- this stream flows year round through a deep, forested canyon, quite narrow in places, with many pretty eroded rock formations and plentiful wildlife. The West Fork joins the main Oak Creek canyon near its north end, about 6 miles south of the point where highway US 89A descends from the flattish, densely-forested land that extends south from Flagstaff into the red rock country around Sedona.
US 89A is narrow and winding with few places to park at the roadside so most visitors to the West Fork are obliged to pay $10 per vehicle (2015) to use an official carpark beside the trailhead, at the
day use area, between milesposts 384 and 385. This is set in a clearing next to a grassy meadow which in summer is filled with wildflowers of every color and frequented by humming birds and large butterflies - a most attractive sight. Cheaper parking (just $5 for the Red Rock Pass) is possible on a few pull-outs along the main road.
A path crosses Oak Creek and follows it downstream for a short distance, passing through a the site of a ruined settlement, with overgrown remnants of fireplaces and stone floors still visible. There is also an unusual cliff house; all structures are part of the early 20th century dwelling of Mayhew Lodge
, long since abandoned. The official trail starts just beyond, near the West Fork confluence - the three mile route is well-used, with distance indicators every half mile, although the 2.5 and 3.0 mile posts are not obvious.
The canyon is hundreds of feet deep and moderately narrow from the start, wooded, overgrown and shaded with many fallen trees and old logs, often lying in the streamway. The path crosses the creek many times and is occasionally difficult to follow; in places there are paths at both sides. Wildlife is quite abundant, though not necessarily interesting; typical sights are butterflies, colorful birds, squirrels, lizards and snakes.
Rocks and Water
Red is the dominant rock color - most of the cliffs are of reddish-orange Coconino sandstone, with white Kaibab limestone much higher up. The sandstone rocks are multi-layered, often eroded into many curving shapes and with frequent short, tunnel-like passages, similar to the famous Subway
of Zion National Park. Occasionally the creek has pools 3-4 feet deep which harbour trout and other fish although usually the water (in summer) is only a few inches deep. The stream flows gently, and the hike is very pleasant and relaxing - only occasional sunlight reaches the canyon floor so the trip is ideal for the hot summer months.
Beyond the Trail
The trail is nearly always level and close to the stream, until near the 3 mile point where it climbs steeply above across a wooded hillside then drops down to a stony area in mid-river, a point which marks the end of the official path. Ahead lies a 50 metre long tunnel-like channel with sheer cliffs at either side and water about 1 foot deep. Thereafter the canyon is not much different to before - a few large pools (some over 6 feet deep) although the deepest wading required is only 3 feet, frequent cascades and small waterfalls, always with eroded, curving rock formations. Fish are more plentiful, their size proportional to the depth of pool. About half of the time is spent walking in the river, and half along the river banks, where a distinct path persists. Overhanging cliffs provide occasional sheltered areas for camping and fires, away from the water. The canyon does not become noticeably narrower, just gradually less deep. It is possible to continue through to the upper end of the creek, and meet with dirt roads in the Coconino National Forest - this is a 14 mile trip, and may involve some swimming of deep pools. One target for a day hike is the first major side canyon - also narrow, but very overgrown and difficult to follow - which joins from the south about 6 miles from the start of the trail. This 12 mile round trip takes from 5 hours.