sedona described acrid smoke for days and curtailed hiking while it cleared. The smoke had largely dissipated by the time our long planned early June stay rolled around. Ironically, as we were to be joined by musician friends Kate and Alex on their first ever visit to Sedona, practically all of the plans I had previously made for the week revolved around Oak Creek Canyon, including yoga at Garland’s, dinner at Garland’s and of course, a scenic drive up canyon and a hike in the West Fork.
The mornings were still tinged by the barest whiff of smoke, and at times, a hint of haze hung over the red rock scenery, but overall, Sedona seemed quite normal. Our timing was lucky, with Garland’s reopening (after being evacuated) the very day of our planned yoga excursion and dinner later the same evening. I had called the evening before to confirm yoga was on the schedule and was assured it was, at 11 am. When we pulled up, I was horrified to see 4 guests lying down, evidently in the final minutes of a session that clearly was nearly over. It seems Garland’s runs yoga at 10 am in the summer due to the heat, and “someone new” at the front desk had misinformed me. Luckily, instructor Amy was amenable to leading a private class for us, which transformed us all into limp masses of dough by the end.
It was clear that Garland’s had narrowly escaped the blaze. From the orchard, the lower reaches of fire scarred canyon walls could be clearly seen abutting the fence. The drive up the canyon was amazingly unaltered, with the verdant roadside foliage as abundant as ever. However, looking up the higher canyon walls, fire-burned expanses could be seen. The remarkably normal appearance of the drive up canyon (only as far as Garland’s, “switchbacks” was still closed when we were there) and the pristine state of Garland’s gave me hope that West Fork might be spared. Later in the week, attending Sedona Photofest, Larry Lindahl’s opening presentation led me to think that probably was too optimistic. His slideshow seemed a sort of elegy for West Fork, which caused me to reflect on the many ways we had enjoyed this treasure, the many friends we had enjoyed it with, and prompted me to put together this small tribute to it.
During a summer hike in 2012, we happened one day on a glorious aggregation of butterflies, one or two per bloom, so intently slurping up nectar through their thin snorkels, that one could approach amazingly close! The first time we happened on this, we were only equipped with…the Iphone!
It quickly became apparent these butterflies was so preoccupied feeding, they seemed nearly indifferent to our presence. So, better equipped with monopods and the Nikons, back we went later the same week…and they were still there!
A magic and ephemeral sojourn…one I had hoped to recapture this summer.
At the opposite extreme…a snow coating transformed the canyon in the winter of 2013. One of the rare times we’ve had the canyon virtually to ourselves, with a fresh snow coat and icicles festooning the overhangs, it was a stunning wonderland of contrasts.
And fall, possibly the most sublime season of all, when it is ON. Pretty every autumn when the aspens lining the canyon turn gold, occasional pockets of brilliant pink and orange hues can dazzle the fall color seeker, rivaling the celebrated fall color shows of the East coast with a distinct and vividly Southwestern palette all its own.
A haven for creatures of all types, here are a few of our favorite encounters along the way.
What bounty! At this writing, how West Fork of Oak Creek fared in the fires and its future is uncertain. It is closed, at least temporarily. We heard that the high temperatures generated by the fires, burning trees embedded in red rock, make the stability of the rock overhead uncertain. We fervently hope the closure is temporary and that there will be future gifts to discover in its depths.