The awesome Arizona landscape that lured early Western movie makers and, later, New Age energy-vortex seekers to Sedona is still mesmerizing, providing hikers with excellent trails below fire-red cliffs and along cascading creeks.
Arizona Highway 89A links Sedona with Flagstaff, 30 miles to the north, and is one of America's great scenic drives. Along the way, a dozen trail heads tempt hikers with the promise of 1,000-foot sandstone walls towering above lush Oak Creek Canyon.
The best trails for first-time Sedona hikers are in Oak Creek Canyon, only a few miles north of town. Most paths here are routed near creeks, which run all year and offer opportunities for a swim.
Paradise, alas, isn't free. Visitors must buy the Red Rock Pass ($5), which permits you to park in Coconino National Forest. (The permits are sold at ATM-like machines in Sedona.) But this fee is reasonable because it includes a day-use pass for the forest and a map ($4 value).
However, an additional $5 fee is required for parking at each of the more attractive trail heads, such as Call of the Canyon and Grasshopper Point. Visiting popular Slide Rock State Park costs another $5. By the time my family reached Sedona (where everything is expensive), we had spent $20 on trail admissions alone.
Still, the experience was worthwhile. My family's hike along the West Fork of Oak Creek was among the best walks we've enjoyed. What follows is a description of that hike, followed by short rundowns of two other stops along Arizona 89A.
Directions to the trail head: From Sedona, drive 10.5 miles north to the signed Call of the Canyon trail head on the left, the start of the West Fork Trail.
The hike: West Fork Trail takes visitors into a spectacular narrow canyon, combining a dramatic tour of red-rock country with a gentle walk in the woods. The footpath crisscrosses the West Fork of Oak Creek, offering a superb sampling of the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness Area.
The canyon is packed with a marvelous assortment of trees: Arizona walnut, cottonwood, ash, Douglas fir, maple, oak and ponderosa pine. Columbine, lupine and Arizona rose splash seasonal color. Fields of ferns and tangles of wild grape also thrive here.
A quarter-mile from the trail head, we watched a bear cub cross a meadow and climb into a tree for a nap. We were fascinated but nervous--where was Mama Bear? After spying on the little bear for a while, we continued up the trail past lush foliage, soaring sandstone cliffs, delightful swimming holes and young Forest Service workers piling huge flat stones to mark creek crossings.
Most hikers travel a mile or two up the canyon before turning around; others trek almost three miles to the end of the marked trail. Experienced hikers and backpackers can continue on a mostly unmarked route for about 10 miles more up the canyon.
The drive from Sedona to the West Fork Trail has two other stops worth noting: Grasshopper Point and Slide Rock.
Grasshopper Point is 2.5 miles north of Sedona. It's marked with a signed turnoff on the right side of Arizona 89A. Here you'll find the start of Allen's Bend Trail, a one-mile round trip. Visitors often make the short walk downstream to the swimming hole at the base of sandstone cliffs; few venture upstream, less than half a mile to the north, where secluded swimming and sunning spots are located.
Water also is the draw at Slide Rock State Park, about seven miles north of Sedona off Arizona 89A. Here visitors can slide down slick rock chutes and relax in rock-rimmed pools.
My daughter Sophia, 9, loved Slide Rock, though I never got to join her in the water. (I spent the time giving first aid to a park visitor who had slipped and hurt her head.)
One trail leads to the swim area, while a second runs along Oak Creek; a third, the Clifftop Nature Trail, loops above the creek. Visitors can expect a mile or so of hiking total on these routes.
For more of John McKinney's tips, visit http://www.thetrailmaster.com.
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West Fork Trail
WHERE: Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness Area, Coconino National Forest
DISTANCE: From Call of the Canyon to end of maintained trail is 5.5 miles round trip with 100-foot elevation gain.
TERRAIN: Multicolored cliffs, lush forest.
HIGHLIGHTS: Arizona's red-rock country at its most magnificent.
DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Sedona Chamber of Commerce, tel. (520) 282-7722; Coconino National Forest, Sedona Ranger station, tel. (520) 282-4119