Hiking Oak Creek Canyon

Cathedral Rock

Arno wasn’t scheduled to leave Phoenix till 10 pm Sunday evening, so we decided to go north to Sedona for some more hiking and return to the hotel in time to get ready for the flight. I had seen the town the previous weekend on my Grand Canyon tour trip, and was not impressed. However, people told me the real draw of Sedona is the surrounding landscape, and the many trails to hike through it.

Arno, me, Bell Rock, Courthouse Butte

We were on the road relatively early and made our first stop at a U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center just south of the Village of Oak Creek on highway 179. It was the perfect first stop, and we received immediate personal attention once inside. Coconino Forest employee, Norris, asked a few key questions and then made his recommendation that we hike the Cathedral Rock trail. He said he’s been on them all, and this one is his favourite. He pulled out photos from the trail, and gave us large scale maps as well as zoomed in maps, and marked how to get there from where we were. He gave us hiking tips, reminded us to drink lots of water, and then recommended a place to eat because we were starving! If we had any extra time, he added, there was a viewpoint not to be missed, north of Oak Creek and near the airport. We should also stop and see the Chapel of the Holy Cross. He gave us meticulous directions to those attractions, as well. Finally, Norris took our photo with the eye-catching Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte in the distance, and sent us on our way.

Interior of Chapel of the Holy Cross

We arrived at the Marketplace Café at 10am but the note on the door said it wouldn’t open till 11am. We decided to use the extra time to go find the viewpoint and the chapel. The Chapel was pretty close and I was glad to go check it out. I had spotted it from the tour van the previous week, and wondered what kind of church it was. The building is a sharp geometrically precise wedge rising from a red rock outcrop. There is a parking area and we were soon at the church; an actual Catholic church with a spectacular view.

Would you believe this is my second home? (View from the chapel)

Next we found the vista, and even found a parking place in the shade! The views were stunning, indeed, since the road had taken us to a bluff, which meant the valley opened up into a 220 degree panorama. After snapping photos we headed back to the restaurant and had an incredibly delicious meal. It was without question the best meal I had eaten in Arizona so far.

View of the valley below the airport

We drove out Verde Valley School Road and found the Cathedral Rock trail at just about noon – probably the worst possible time to begin a hike in the desert in July. But we loaded up with water and were soon on our way. The trail we used begins with some tree cover and parallels Oak Creek for awhile. We passed a couple of swimming holes jammed with people, hollering children, dogs, and inflatable toys. Much as the water tempted us, the people repelled us. We knew the river remained close to us (though we could not see it through the trees), so once we were entirely out of earshot between two major swimming holes, we left the trail and cut through the forest. We came out in a section of creek that did not have the appealing access and deep pools that the other places had, but there was absolutely no sign of humanity. I took off my boots and climbed right down into the creek in my clothes and got soaked. It was amazing!

The beginning of our trail, with Cathedral Rock in the background. The saddle between the large rock tower back center, and the small tower just the to right of it, is where our trail ended. The volcanic rock is in the next saddle to the right.
Oak Creek - a perfect destination on a hot day

Arno was not too far behind me. Once we splashed around a bit and got cooled off, we sat smack in the middle of the creek and talked for about twenty minutes. It was probably the first time I had been cool outside since I had arrived in Arizona weeks before. Like heaven. We sat relatively still, and soon the forest creatures returned to their daily routines. We particularly liked the cardinals darting above our heads, who constantly caught our eye with their flashy red feathers.

On the trail again, the afternoon heat was no too bothersome in our wet clothes. I took a couple of videos, and many photographs of the scenes that captured my imagination. Though we had hiked a really steep trail the day before (Camelback Mountain), this one also offered a steep option. My quads were only slightly sore, and Arno was game, so we decided to hike up to the saddle between two of those red rock spires. This trail did not come with the metal fence or railing to hold onto, of course, and much of the “trail” was a slick rock scramble right up the face of the mountain. I came to a stop at the bottom of the worst stretch of it. “Um. I’m actually not so cool with this,” I told Arno.

