An Early Season Hike up West Fork of Oak Creek

It’s only the second week in April and that is still early in the season for hiking up West Fork of Oak Creek. There are numerous water crossings along the 3.3 mile maintained trail; these are usually easily crossed on stepping stones or small logs placed across the stream. Beyond the maintained trail, however, there are several water crossings that are simply too large for stones or logs and one must wade through the water. This early in the season the water is still chilly—and there was even some residual snow in the shadier parts of the canyon.

West Fork Oak Creek ("The Subway")
West Fork Oak Creek (“The Subway”)

We were especially interested in learning how the canyon had fared during the heavy rain events that occurred in January and February. Flagstaff, for example, received three times its normal precipitation (6.51 inches vs 2.16) in the month of February. And there were other periods of above normal flows in Oak Creek; e.g., mid January, early February, mid February, and an extended period in March that corresponded to snow melt at higher elevations.

USGS gauge data for Oak Creek showing several high flow periods this winter.
USGS gauge data for Oak Creek showing several high flow periods this winter.

Our interest ties back to the Slide Fire that occurred in this area in May 2014. In the aftermath of the burn, heavy loads of silt and ash flowed from the higher elevations and into the canyon. This turned a beautiful canyon with deep pools in the sandstone into a ash-blackened, silt-filled creek. For those who have long cherished the beauty of this canyon the results of the fire were heartbreaking.

Silt and ash have been flushed from this swimming hole in West Fork Oak Creek.
Silt and ash have been flushed from this swimming hole in West Fork Oak Creek.

But we knew that, in time, rain would scour out the ash and silt and return the canyon to its former pristine self. But normal rains were simply not enough to accomplish this. This would require sustained above-normal amounts of water. We traveled up the canyon in early January but, even then, most of the silt from 2014 was still there. But the heavy rains were about to start.

Another narrow section of West Fork Oak Creek that has been cleansed of silt and ash.
Another narrow section of West Fork Oak Creek that has been cleansed of silt and ash.
This large pool was filled with silt after the fire. Now it is finally clear again.
This large pool was filled with silt after the fire. Now it is finally clear again.

We were very happy to find that the heavy rains and runoff had finally cleared the canyon of silt and ash. Black, muddy shores and beaches were cleansed and replaced with deep, light-colored sand. Silt-laden pools were scoured out back to the sandstone bottoms and filled with beautifully clear water.

Large pool in West Fork Oak Creek.
Large pool in West Fork Oak Creek.

The canyon had finally recovered from the aftermath of the Slide Fire.

Wildflowers and Water in the Desert

Springtime! Most of the snow in the high country has melted and has been moving downstream into the lower elevations and the desert. This means that many of the normally dry washes and low-flow streams now have abundant water in them. In addition, the bountiful precipitation this winter has allowed wildflowers to bloom and populate the desert.

A deep pool in the Agua Fria River.
A deep pool in the Agua Fria River.

We took a day hike down the Badger Springs Trail and then along a section of the Agua Fria River within the boundaries of the Agua Fria National Monument.

Tyler Williams, in his Canyoneering Arizona, has this to say about the canyon:

The Agua Fria is a gem of a desert canyon. The bottom of this canyon is granite, sitting below rocky saguaro-studded slopes beneath a basalt rim. Proceeding downstream, you will be scrambling around, over, and under polished gray and white boulders that surround lovely pools.

Petroglyphs along the Badger Springs Trail.
Petroglyphs along the Badger Springs Trail.

We were disappointed in the wildflowers as there were only small patches here and there rather than the full hillsides of flowers I was hoping to see. On the other hand, there was plenty of water in the river creating deep pools and small cascades as the water plunged over the numerous boulders. The water in the river was not particularly cold so crossing or standing in the water was pleasant. If the air temperatures had been just a bit warmer and without breezy winds we might have enjoyed jumping in for a springtime swim.

Mexican Gold Poppy.
Mexican Gold Poppy.
Mexican Gold Poppy.
Mexican Gold Poppy.
Cascades on the Agua Fria River.
Cascades on the Agua Fria River.
Deep pool on the Agua Fria River.
Deep pool on the Agua Fria River.
Deep pool on the Agua Fria River.
Deep pool on the Agua Fria River.

Beautiful weather, easy hiking, lots of water, and wildflowers. Great day!

Clear Skies Make it a Good Time to View the Zodiacal Light

With exceptionally clear skies it was a good time to capture images of the zodiacal light. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about this astronomical phenomenon.

Zodiacal light is a faint, roughly triangular, diffuse white glow seen in the night sky that appears to extend up from the vicinity of the Sun along the ecliptic or zodiac. It is best seen just after sunset and before sunrise in spring and autumn when the zodiac is at a steep angle to the horizon. Caused by sunlight scattered by space dust in the zodiacal cloud, it is so faint that either moonlight or light pollution renders it invisible.

Zodiacal Light. (28mm lens)
Zodiacal Light. (28mm lens)
Zodiacal Light and light pollution. (16mm lens)
Zodiacal Light and light pollution. (16mm lens)

Both images above clearly show the cone of light extending upward. In the upper portion of both images is the Pleiades star cluster with the planet Mars just below and to the left.

Light pollution from Phoenix makes star viewing a challenge.
Light pollution from Phoenix makes star viewing a challenge.

It’s unfortunate that Arizona’s dark skies aren’t as dark as they could be. Increasing population and expanding cities throws more light into the night sky. And our state legislators seem to think that bright billboards are more important than the dark skies needed by the many telescopes located in the state.

Spring Conditions in Sedona

It’s March and the days are getting longer and warmer. The recent epic snow in Sedona has melted and most of the mud is gone to be replaced by perfect trail conditions. Melting snow from the higher terrain continues to flow down Dry Creek and Oak Creek and the runoff in the creeks is impressive.

Crossing Dry Creek on the new Outer Limits Trail.
Crossing Dry Creek on the new Outer Limits Trail.
High water flows down Dry Creek as seen from the recently rerouted Girdner Trail.
High water flows down Dry Creek as seen from the recently rerouted Girdner Trail.
Bridges can be useful when the water is this high.
Bridges can be useful when the water is this high.
Footprints.
Footprints.
Massive tubr blowout!
Massive tube blowout!

 

Winter Storm in Grand Canyon

A few afternoons ago, I headed up to the South Rim of Grand Canyon. My hope was to catch the nearly-full rising Moon as it appeared from behind Cape Royal on the North Rim. I was successful last year and I wanted to try it again — and get it even better.

A winter storm slowly departs Grand Canyon.
A winter storm slowly departs Grand Canyon.
Late afternoon sun briefly illuminates portions of Grand Canyon.
Late afternoon sun briefly illuminates portions of Grand Canyon.

A winter storm was winding down and there were breaks in the clouds by mid afternoon. But the breaks didn’t happen in the right place or right time to capture the moon rising above Cape Royal.

So it was time to switch to the backup plan and I ended up photographing the clouds and fog that were moving across the canyon along with all the fresh snow on the South Rim.