Why West Fork Trail
West Fork Trail is one of the most popular trails in Oak Creek Canyon, and for good reason. This 6-7 mile (3-3.5 miles in one direction) trek will take you through a beautiful side canyon. There, as you walk along the stream, you can enjoy a higher elevation riparian forest and a flowing stream. Both of these are rare in Arizona, thus locals love this area. Visitors to the state will also be treated to dramatic views of a pine-lined canyon with sweeping stone walls. In the fall, West Fork, Sedona gets even better, as it is one of the few places that you can see the trees change color in the state.
Reasons to Hike West Fork Trail
- Great views of a unique canyon in Arizona
- Get a sense for how diverse the landscape and ecosystems of Arizona are
- Nice trail for people trying to get into longer hikes, as it is relatively flat
- Lovely spot for families to stroll along (and through) the stream
- One place to escape the heat in the early or late summer
- Perfect place to see fall colors
In order to get to the West Fork Trail, you will need to take AZ State Route 89A, no matter which direction you are coming from. If you are coming from Phoenix, take the I-17 north to 179 towards Sedona. Once in town, you will come to a big round about with the 89A going in two directions, head north. West Fork is north of Slide Rock State Park on the left side of the road.
If coming from Flagstaff, take the I-17 south until the junction for 89A and then drive down through Oak Creek Canyon until you reach the parking area. This will be on your left.
Parking and Permits
There is a parking lot at the West Fork, Sedona trailhead, and it is $10 per vehicle to park. You can learn more about the permits and trail here. You do not need to purchase ahead of time, and this trailhead is manned during its hours, so you will pay when you get there, at the gate. Due to this, the trail is only open from 9a-7p.
This trailhead typically fills up extremely fast, so I would suggest getting there at least 30 min before the trail opens. The website says that parking will be full by 9:30a, so you might also want to know of alternative places to go. Some people will park along the edge of the road, but this is dangerous, so it is not recommended.
If you get there early and get in, there are toilets available for use at the trailhead.
Hiking the Trail
West Fork, Sedona, if you start from the Call of the Canyon trailhead, begins in one of Oak Creek Canyon’s grassy flats. After using the bathroom before you head out, you will head straight into the tree covered track and cross a sturdy bridge over the stream. Don’t get used to this, as this is really the ony bridge on the trail. The rest of the 13 creek crossings will be either across pebbles or just through the water.
The trail will take you south down Oak Creek for a short time, before twisting to the right, into West Fork. Here, the canyon walls will close in a little bit, and you will find yourself following the creek even closer. Once in the canyon, you will soon find yourself needing to cross the stream. Having good shoes on will immediately come in handy. With waterproof boots, you will be able to brave the water in cooler weather. With sturdy hiking sandals, you can splash into the water in the warmer months and cool off.
Crossing the Creek
This first creek crossing is a great place for families to stop, if they have members that won’t be able to cross. There is lots of room here for picnics and you will already be able to enjoy the tree cover and beautiful canyon walls here.
For those who continue trekking inwards, you will follow the trail as it weaves across the stream and twists along through the forest. The entire route is well shaded by trees. If you keep your eyes peeled, however, you will see all kinds of trees and shrubs, as Oak Creek sits in a transition area where the higher shrub forests give way to the pine forests that surround Flagstaff. Small mammals, many kinds of birds, and sometimes even deer may be apparent from the trail as well.
In terms of elevation gain, West Fork trail isn’t particularly difficult. From start to finish, there is about 400-500ft gain, so while you will be climbing in places, it shouldn’t be exceptionally strenuous. Of course, that being said, you will need to navigate the trail as it goes down to the stream, back into the forest, and then down to the stream again. There are spots where you will need to deal with narrow sections of the trail and climbing up short spans of rocks.
You will know that you’ve reached the end of the main section of the trail when the trail becomes completely submerged in the stream. Here, the canyon narrows even further, cutting off the forest from the water. People prepared to wade can keep going for some beautiful views of this part of West Fork, which resembles a slot canyon with its sweeping stone walls. People looking for an even longer trek can continue on through the canyon, however, most people turn around at this point so that they won’t require a shuttle.
- Your safety is always your responsibility. Do your research and always stay safe on the trail.
- West Fork Trail follows and crosses a running stream, so take all precautions necessary around water, particularly with children.
- The trail will cross the stream several times, so bring waterproof shoes or hiking sandals (Keens or Tevas) and cross with care.
