A Splash of Water in the Desert

November 17, 2023

By Kelley Malek

The Dogies hiking group of the Sedona Westerners stopped to admire this tiny red-spotted toad [Anaxyrus punctates] that began its life in Oak Creek near Crescent Moon Ranch.

When I tell people that I live in Arizona, the image that almost inevitably forms in their mind is one of vast plains of sand dotted with saguaro cacti and maybe a cow skull or two. I explain that Sedona is actually quite green, with juniper and pine forests and a beautiful spring-fed creek running through town. And in the hot weather that Sedona Westerners inevitably encounter in the earliest outings of the hiking season, we take advantage of the cooling shade and refreshing water by scheduling water-centric hikes.

For example, on a Sunday morning in mid-September, the Drovers hiking group met at the Baldwin Trailhead for a hike that started with a slippery crossing of Oak Creek. Water shoes and hiking poles ensured that everyone made it across to Crescent Moon Ranch with no accidental dunkings. Even at that early hour, the cool water felt good on our feet.

As we hiked trails above the Crescent Moon Ranch, we could see the centrality of water in this beautiful place. Trails had eroded significantly in some places from the torrential rains that came this past spring and during the monsoon. A wash still had pools of water that teemed with life. We were enchanted by tiny toads that hopped by the score near these pools. I wanted to know more about these cuties, so I later called Janie Agyagos, Wildlife Biologist for the Red Rock Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service. 

It turns out that we were looking at red-spotted toads, which are common and widespread in Arizona. The tiny toads had probably just metamorphosed from their tadpole form, which is why they were near water. Water is needed for breeding and for the tadpoles to grow but mature, red-spotted toads actually do quite well away from permanent water sources. They also grow to about three inches in size, so our little micro-toads wouldn’t stay so adorably tiny for long. While these particular amphibians are fairly prolific – and in fact are an important part of the food chain around here – other native amphibians are more susceptible to threats from nonnative predators like crayfish, bullfrogs, and nonnative fish.

After admiring the toads for a while, we continued wending our way up the wash. Unfortunately, there is a big negative associated with water: trash is carried down the washes by the torrents and is left behind when the wash dries up again. During our scout for this hike, and the actual hike itself, we collected about eight grocery bags full of garbage. Most of it was food or drink-related bottles – large and small – plastic wrappers, and Styrofoam cups. In a wash, on another hike, we encountered and removed a lawn chair and an outdoor table. I wish I could say that it was a cheap way to furnish my patio, but the chair and table were too far gone and went into the trash bin.

Emerging from the wash, our hike followed the trails below the airport. The skies above Sedona seemed busy; someone in our group posited that pilots were practicing their take-offs and landings. We hurried back down to Oak Creek, a bit upstream from where we had started – happy to escape the noise from the planes and helicopters and the heat on the exposed trails.

Wandering under the beautiful tall trees of the riparian forest along the creek, we came to an irrigation ditch. Built in the 1800’s, the one-mile-long ditch still flows with water. Back then it was used to irrigate the watermelons, peaches, and apples that were grown on Crescent Moon Ranch. Today, a community garden in the same location is permitted to use the water in exchange for keeping it flowing. This involves regular maintenance of the ditch, like trimming back vegetation and dredging out deposited sand. Bees and butterflies thrive on the flowers that bloom in the garden. The whole ecosystem near the river abounds with life.

We waded across Oak Creek once again, moving gingerly because of the slick green algae on the rocks. The cold water felt even better this time. On the way back to our cars, we paused at the swimming hole at Red Rock Crossing, where families had gathered with their water toys and picnics, sunscreen, and dogs. Some people may think Arizona is all sand and cactus, but clearly, others are in on our secret. 

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.

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