Dogies Climb Up to Harding Springs

September 29, 2023


By Sara Stiffler

State Route 89A snakes through Oak Creek Canyon below the Harding Springs trail. The trailhead is located on the east side of 89A, just a little bit north of West Fork near the entrance to the Cave Springs Campground.

Sedona offers such a wide variety of hiking options within the city and near the Village of Oak Creek. With the beautiful red rock landscapes and views, it might be easy to overlook the trails north on Highway 89A in Oak Creek Canyon. Of course, everyone knows about West Fork, and the parking entrance often has a long line of cars waiting to enter, especially on the weekends. If you want to avoid the crowds and try something different, other Oak Creek Canyon trails offer beautiful vistas and a change of topography that make them well worth the drive.

The Sedona Westerners’ Dogies group did just that. Despite a threat of rain, they explored the Harding Springs trail. The trailhead is located on the east side of 89A, just a little bit north of West Fork. A small parking lot is located near the entrance to the Cave Springs Campground, so the hikers met up at Posse Grounds and carpooled to the trailhead parking area. There they stretched their legs after the ride, strapped on their backpacks, grabbed their hiking poles, and started the hike.

Led by Dave Vanderwater and Dan Celeste, the group successfully navigated the first challenge of the day - crossing the busy highway - and headed up the steep, well-maintained trail. Gaining approximately 750 feet of elevation in the first mile, the trail can be a little intimidating. While a casual observer might have assumed their pauses and breaks on the ascent were to catch their breath, there were plenty of other excuses, I mean reasons, for occasional rest stops including shedding a layer of clothes as they heated up, learning a little about the history of the area, and enjoying the various vista points. Highway 89A looked like a thin black ribbon from such a high elevation.

What we know as the Harding Springs trail once served as a vital lifeline to move goods and stock between the low-lying creek areas and the high country for the area cattlemen and early settlers in the canyon. The canyon walls were too steep and treacherous for wagons laden with goods to navigate, so wagons coming from higher elevations stopped at the top of the canyon wall where their contents were loaded onto horses that were then led down to the canyon floor via the Harding Springs trail. Overgrown sections of the wagon roads are still visible at the top of the ridge and occasionally join in to serve as part of the trail.

About halfway up the steep slope, several large, heavy, wooden structures that look like oversized hitching posts line the trail. These huge posts are reinforced with rebar and seem more suitable for hitching up elephants than horses. A member of the group shared that the structures were lashing posts used in the mid-twentieth century to secure heavy water pumps used for fire-fighting purposes that moved water from Oak Creek to the top of the ridge. After catching their breath - rather after learning this bit of history - they continued to the top of the canyon wall.

Reaching the top, their efforts were rewarded as the trail leveled off and they were met with beautiful views looking across Oak Creek Canyon. Despite the noise of the traffic below, the hikers could occasionally hear the water of Oak Creek as it moved through the canyon. Following the trail to the north, they passed through the mixed conifer forest atop the ridge which provides much welcome shade on a sunny day. On this warm overcast day, however, they enjoyed the shade from the mostly cloudy sky that had thus far kept the rain to itself.

They continued the trail for over a mile as it gently wound through the forest. The occasional fallen trees were easily hiked over, under, or around. They reached a rocky area that contained a very small spring - so small, in fact, that it could easily have been mistaken for a small group of rain puddles. This was the Harding Spring - for which the trail was named. One can only hope the water flowed more freely for the earlier settlers, visitors, and animals inhabiting the region.

As the trail approached the edge of the canyon wall, they found an area with beautiful views of the canyon and the switchbacks of Highway 89A. Big, flat rocks served as seating and they were able to rest comfortably, eat some lunch, and share stories and conversation with their fellow hikers. As their lunch time was winding down, a few drops of rain arrived and heavier rain seemed quite possible in the near future, so they decided to get back on the trail. 

Among the many pleasures of this out-and-back hike is the knowledge that the effort and work expended on the long, strenuous journey up the hill would be rewarded with the ease and enjoyment of its equal and opposite trip back down the hill.  They were nearly back to the parking area when the rain began to fall in a gentle but steady drizzle. The cool drops were surprisingly welcome after the efforts of the day, and the hikers were grateful that the heavier rain had waited patiently until they were safely back in their cars and headed back to Sedona.

To learn more about the Dogies and the Sedona Westerners Hiking Club, to view this season’s hiking schedule, and to become a member or renew your membership, go to www.sedonawesterners.org. There are more than 200 hikes scheduled through May 9, 2024, and the membership fee is only $30 for the whole season.

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