Most of the time when we hike West Fork Oak Creek we do it from the bottom up. Only once before have we done top-to-bottom and that was back in 1999. We were new to northern Arizona and had read (Tyler Williams, Canyoneering Arizona) that this could be done in very long, hard day. He was right about the long and hard. We have since referred to that epic day as our bootcamp hike.
The passage of time can dim the memories of how hard and unpleasant things were. So here we were in 2019, twenty years later, and we wanted to do this hike again but with some modifications. We were not planning on hiking the entire length of the canyon. Instead, we would simply head down canyon and turn around when we had enough.
It didn’t take long to realize that even this would be a challenge. There is no maintained trail—and not even much of any hint of a trail at all. The vegetation was so thick we had to bushwhack our way through it. Remember that the Slide Fire in 2014 burned through this area (mostly low intensity) and this thick vegetation may be the result of the burn and regrowth. And there was lots of poison ivy. After the first few attempts to get around it we gave up and just plowed through it.
It took us about 2 1/2 hours to reach the first set of narrows about 3 miles down canyon. Just below the narrows is the confluence with Casner Cabin Draw—which ended up being our turnaround spot. We had some commitments that evening so we did not have unlimited time for exploration. Maybe that was a good thing!
I had just been looking at some old photographs from that 1999 hike so I remembered a few locations and took new photographs in the same spots. The tree on the right has grown substantially in 20 years.
We did not encounter any water in the stream bed until the narrows and even then it was a small pool only a few inches deep and a few feet wide.
I’ve also included a photo (a scanned Kodachrome slide) from that 1999 hike showing one of the “must swim” cold pools of water.
We enjoyed the quiet and solitude of the upper canyon.
In early July we invited some friends to join us for a hike up West Fork Oak Creek. This is a hike we used to do almost every year until the Slide Fire in 2014 . We made a short trip up the canyon when it reopened and were pleased that the canyon had not burned but saddened by all the silt and ash that had clogged the deep pools.
Earlier this year we did our first hike up the canyon in many years. Our main interest was to learn if the heavy rains of this past winter had successfully flushed out the silt and ash from the 2014 Slide Fire. As reported in a previous article here, the heavy rains had done a fine job of returning the canyon to its former pristine condition.
Now, with warm weather and sunny skies, it was time to hike as far up West Fork as time would permit. In the past, we have made it up and just beyond the “Camping Permitted” point which is around six miles up canyon. Years ago, we also did an end-to-end starting at Woody Mountain Road and hiking the entire length in a day. But since that “boot camp” day back in 1999, we have only hiked up from the bottom. This day was no different—except that we traveled farther up the canyon than any of our previous hikes. That’s a successful day. We spent about six hours hiking up and returned in about five hours.
Our friends were not able to commit as much time so they turned around after about 3.5 miles (i.e., after the “End of Trail” and just a bit beyond the first narrows).
The wildflowers were great. There were masses of Monkshood and Monkey Flowers—so I was motivated to get a photograph of both “monks*” in one shot. Nope. Apparently, they prefer slightly different conditions and while they would sometimes be close, they were never clustered together. Columbines were also in great abundance. And there were a few flowers we could not immediately identify but could certainly enjoy.
About a mile or so above the “camping permitted” sign we began to encounter thickets of brush from one side of the canyon to the other. These made forward travel very difficult. They also brought back memories of how challenging this section was back when we did the entire canyon. And, with that in mind, we declared that location to be our turn-around point.
The first image shows the full Moon rising behind Cathedral Rock. The day before Full Moon is a preferred time to shoot this type of image since the setting sun still throws a bit of light on the rock. Didn’t work this time as there were clouds in the west blocking the sun. Last month it was the other way around: clouds blocked the Moon but the Sun cast beautiful light on the rocks. Still, I like the way the Moon is framed between the pillars of Cathedral Rock.
The second image does not show the Moon but rather the light it casts upon the Grand Canyon. The Sun had set and fading sunset colors were still visible low on the western horizon. The first-quarter Moon was throwing plenty of light into Grand Canyon and casting long shadows. This was a long exposure of 30 seconds (f/4, ISO 800, 50mm) so one of the trees in the foreground shows a bit of thrashing from the evening breezes at Timp Point on the west side of the Kaibab Plateau.
The Thunder Mountain Trail (TMT), near Bryce Canyon National Park, has been on our To-Do list for a long time. We’ve driven by the trail many times while crossing that portion of Utah. We even did some mountain biking on the nearby Cassidy Trail many years ago—but didn’t include TMT.
Several times this spring we were ready to head out to Utah to ride TMT only to be thwarted by inclement weather. This has been a cool and wet spring across the southwest and many trails remained muddy or even snow covered through April. Again and again we postponed the trip.
Finally there was a break in the weather. It was expected to be warm and dry enough to dry the trails but not too hot as to make the ride uncomfortable. We also planned on riding a section of the Arizona Trail near Jacob Lake on our drive day. This would give us a few hours out of the car and on the bikes. Nothing too spectacular about the views on this section of trail as you are in the trees the entire time. Still, riding around at ~8000 feet elevation is something you notice.
We finished the day with food and lodging in Kanab, Utah. I have to tell you about our meal at Sego Restaurant in Kanab. They specialize in small plates and suggested that for two people we order 3–5 items. We went with five amazing dishes. Each was very different but with wonderful flavors and aromas. Worth doing again!
The next day was cool with overcast skies. This was unfortunate because it resulted in very muted colors and landscapes in a land where color defines the landscape.
We opted to park at the bottom of the mountain and ride up the paved bike trail to the gravel Forest Road and then, finally, to the Thunder Mountain trailhead.
And now it’s snowing, again, on Thunder Mountain Trail. Looks like we timed it just about right.
In celebration of this legacy national park’s centennial, the work of some of the country’s most talented photographers is paired with essays by canyon veteran Scott Thybony in a love letter to an irreplaceable place. Like candles on a birthday cake, 100 breathtaking photographs capture the deep and abiding appeal of Grand Canyon—as Thybony so eloquently writes, its “pure geometry of earth and sky.” This book is truly the “collector’s item” for Grand Canyon National Park’s centennial year!
I’m pleased to note that three of my photographs were selected for inclusion in this book.
The first image is an example of not giving up. I was packing up my gear to leave Lipan Point and drive home when a small cumulus appeared. I stopped what I was doing and watched it for awhile and realized that it might become a thunderstorm. So I unpacked the gear and set it up again and waited. The sun went down and then the storm started to produce lightning. And I got this shot of lightning exiting from the top of the storm, heading down in the clear and then going through a layer of low clouds before hitting and illuminating the ground.
The following two images were shot the same day. Thunderstorms were slow to develop but there was this interesting band of clouds just above the horizon. I waited until the sun was behind the clouds and the result was these beautiful beams of light and shadow spreading across the canyon.
Finally, after the sun had set thunderstorms developed across the North Rim of Grand Canyon. There was still plenty of twilight to backlight the storms and to produced some reflected light in the canyon.
“Leave it as it is. Man cannot improve on it, not a bit. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it.”
You cannot see the Grand Canyon in one view, as if it were a changeless spectacle from which a curtain might be lifted, but to see it, you have to toil from month to month through its labyrinths.