West Fork in the fall. We’ve hiked it. We’ve photographed it. We’ve written about it.
We’re over it.
Don’t misunderstand: Oak Creek Canyon’s most popular trail (and arguably the most heavily used trail in the area) is breathtaking in the fall. But it’s not just the colors of the changing leaves that leave you spellbound; it’s the crowds that seem more appropriate to a theme park than a hiking trail. If you really want to experience the pristine wilderness of the area, hike West Fork just after it has snowed. You might not make it to the end of the trail, 3.5 miles from the trailhead, and you should only attempt the water crossings – there are 13 of them – if the water isn’t too high and if you’re surefooted. That said, this Oak Creek Canyon tributary becomes blissfully serene after a snowfall. With the exception of the gurgling creek and a solitary woodpecker, we didn’t hear any other sounds.
The trail begins at the Call of the Canyon Day Use Area. At the start of the trail, you’ll cross a footbridge and come upon the ruins of Mayhew’s Lodge, a hunting and fishing lodge built in the early 1900s. The Forest Service bought the lodge in 1969, but it was destroyed by fire in 1980. You’ll notice the area is referred to as Call of the Canyon. Zane Grey set his novel, The Call of the Canyon, in this area and the silent movie of the same name was filmed here in 1923. The trail remains almost completely flat throughout the hike. The gambel oak trees, cottonwoods and bigtooth maples are bare at this time of the year and the ferns and reeds that surround the trail look dead (they aren’t), but you’ll still smell the pungent pine trees and conifers. Sheer, red rock canyon walls soar up around you so that the sky is just a snaking ribbon of blue above. Look for icicles in rock outcroppings. The temperatures were below freezing during our hike, but it gave us a good excuse to hold (gloved) hands with our hiking partner.
We only hiked about a mile before the slippery rocks made crossing the creek too dangerous, but it was delightful to be in West Fork without the masses. We were actually the only two people on the trail, our footprints the only thing to disturb the fresh blanket of snow.