The first thing you notice when you hike the West Fork Trail in Oak Creek—before the towering cliffs or the stream that winds along the path or the easy-to-navigate sandy pathway—is the silence. It’s a stillness not often found in the Grand Canyon State, a stillness that heightens even the smallest of rustlings.
Gradually, you pick up on sounds—a low hum of breeze pushing through the tops of pines, the burbling of the stream, the scattering of rocks as some unseen creature skitters along the face of the cliffs. It’s sensory deprivation and exhilaration at the same time. And it’s the perfect antidote to the go-go rush of city living.
As I round the bend leading to the trailhead, I pass the posted guest book and take a quick glimpse—Folks from Germany! From South Dakota! From Brooklyn! From…Mesa! My daughter fills out our information and we head down an easy decline toward the trail.
All along the way, we check out the random cairns—for those that are unfamiliar, these are stacks of stones meant to mark the way—that kids had undoubtedly built upon. I remember our first trip out here, some 10 years ago, when my daughter was one of those kids, scanning the environs to find just-the-perfect-rock to add to someone else’s creation. Now, as a 15-year-old, she scans for a different reason, lugging a bag full of lenses and camera bodies. A budding photographer. An Ansel Adams in a Tilly’s hoodie, itching to make good use of a new macro lens.
And it doesn’t take long to find that perfect picture. Even in winter, there are plenty of flora and fauna to capture, which leads us off the sand trail in several places. Soon, we come to our first unofficial marker, the stream you need to navigate to continue up the trail.
This is one of the delights of West Fork—depending on the amount of rainfall in the area, the stream may twist and turn, showcasing many stone footfalls to hop across. Or, if it’s been a particularly wet season, the stream will be swollen, making the crossing a long jumper’s affair. Today, we guess it’s been a good, wet season. We have to jump from perch to perch, and at one point splash into the stream when there isn’t a suitable hopping spot.
As we wend our way along the trail—always within sight of the stream for the first mile or so—we take in the sights. Cliff faces that jut out along the path, rising into a sky where turkey vulture pinwheel. The shocking green of scrub brush hugging crevices in the sheer walls. The sway of the pines. And even the frost on the ground in places too densely shaded to find sunlight.
Two miles in, we temporarily lose sight of the stream, coming across giant boulders dotted with lichen. The trail enters a canyon of sorts and the temperature noticeably drops. It’s darker here, with the sky blotted out by overhangs of trees.
At roughly the three-mile mark, the trail becomes rougher terrain and, eventually, the groomed portion recedes to the point where you’d have to find your own way forward, scrambling over rocks or fording deep water. With a teen lugging camera equipment in tow, I decide to turn around and head back.
Still, the view is just as spectacular on the return trip. Different angles on the towering cliffs. A new view of the swaying pines. A different dance of light playing through the trees. And the stillness. Always the stillness.
To get to West Fork Trail, start out in Sedona and drive north on State Road 89A. The entrance to West Fork Trail is accessed through the Call O’ The Canyon recreational park, so look for signs identifying the park. There is a nominal fee for access to the area.
John Tomkiw is a ten year resident of Arizona, trading the canyons of Chicago for canyons of a different sort. He lives in Phoenix with his wife Beth, daughter Claire and 100-pound Bernese Mountain Dog Lily, who, ironically, is afraid of mountains.