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.
The Slide Fire started on May 20, 2014, and was fully contained 16 days later. In the aftermath of the fire, Coconino National Forest closed much of Oak Creek Canyon for safety reasons. Four months later, on October 1, the restrictions were lifted and recreational activities resumed.
We wondered how much—or how little—of West Fork Oak Creek (WFOC) had burned. There had been some information during and just after the fire indicating that in the lower section of the canyon there was only light to moderate burn severity and only over a small percentage of the canyon. (Detailed map from InciWeb.) Farther up in the headwaters there had been widespread low intensity burns.
So, finally, we hiked up WFOC to see for ourselves. The information was essentially correct and only small portions had burned and at low intensity. The canyon had survived. But there was still significant damage. Because of the burned areas farther up canyon, heavy rains this summer caused a lot of soil and ash to wash into the creek and flow downstream.
The creek channel was filled with silt and black ash. Where once the creek bottom had been smooth sandstone it now had several feet of silt and ash with deep channels carved through the silt.
This will slowly evolve back to its original state as winter rains and summer thunderstorms over the coming years flush out the silt and ash.
On a brighter note, we did see a late crop of ripening berries along the creek. Tasty!
One of the most significant changes occurred at the end of the West Fork Trail. The trail ends around 3.3 miles from the trail head where the canyon narrows and deep water is found from edge to edge. To travel farther upstream requires wading through water that is thigh deep in places. Most hikers turn back at this point; a few hardy hikers accept the challenge of water and no trail and continue upstream for many miles.
That has changed now as silt fills the slot canyon and a firm trail now exists where it once was only water.
Winter has arrived in northern Arizona with snow and very cold temperatures. On this morning (09 December), the temperature fell to -9°F in Flagstaff and -23°F at Grand Canyon Airport. That’s getting cold enough for West Fork Oak Creek to start freezing over allowing wintertime travel. It had snowed a few days earlier and with fresh powder this had the potential to be an interesting hike and photo trip.
But the creek wasn’t frozen enough. Where there were rocks or logs crossing the creek was possible — if not easy. But in spots where one had to cross an expanse of ice — well, no, not yet. Nothing quite like stepping out onto the ice and having it crack in spider web fashion under your feet — with knee deep water below. So, we were unable to travel more than about 1 1/2 miles upstream before returning.
We ran into only one other group of hikers on the trail. Although from California, they have lived in cold climes before and were not daunted by the cold and snow in the canyon. But they, too, turned around at the icy crossing.
There will be other chances later in the winter when the ice may be safely passable. Or, maybe not. It’s always a bit of a mystery on what we will find when we arrive at West Fork Oak Creek.