The West Fork of Oak Creek trail was one of our favorites in Sedona. It’s a hike through a beautiful gorge which follows along the creek and provides ample shade, fantastic views, and the opportunity to do some exploring.
It’s a relatively easy hike with big pay offs and also provides a big change from the other surround red rock desert hiking terrain. It doesn’t feel like you’re in a desert much at all. It’s a pretty popular trail and often trafficked by kids and dogs. You can do this trail as an easy day hike or an overnight backpacking trip. Details for both are below!
- Distance: 6-12 round trip (depending)
- Type: Out & Back
- Time: 3-6 hours
- Elevation at trailhead: 5,317 feet
- Elevation Change: 732 ft
- Difficulty: Easy-Moderate
- Crowd Factor: Moderate – High
- Best Time: May-June, Sept-Oct
- Permits/Fees: No
- Water: Yes, needs to be filtered
The trailhead for the west fork oak creek hike is located roughly 10miles outside of Sedona proper on Route 89A along an absolutely beautiful scenic byway. The drive from Sedona to the trailhead is curves through towering red rock sand stone formations and crosses a deep scenic gorge. It’s a drive that you’re going to want to enjoy.
There is a paid parking lot at the trailhead that opens at 8am and costs $9 to park. As this is a popular hike, if you want to get a spot, you should try to get here as close to 8am as possible. The lot is a reasonable size and probably fits 50-ish cars, but will still often fill up by 8:30am. If the lot is full, then you’ll have to park along the side of route 89A (there are plenty of pull outs where you can park north of the trailhead), which adds extra length to your trip.
If you’re backpacking, note that overnight parking is not allowed in the parking lot. You will have to park along the side of the road on Route 89A in one of the many pull outs north of the trailhead. These are available on both sides of the road and hold roughly 10-12 cars each.
As further overflow if needed, you can also park along the roadside too as long as you fully pull off the road.
Where to camp
Overnight camping is only allowed 6miles beyond the trailhead. The maintained portion of the trail only lasts for 3.25miles, so you still need to go another 2.75mi beyond this point before you can set up camp (which is also the fun part).
There will be signs that let you know how far you need to go and when you’re allowed to start camping. Once you’ve passed the 6mi mark, then you can camp pretty much anywhere you want (we’ll get to some more specific campsites later on).
What to expect along the trail
This is another very popular trail in the Coconino National Forest, so I’d recommend starting early (even aside from the parking situation) so that you can have some peace and quiet on the trail. The first roughly 3miles is well maintained and easy – we saw lots of families with kids and snowbirds hiking this trail.
From the parking lot you’ll start by crossing a pretty impressive bridge across the creek. Then it’s a short stroll through an apple orchard along the side of the creek. The apple trees are pretty, but not tall enough to provide any shade and this area is pretty exposed.
You’ll shortly come to the ruins of an old settlement that includes remnants of fireplaces, stone floors and a cliff house or root seller. They’re leftovers from the Mayhew Lodge, a classic inn with colorful history, including visits from celebrities. The plaque will also tell you a story about the original inhabitant of this area who supposedly killed grizzly bears that he met in the gorge with is bare hands.
Shortly after this you’ll enter the the gorge with towering rock walls all around you and a forest of Douglas firs, Maple trees, reeds, grasses, and some wild flowers. The walls are awe inspiring and you’ll constantly be craning your neck to try to take all of the scenery in.
The trail follows along the creek, crossing it 13 times over the next three miles. Others have placed rocks and downed trees/logs across the creek, so that you can cross without getting wet.
The creek has eroded some of the red rocks at it’s edge in some places which creates a really beautiful curved hillside in some areas. This is a really unique and beautiful feature of this trail and something at least I haven’t seen yet on any other hikes.
The trail is mostly shaded, especially in the morning, as the sun doesn’t reach over the tall cliffs yet. There’s plenty of tree cover as you walk along the trail and the only time you might get a lot of sun expose is mid day when the sun is directly over head and you aren’t protected by the shadows of the cliff walls.
The trail is easy to follow as it winds along the creek. There are a few rocky “beaches” and areas where it’s easy to get closer to the water and spread out and relax.
At roughly the 3 mile mark, the trail will leave the creek side and go up along a ridge above the creek. We almost thought this was the end of the maintained trail at first since there’s a large rock pile and then the trail climbs up stone steps to the ledge above before continuing. From here it’s just another .25 mi until the end of the maintained portion of the trail, which ends at a shallow pool.
After the end of the maintained part of the trail, you will get wet if you’re continuing! If you’re backpacking, it’s another another 2.75mi beyond this point before you can set up camp.
It’s unavoidable to stay out of the water from this point on. Most of the crowds will fall away at this point as many people won’t want to get their feet wet and aren’t prepared for walking through the creek.