Arizona skies during monsoon season are the best!

I had never (note the definition of “never”), never hiked directly up a sheer rock face before. I was keenly aware that my hiking partner was a rock climber. My heart began to thump wildly just looking at the “trail” in front of me. (Don’t ask why I keep referring to it as a trail, except that there were elaborately constructed cairns suggesting that some official entity was thinking that our route was a trail…) The only reason I went forward was out of pride: 1) there were people coming down the sheer rock face as I watched, who were obviously not professional athletes, and 2) there was an athlete standing right next to me, telling me “go, I’ll be right behind you.”

I love the ocotillo along the trail

Yeah right, buddy! Try and catch my pathetic ass as I roll down the mountainside past you! I envisioned the return journey, standing at the top of this 400 foot slope of rock with a deep valley below me, planning where to put my toes, and it seemed impossible. The pounding in my chest was getting close to panic stage and the only way to deal with panic is to not let it happen, so I launched myself ahead and up. Arno, happily set his feet and hands securely into place after me, and as he climbed, he began trying to give me reassuring suggestions about what to do if I slipped. “Don’t talk to me!” I snapped loud enough for him to hear behind me, though I did not dare turn my head. “I need to keep going; so I can’t think about anything!”

And up I went, toes desperately balanced on one small lump or crack at a time, continuing to move ahead almost by will alone. There were times when I had no place to grab, and just laid my hand flat on the rock surface and used the friction of my sweaty palms against the red rocks to pull me up. Any time I got a decent purchase with a toe, I would push hard, to use the forward momentum in case the next few handholds were worthless. Soon I was at the top, heart still raging against my ribcage. Arno says, “You actually went up pretty fast.” Oh, bite me.

View from the saddle

The rest of the route to the saddle was an actual trail, and I calmed down by the time we reached the top. Whoo! What a rush! The top was a narrow ridge (4 feet across?) and a serious breeze blasted us once we got there, which was very refreshing. We scrambled around the ledge for one more agenda item before we headed down. Norris had told us about a place to our left where a crack had opened in the earth to allow magma to surge up. The red rocks have worn away and left a striking grey wedge of volcanic rock. It seemed intriguing by his description, and was very very cool to see (and climb over) in real life. From that same vantage, Arno pointed out a sill in a nearby rock tower, where a horizontal layer of deep maroon rock lay between the terra cotta red rock like the frosting layer in a cake.

Swath of cooled magma unexpectedly bursts forth from the red mountain
Can you see the dark sill of rock? Click the image for a larger version.

Our trip back down was less dramatic. I had good boots on, and was able to plant them flat against the slick rock section and simply walk down the side of the mountain. When we got back to the creek, we were totally dry and hot again, so we jumped in again. This time at a deep pool where we could actually swim. It was late afternoon and we had to get back to Phoenix. We stopped in and ordered dinner to go at Marketplace Café (I am telling you – VERY good food!), then made the long journey back to the city.

Sadly, Arno only had time to shower and cram everything into his suitcase and jet out the door in order to catch his flight in time. So I was forced to eat his dinner for lunch in class the next day.

View along the trail
"I made it!!"

6 thoughts on “Hiking Oak Creek Canyon

  1. Good for you! I once went on a hike in the Burren, Ireland, where the guide assured us that it would be an easy trail. It turned out that he was making the route up as he went along and he must have thought I was a better climber than I am. I ended up facing a vertical piece of rock (admittedly not very high) and it nearly had me in tears because I couldn’t see a way to get back down either (because I’m not very good with heights). The guide had to take my pack off me and literally haul me up it.

    1. I can relate to how you felt. People who don’t climb much have a different perspective of vertical rock, that climbers just don’t seem to empathize with. I’m glad you made it safely and I hope it was worth the climb, in the end.

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