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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The canyon had finally recovered from the aftermath of the Slide Fire.
I awoke before dawn on New Years Day and was greeted with clear skies and a crescent Moon with the planets Venus and Jupiter shining brightly in the eastern sky. I drove out towards Mormon Lake anticipating great—albeit very cold—conditions for some sunrise snow photographs. On the way to the lake I encountered low clouds and patchy fog and there was nothing to be seen upon my arrival. It was already too close to sunrise to head back north or west so my only option was to wait and hope.
I missed the sunrise but about 20 to 30 minutes later the clouds cleared and the San Francisco Peaks were amazing. Low clouds and fog remained around the base of the peaks.
As the sun rose higher the side-lit rime ice on the wild grasses (i.e., weeds) at the Mormon Lake Overlook began to glisten and glow.
Temperatures were hovering in the low single digits and I was cold after standing around for about an hour. Time for breakfast and hot coffee.
The next day we hiked into West Fork Oak Creek knowing that the trail would be snow packed and there would be a dozen water crossings on ice—hopefully solid enough to support us. After several days of below freezing high temperatures and near or sub-zero overnight temperatures we were hopeful for safe ice.
There are several locations where water drips down the cliffs even at these cold temperatures resulting in wonderful icicles and bizarre ice sculptures on the ground.
We hiked to the “end” of the trail where it enters a narrow, rock-walled section of canyon often called “The Subway.” This was our turnaround spot.
On the way up the canyon we had not run into any other hikers. What a treat!
After a pair of back-to-back snow storms followed by sub-zero (°F) overnight temperatures we decided it was time to visit West Fork Oak Creek Canyon and see how the ice was developing.
As anyone who has hiked in this canyon knows, the trail crosses the creek more than a dozen times before the end of the maintained trail. In the summer it’s a simple matter of either stepping on the stones or just walking in the water. Getting wet is not an option in the winter leaving the stepping stones or walking on the ice if it is safe.
Most of the crossings we encountered had a mixture of stones and thick ice and we had no trouble crossing the stream. For additional traction we were using our Kahtoola microspikes.
The very cold temperatures and patches of open water resulted in surface hoar (i.e., fern-like ice crystals directly deposited on snow, ice or already frozen surfaces) developing and creating some interesting textures.