I highly recommend water shoes and neoprene socks. These are the water shoes that I use and they’re great. They’re a little more expensive than my cheep-o first pair, but totally worth the extra bucks as they give you much more support and are basically a sneaker which dries quickly. Neoprene socks are also super helpful, to protect against blisters, and also to keep your feet warmer. We both did this entire hike in our water shoes only and were just fine.
Directly after this little pool, you’ll need to cross through the water to get to “the tunnel” (which is the most picturesque part of the hike). Depending on the time of year and water level, you can try to shimmy along the edge of water on the tunnel walls and will be able to for the most part stay dry as you hike through the tunnel – BUT you have to walk through the little water pool to get to the tunnel in the first place. So it’s really unavoidable that you’re going to get a little wet.
Even if you’re not backpacking, I HIGHLY recommend continuing at least just a little past the end of the maintained trail into the tunnel. It’s the most beautiful part of the hike and the area just after the tunnel is really stunning as well.
Note that the water is FRIGID! We did this hike at the end of April/early May and the water was probably about 40degrees – there were several snow packs along the side of the creek (just to put it in perspective). It was so cold that if we spent more than 10secs in it, that we couldn’t feel our feet anymore and pain was radiating up our legs. There was another group continuing on ahead of us and they didn’t seem to be as affected by the cold, so I guess it just depends on your tolerance. I had read another blogger’s trip report before we did the hike, and she did it in Oct and also talked about the frigid water (and in Oct it’s now had all summer to heat up!), so I think it’s pretty darn cold year round.
For the next mile or so, you’ll continue to follow the creek through the gorge and there is a slight discernable path to follow. It’s not a maintained path, but you can still see where others have come before you. And you’ll be able to stay mostly dry and out of the water for that next mile.
There are some areas under the rock overhangs on either side of the creek where people have obviously camped here and had fires even though you’re not supposed to and are still not far enough away from the trailhead.
After this point (you’re now roughly at mile 4.5), you’re going to have to get wet again. The gorge narrows considerably and bends to the left (northwest). For us there was also a large fallen tree path in the middle of the entrance to this section. The rock walls are too steep to shimmy along to stay out of the water. Here the water also gets deeper – depending on the time of year, the water can be thigh or even hip high.
The streaked walls of the gorge are quite impressive as you exit the pool and continue through a more shallow stream of water cascading over slick rocks. You’ll then encounter another deeper pool (again thigh or hip high) and also some boulders in the gorge which you’ll have to climb over or shimmy around. There’s then another deep pool, which you can mostly avoid by shimmying along a ledge on the left.
After a few more pools and boulders, the gorge will wide again and turn to the right (north) with more brushy scenery. The gorge continues this way for the rest of the trail – there will be twists and turns as the walls narrow and widen, pools of various depths that you have to shimmy around or wade through and boulders to climb over. The deepest pool is around mile 5 after a straight section. This pool can be 6ft deep or more, but can be bypassed by walking along a shallow slippery rock ledge. All though I did read on some other blogs that some parts of the trail required swimming through the pools.
The gorge widens when it junctions with another canyon, which is also around mile 5.75. Boulders and fallen trees and branches become more common here as well as brush, which slows your pace. You’ll shortly come across a sign which says that you’re now allowed to camp.
Once you’re 6miles away from the trailhead, you can pretty much camp where ever you want. Keeping in mind the tenants of leave no trace, try to camp in an area where others have already been.
There will be traces areas where others have camped that are easy to find. Some of the best spots are:
- A little before the 6 mile mark, there’s a path leading up the bank. It’s a short, steep climb up to a flat camp site with tree benches and a firepit.
- Keep an eye out for a rope tided to a tree on the right bank shortly after the 6mi mark. The rope is to help you climb up the steep bank to get to a nice flat campsite at the top. Again with a firepit and stone chairs.
Campfires are prohibited in the West Fork, though you can see by the burn marks on the stones that others have definitely had fires. Backpacking stoves or propane stoves are allowed.
In addition to our:
These are the items that you’re gonna need on your trip:
Water shoes: Rubber Sole Mesh Water Shoes
If you’re backpacking this or continuing past the 3 mile mark, water shoes are going to be very helpful for keeping you warmer since they dry much more quickly than hiking boots. We did the whole hike in our water shoes and it was totally fine.
Trekking Poles: Adjustable Trekking Poles
Trekking poles are handy for the deeper pools of water. You can reach out and get an idea of how deep the water is before going in. Also, they can help you to stabilize yourself on some of the more slippery sections.
Gravity Water Filter: Platupus 2Liter (or similar)
This is such a time and weight saver. Rather than bringing a bunch of water, just fill up one of the bladders when you get to camp and let gravity do the work! You’ll have 2 liters of fresh clean water for cooking or refilling your packs shortly.