- Make sure that your hiking shoes are broken in and fit comfortably.
- Bring extra food and water for your journey as well as first aid supplies.
- Avoid the heat and do not hike when it is above 100 F.
- Listen to your body and don’t hike further out than you have the energy and strength to get back from.
- Flash flooding happens throughout AZ; avoid hiking during storms.
- Let people know where you are going if you are going solo.
- Don’t climb anything or stand on cliffs for selfies or photos.
- Bring sunscreen and hats! During some times of the year, bug spray will also be necessary.
Best Times to Visit
West Fork, Sedona is best visited at any time but the dead of summer. Even in Sedona, it gets dangerously hot in Arizona and I would not suggest going on a long hike during this time.
Fall is an extremely popular time to hike the West Fork trail, and for good reason. This is the time to see all of the changing colors in the canyon.
Spring is also a lovely time to visit, particularly on years when Arizona has good winter rains. This means that there will be a higher chance of wildflowers. However, spring weather in Arizona can be somewhat variable, so make sure that you check the weather before leaving.
It does snow in the Sedona/Oak Creek area, so you may have to deal with snow if you go during the colder months. Depending on the year, however, the snow might come and go (or never really happen), so winter can be a great time for longer hikes in Arizona. It’s the best time to avoid the heat, particularly if the cold doesn’t bother you too much.
Sedona and Overtourism
I would be remiss if I wrote about any hiking near Sedona without mentioning that this area of Arizona is suffering from overtourism. This is a beautiful part of the state, there is no arguing that, but Sedona is often one of the ONLY places that travel bloggers suggest for my home state. Thus, everyone flocks there.
In the past ten years, it has become harder and harder to hike and hang out in Sedona, and West Fork trail illustrates part of the problem. While this was always a popular trail, it wasn’t always necessary to get there before the crack of dawn in order to enjoy its sights and sounds. Like many (or most) of the trails in Sedona, this is a place where local people are being pushed out by all the visitors.
It doesn’t stop at trails. The last time that I went to see the famous Chapel of the Holy Cross when some friends from New Zealand came to visit, I ended up having to drop everyone off and then sit with my car elsewhere because of the overcrowding.
Traffic in Sedona can also be a huge issue these days. The last time I visited, there was a traffic jam that snaked its way all the way from downtown to out of the town. Luckily for us, we were on our way out at the time. In either case, just be aware of the conditions that you may be facing if you visit Sedona, particularly in the high season.
How to Help
While I understand wanting to go somewhere despite the crowds when you are visiting. It is up to travelers to help address issues of overtourism. So, if this is something that you are likewise concerned about, here are some tips on how to help address this issue.
Tips and Suggestions
(1) Visit Sedona in the shoulder or off-season. Help spread out the love to more of the year. This also helps local tourism operators by creating less of a down season and supporting more jobs year-round.
(2) Limit the length of your visit to Sedona. Make a list of the main things that you want to see, and then spend the rest of your time exploring other amazing places in Arizona. Believe me, this state really does have so much to offer people that visit, and it isn’t just in Sedona. If you want some inspiration, we have plenty of posts to give you ideas about some lesser known locations.
(3) If you have to visit Sedona during the high season and want to spend most of your time there, be very contentious of the rules and be flexible. As visitors, we are just passing through, but our collective impact can make the lives of local people very difficult. In particular, parking can become a frustrating ordeal for everyone. Please, stay out of residential areas and out of dangerous roadside parking.
(4) Keep yourself safe. It may sound silly, but travelers being unprepared and getting themselves into danger is a major problem on some trails here. Do everything you can to be prepared and safe so that emergency services aren’t being overwhelmed.
Your comments about over tourism are spot on!
I think of myself as a “local” , having lived here for three months during the winter for the last 11 years.
I have hiked the majority of the trails around Sedona but it’s getting harder and harder to find any peace and solitude around here, let alone parking.
I was surprised to hear a couple of years ago that millions of dollars were being spent to attract tourists.
I think that exactly the opposite is needed!
There are at least three times as many people here as ten years ago but the infrastructure has hardly changed.
Our time here may be nearing an end because it’s just not enjoyable to encounter a big traffic jam getting in and out of our neighborhood ever day.
We loved the place but we came to de-stress not to get more worked up!
I am interested to learn more about Sedona’s plans for dealing with this issue. As you say, it is having an impact on locals and long-time visitors, and in the long-run, I think that will be bad for the town. So sad, but it’s a lesson in what overtourism can do to a place.