On a clear and sunny November day, my wife and I loaded up our little Toyota Prius for a weekend trip to Oak Creek Canyon.
With a reservation to stay the night in a cabin at the Forest Houses Resort, I was itching to grab a hike in Sedona along the way. As is often the case, my wife’s intuition was much more accurate than mine. Here’s a rough approximation of our exchange as we drove out of town:
WIFE: “It’s Saturday, don’t you think the trails will be really busy in Sedona today?”
ME: “It’s November. Tourist season is dying off. It’ll be fine!”
I should have known better. God, should I have known better.
Two hours later, as we drove along Highway 179 through Sedona’s rolling foothills, we found every single trailhead packed to the gills with cars.
Each time we pulled off the highway, I optimistically mumbled, “Let’s try this one.” Alas, not only were the trails busy — there was not even a single open parking spot.
Inevitably, every trailhead sported a group of mountain bikers lounging by their trucks after a morning ride, basking in the 65-degree sunshine. Each time, they glanced at me through the windshield with a look that said, “Yeah, tough shit, dude.”
My heart sunk progressively deeper as even my semi-secret somewhat-off-the-beaten-path spots were filled to maximum capacity.
With my pride wounded, we headed up 89A into Oak Creek Canyon. My ever-brilliant wife said, “Why don’t we try the trail by the campground?”
“It’s worth a shot,” I said.
Braving the “Cold”
Pine Flat Campground, a long-time favorite summertime camping spot for my wife and her family, is located in the far upper reaches of Oak Creek Canyon. At a much higher elevation than Sedona proper, it sports a “cool” four-season climate.
We pulled off the highway into a roadside pullout adjacent to the empty campground. A gate blocked the campground entrance — closed for winter.
Even though it was one o’clock in the afternoon, the November sun was low in the southern sky and unable to arc its rays into the canyon bottom. Our thin-blooded desert-adapted bodies were not prepared for the shock of the cool weather outside.
After a long Phoenix summer of endless 100 degrees days, the 50-degree air felt frigid, especially in the shade of the towering canyon walls with a swift breeze wafting through the forest.
Yes, we had jackets, winter hats, and gloves, but we still shuddered in the “cold”. With just a couple other cars stopped at the nearby roadside spring, we knew we had finally beaten the crowds.
Dressed for a blizzard, we began our hike by crossing the highway by the spring. Soon we met a familiar metal trail sign that read “Trail 143 Cookstove”. Here a young man in his mid-twenties began his own adventure. He was the only soul we met on the trail that day.
Switchbacks and Pine Needles
Amid the dormant yellow-brown grass and fallen pine needles, the Cookstove Trail swept us immediately upward. Tight switchbacks cut into the sharply angled slopes of the canyon’s lower walls allowed the trail to elevation quickly.
Our breathing labored under the strain of a brisk uphill walk. Gradually, the “cold” felt less piercing as our bundled bodies radiated heat. Carpets of fallen pine needles covered the trail’s narrow tread.
The first of a trio of on-trail landmarks appeared on our right: the Baboon Butt. Years ago a family of hikers told us their name for this natural feature.
In the flesh, it’s just a stunted branch of a juniper tree, but the slightest bit of imagination unlocks its resemblance to a primate’s rump. The “butt” isn’t a sight to ponder for long but provides a quick laugh or smile for passing hikers.
Nearing the edge of a ridge, the trail teetered on the lip of a sandstone cliff. We tiptoed across a hunk of lumber placed precariously close to the abyss.
I warned our little dog Trip, “Careful, Buddy!”
As I looked down on the tree-clad ravine below, my memory jarred with sounds and visions of snow-melt fed cascades witnessed in the canyon bottom during a winter hike years past.
In short time, we departed the shadows of the canyon floor. Sunlight glazed the dormant grass at our feet and immediately warmed our moving bodies.
Within minutes we couldn’t help but shed layers of clothing, overheated by newfound sunshine and steep hiking.
We also found a change in ecosystem on this sunny south facing slope. Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir gave way to chaparral and scrub woodlands.
Agave plants, scrub oak, and alligator juniper dominated the foreground as impressive views of Oak Creek Canyon opened in the distance.
The autumn atmosphere came into play as the fallen leaves of Gambel oak littered the trail and its shoulders. We clamored up the leaf-clad slopes, a satisfying crunch audible with each step.
Burly handrails line the trail in places, built from massive cylinders of lumber. These bull-sized banisters are functional if not overkill but make for an amusing trailside oddity.
Soon we arrived at landmark #2 — my favorite on the Cookstove. I call it “the Balcony.”
About two-thirds of the way up the ascent, an outcropping of tan sandstone extends out from the trail to form a superb observation platform.
An unobstructed panoramic view of the canyon spread out before us.
It’s easy to get drawn to the expansive view and stumble in a trance toward the cliff’s edge. The sudden lack of solid earth underfoot breaks the trance and reminds the hiker that one wrong step may result in a deadly tumble.
The wonder of the grand expanse is complemented by agaves sprouting from cracks in the Balcony’s sandstone slabs. Do these stoic plants look upon the view with such frequency only to take it for granted?
Following a brief stop at The Balcony, we continued up the trail with the canyon rim only a third of a mile distant. The trail once again entered the tall pines, switchbacking less aggressively through a forest strewn with volcanic boulders.
In one last hard push, the trail carried us up a twenty-foot tall ledge of gray lava rock. Here we reached landmark #3 — the eastern rim of Oak Creek Canyon.
While the Balcony has a much better view, the rim has its own charm. Confined in a cluster of thick pines, there are no panoramic views, but an intimate glimpse through the trees. The needle-clad branches of ponderosa pine perfectly frame a view of the rugged, buff-colored sandstone cliffs across canyon.
In the other direction, an expanse of forested plateau extends back from the rim, sprinkled with ponderosa, pinyon pine, and alligator juniper. It’s not unheard of for this gently rolling woodland to entice an avid hiker into wandering off into a relaxed off-trail stroll.
After a bit of poking around on the rim, the descent back down Cookstove was easier on the lungs but harder on the joints. I could feel it in the knees descending the steep slopes and giant steps.
Downhill walking on the loose soil encourages spills and falls. Even the most cautious hiker may end up on their butt, but hopefully no worse for the wear.
Treading gingerly, we once again penetrated the deep shadows on the canyon bottom. The brisk wind, once feeling so frigid, now felt refreshing as we approached our waiting car.
Rejuvenated by the invigorating hike, Cookstove set the tone perfectly as the start of our weekend getaway.