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Oak Creek Canyon
Distance from the ’Y in Sedona (one way): 15 miles
Attractions: Grasshopper Point recreation area, Slide Rock State Park, picnic areas, seasonal waterfalls, Oak Creek, Midgley Bridge, Hoel’s Indian Shop, Oak Creek Vista, Indian Gardens
When we first wrote about our favorite drives back in the summer of 2010, Oak Creek Canyon was at the top of our list. That hasn’t changed, and since it’s frequently named one of the most scenic drives in the country, we felt like it deserved a second mention. Besides, there’s just something about Oak Creek Canyon in the fall.
From the ’Y in Sedona, drive north on SR 89A through Uptown and into the mouth of the canyon. After one mile, you’ll drive over Midgley Bridge, which spans Wilson Canyon. You’ll pass Grasshopper Point, a popular swimming hole, and Rainbow Trout Farm, where families can fish for dinner. Three miles into your drive, you’ll come upon Indian Gardens, a great place to stop. Indian Gardens Oak Creek Market serves up delicious sandwiches that can be enjoyed in the market’s wooded backyard. Across the street, you’ll find Indian Gardens Park. Near the park, look for a historical marker that tells the story of J.J. Thompson, the first non-Native settler in this area.
If a picnic is what you have in mind, Encinoso Picnic Area, one mile north of Dairy Queen, offers picnic tables and restrooms. In the spring, snowmelt from the Mogollon Rim creates a waterfall, Encinoso Falls, on the other side of the canyon, opposite the picnic area.
Slide Rock State Park, one of the most popular state parks in all of Arizona, is located seven miles from the ’Y. We tend to stay away from Slide Rock in the summer when crowded conditions often mean a wait of several hours just to find a parking space. But in the fall, the crowds are sparse and the entry fee drops from $20 per car to $10. (The park also hosts a fall festival on Oct. 6 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
North of Slide Rock, the fall colors become vibrant by the middle and end of October. Traffic can be heavy on the weekends as people pull to the side of the road to snap photos of the golds, oranges and reds. Hoel’s Indian Shop, our favorite place to shop for Native American jewelry, is nine miles up the canyon in the private residence of Dave and Carol Watters. Don and Nita Hoel, Dave’s grandparents, opened the shop in 1945. If you’re serious about Native American art, you’ll no doubt appreciate Carol and Dave’s wealth of knowledge. One mile north of Hoel’s, Call ’O the Canyon and the West Fork hiking trail are located on the left side of SR 89A. West Fork is extremely popular at this time of the year, especially with photographers seeking to capture fall colors. The wait to enter Call ’O The Canyon in the fall can be as long as the wait to enter Slide Rock in the summer.
Thirteen miles into your drive, you’ll pass Sterling Springs on the left, usually surrounded by carloads of locals filling up their bottles with cold, fresh water. The highway passes over wooded Pumphouse Wash and then turns into a series of relatively steep switchbacks for the next two miles. The switchbacks, and our drive, end at the top of the Mogollon Rim, 15 miles from Sedona. Oak Creek Vista, on your right, offers jaw-dropping views of Oak Creek Canyon, including the road you just traveled.
Distance from the ’Y in Sedona (one way): 44 miles
Attractions: lakes, horseback riding, saloon
It feels like time stands still in the village of Mormon Lake. Perhaps the only obvious sign of the passage of time is at the lake itself, which can completely dry up depending on area rainfall. When it’s full, the 12-square-mile body of water is the largest natural lake in Arizona, but in the time that we’ve been visiting, we’ve never seen the lake even close to full. In fact, you’re more likely to find a huge marshy basin intermittently bursting with yellow wildflowers and bright green grasses, which can be even prettier than water.
From the ’Y in Sedona, head north on SR 89A through Oak Creek Canyon to the top of the Mogollon Rim. From the viewpoint at the top of the rim, drive 11 miles (bypass the exit for Interstate 17) to Lake Mary Road, and turn right. After six miles, you’ll reach the Lower Lake Mary Picnic Area and Lower Lake Mary, which was dry during our drive. Keep going and in another five miles, Upper Lake Mary comes into view, and this picturesque lake always has water. Pull off at one of the viewpoints or at the boat launch ($6 per car), and watch small fishing boats and dogs swimming after tennis balls. When you’ve had your fill, continue on the tree-lined Lake Mary Road; the wide, meandering highway is popular with bicyclists. Thirty-seven miles from the ’Y, turn right on Mormon Lake Road.
Noticeably narrower than Lake Mary Road, the tall trees along Mormon Lake Road block out the sun in some spots. After seven miles, you enter Mormon Lake Village. The sign outside the hamlet proudly proclaims “population 50 to 5,000.” The main attraction here is Mormon Lake Lodge, which includes room and cabin rentals, a steakhouse, a saloon and the Zane Grey Museum. The lodge was originally built in 1924; the structure burned to the ground on July 4, 1974. Thanks to the determination of local ranchers, it was rebuilt by Labor Day of that same year. The restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. During our visit, diners were enjoying leisurely lunches of chili and burgers at wooden picnic tables in dining rooms decorated with Western movie posters.
Mormon Lake offers horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, hayrides, cross-country skiing, snowmobile tours and camping, all depending on the season. Words like peaceful and idyllic come to mind, though we have a feeling the 1880s-style saloon has seen its fair share of lively nights.
Instead of returning the way you came, continue on Mormon Lake Road, which, after two miles, loops back to Lake Mary Road. Turn left to head back to Flagstaff. You’ll have some spectacular views of the San Francisco Peaks on your return route.