West Fork – Haven in the Rock
Greetings on a fine Monday, dear readers! Today I have a special post for you, as the location is famous (and rightfully so) as one of Arizona’s most beautiful – the West Fork of Oak Creek, located north of Sedona and south of Flagstaff. West Fork also has personal significance to me because it is, I think, where I first decided to follow a career in photography many years ago. I haven’t been there in a long while, for whatever reason, but yesterday I resolved to pack up and get my feet wet. And the creek did not disappoint. I might add right from the start that the gallery for this post is huge – 60 photos – and I will not be able to feature more than a handful on the front page here. To see them all, just click any photo and you’ll be linked to the full gallery. Now then, onward!
The trail starts by crossing Oak Creek proper with a high steel-and-wood bridge, then follows along the old apple orchard of the now-ruined Mayhew Lodge. The Lodge was originally built as a cabin in the 1800s then added to until it became a retreat for movie stars and politicians before burning down in the mid 1970s. Strangely, though the fire was a mere 40 years ago, the stone-built Lodge is more ruined than many pueblos several centuries older. Still standing are its hearth, a wall with a circular window-frame (above), and a separate workroom-type building which is less damaged. Also nearby is a shallow smoke cellar carved into the sandstone cliff, used for storing and curing meat. Soon after passing through the ruins you are greeted by what I think is the most impressive view of the whole hike, a massive overhanging wall of sandstone reaching up hundreds of feet and settling its curved foundations in the shallow water of the creek. Many people never make it past this place, and to be fair, the scenery makes you want to stay and wander through the shaded water for hours. The image at the top of this post and the vertical shot above are a reflection of the scale of the area from different angles, and I recommend visiting even if you only plan to see this last bend in the creek.
Now, there is a nice wide trail which follows the creek for some three miles, but I was here to see running water, not to bumble around in the woods, as beautiful as they are. So instead I elected to roll up my pants and start walking straight up the creek so I would not miss any of its many hidden grottoes and pools. Due to the height of the sun and the orientation of the eastern canyon walls, in a few places the water cast ripples of sunlight onto the stone, making a dance of light and shadow which was impossible to ignore when I came across it. There are many images of this phenomena in the gallery but I won’t overload them here. I would imagine that the light reflections are made visible by the unique curve of the canyon walls directly over the creek, something that’s quite unlikely to be seen anywhere else.
The creek follows a winding course through the stone, but lining almost every bend is that tubular erosion which is the hallmark of West Fork. The rock of the walls is quite porous, allowing plants and even trees to grow straight from its surface and hang over the calm water. Several wildflowers were blooming on the cliffs during my visit, including the columbine, which is my personal favorite. There were also small red and yellow flowers which I did not recognize, along with more sparse white and purple blooms. These, combined with the red rock, green forest, and blue sky, made for a perfectly photogenic scene if I’ve ever seen one.
The water in the creek was clear and cool, and hosted a large population of tiny fish as well as some full-size individuals. Flitting here and there on the surface were spidery water bugs, and humming around the plant life were butterflies, moths, curly-antennae-ed beetles, brilliant red and blue dragonflies, mayflies, and a few unperturbed wasps. Your typical tiny flies and gnats were mercifully absent. The trees hosted many birds small and large, including one northern blue jay which was taking a dip in the creek before I wandered through. Joining the wildlife was no small number of tourists and fellow hikers, though they mostly kept to the trail and the more popular swimming holes.
Despite the large number of photos from this hike (367 before I finished them down!) I meant it more as an exploratory venture, a scouting mission if you will, for a longer, more in-depth journey in the near future. In light of this I turned back after about a mile and a half, opting to follow the overland trail so my waterlogged shoes would have a chance to dry. From the trail I could see the forest I had mostly ignored on the way in, and it is surely an attraction in itself. Tall ponderosa pines line the wide bank opposite the creek until they start to climb the walls, roaring in the wind which is absent from the canyon floor. Between the pines are all manner of ferns and waterside shrubs, ranging from blackberries to strawberries and a fair share of poison ivy. There are also lovely oaks and maples with leaves that glow in the sunlight, now slanting through at a late afternoon angle throwing the creek into contrasts of brightest light and deepest shadow.
The hike back went quickly, ending at that same magnificent hollow where it started, and where I spent a few minutes simply enjoying the cool breeze and cooler water. As I took in the view from below there I noticed the sound of trickling water coming not from the creek, but from the stone wall. On closer inspection I found it was a tiny spring, leaking from a crack in the rock and feeding into the stream below. I’m sure it’s a fairly common thing to see along Oak Creek, but it was the first time I’ve seen water come straight from the earth. It was cold and clean, and hosted a tiny garden of leafy plants and flowers before fanning out across the slope to the creek. With that final treat I headed back across the water, through old Mayhew Lodge, then up to the busy parking area, clear of the West Fork but still planted firmly at the bottom of beautiful Oak Creek Canyon.
As mentioned before, all these images are linked to the new gallery, which contains so much more it’s almost ridiculous. Click through and give that a look, let me know what you think, and most of all, enjoy! And if you see one of these pictures that would fulfill your burning desire to support a young photographer as well as accent the wall above your new sofa, each one is available to order in the Store in your choice of a variety of sizes.
Stick around for the next post soon!
Also, I should mention that Dakota Petersen Photography is starting on Facebook and Twitter, here and here respectively, and soon on Tumblr. I’ll make a more promotional post when these are sorted out completely. Stop by, leave a comment or a like, and share with your friends!