A Glorious Day Along West Fork
October 13, 2023
By Jan Taylor
The Amblers hiking group hiked along the WestFork of Oak Creek in Oak Creek Canyon. One can hike the full 7.5-mile trail with 26 creek crossing or choose one's own turn-around point.
On a crisp late September day, just shy of the autumnal equinox, the Amblers hiking group set out to hike along the West Fork of Oak Creek.
We planned to get to the entry station early to ensure parking since this is a very popular trail. Cars are often backed up on Highway 89A waiting in line for other cars to leave. Our planning paid off as there were plenty of parking spaces for our group, with many more to spare. As the season progresses and the leaves start to change, more visitors are expected on the trail, so plan accordingly if you wish to experience the fall colors of the canyon.
One of the great things about the out-and-back hike along the beautiful West Fork is that while you can hike the full 7.5-mile trail with 26 creek crossings (13 coming and 13 going), you can choose your own turn-around point and head back when you're ready. Since the Ambers do hikes anywhere from three to five miles, we planned to cross the creek nine times in each direction for a round trip hike of five miles, with a gentle elevation gain of about 268 feet. That was a good stopping point because, just beyond that the trail gets a little more complicated with more water crossings and basic rock scrambling as large rocks crowd the trail, replacing the beach-like sand of the earlier part of the trail. Our hike was led by Sara Stiffler (her first time leading a hike with the Sedona Westerners) and co-led by Jan Taylor who stayed in back to make sure no one got lost. Spoiler alert: No one got lost.
The beginning of the hike takes you through an old apple orchard that was planted over 100 years ago, with trees filled with green and red apples ripe for the taking. The first cabin built at this site was owned by Bear Howard, who earned his nickname “Bear” by vowing to kill bears in the canyon because one had killed his buddy. Over time, the Thomas family acquired and enlarged the cabin and planted the apple orchards. Zane Grey was inspired to write his novel Call of the Canyon while living nearby. The canyon served as the backdrop for the film adaptation of the book in 1923 and it was the first motion picture filmed in Sedona.
In 1926, photographer Carl Mayhew purchased the property. He added on to the original cabin, built additional structures, and opened the Mayhew Lodge - which was in operation by the Mayhew family until 1968. The lodge became famous - not just because of the many famous people who frequented it, including Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Stewart, and Clark Gable - but for the incredible beauty of the area surrounding it. The property was incorporated into the National Forest in 1968, but, sadly, the lodge burned down in 1980 leaving only stone and concrete foundations and fireplaces. The ruins of the old Mayhew Lodge are scattered throughout the area.
After walking through the apple orchard and past the ruins of the lodge, we crossed the bridge over beautiful Oak Creek and started heading into the canyon of West Fork. The red walls closed in over us abruptly and we were mostly in shade from that point on.
The tall walls of Coconino Sandstone are sheer and carved into incredible shapes - just remember to stop and look up - making every moment of the hike an “ooh-aah” moment. In fact, it’s hard to keep your eyes on the trail because of so much red rock beauty around you. But it’s imperative that you focus on the trail while you are moving because of the numerous roots and rocks. There are many sandstone areas covered in fine sand and dust, making them very slippery even in hiking boots. Staying on flat surfaces is very much recommended if at all possible.
After our nine stream crossings, we stopped for snacks at a scenic flat rock section of the creek. Although the water level was much lower than when we scouted the hike three weeks prior, it was still difficult not to get our feet wet. Some of the crossings had lots of rocks with good footing, while others had very spaced-out rocks that moved out from under you when you stepped on them. But they were all satisfactory with a little maneuvering and most of us stayed dry. Although the morning started out quite chilly, we shed our layers within a couple of hours and enjoyed a warm morning breeze. The leaves had not yet started changing color, but the promise was there for the next few weeks. It was a perfect day to enjoy the beauty of West Fork.
To learn more about the Sedona Westerners Hiking Club, view this season’s hiking schedule, or to become a member go to www.sedonawesterners.org. The hiking season runs through May 9, 2024, and the membership fee is only $30 for the whole season.