Published May/June 2013

Summer Getaway: Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona

Cool off at swimming holes in northern Arizona

BYSally J. Clasen
Known as the Grand Canyon’s smaller cousin, Oak Creek Canyon is a narrow river gorge that stretches nearly 14 miles between Sedona and Flagstaff in the Coconino National Forest. The temperate mountain air averages 80 degrees in the summer. Here, in a spectacular natural setting, you can chill out physically and mentally.
Take a Dip
One of the easiest ways to cool off in Oak Creek Canyon is to visit Slide Rock State Park, seven miles from Sedona. The park is a historic 43-acre apple farm and an iconic spot with one of the most well-known “swimming holes” in the country. You can take the plunge in an 80-foot natural water slide carved by the slippery bed of Oak Creek centuries ago, wade in a number of spill-off swimming areas, or lounge on the red rocks and soak up the heat-relieving atmosphere.
Follow the Trail
Hiking is a major pastime in Oak Creek Canyon, particularly on the family-friendly West Fork Trail, which you enter at the Call of the Canyon picnic site between mile markers 384 and 385. The easy-to-moderate trail is six miles round-trip and meanders along the lazy clear creek, which you have to cross about a dozen times during the hike. Crimson sandstone rock walls tower hundreds of feet above your head and dense vegetation filled with oaks, aspens, pines, and apple trees create a canopy of shade for a climate-controlled hike that feels like a mystical trek through Middle Earth.
In the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness, adjacent to Oak Creek Canyon, you hike along magnificent trails that lead you through majestic wind- and water-sculpted pinnacles, windows, arches, and slot canyons. You may also want to horseback ride, observe wildlife such as elk and white tail deer, or search for ancient ruins including rock art petroglyphs and abandoned Native American cliff dwellings in the Wilderness Area.
Cruise the Canyon
You don’t have to get wet to catch a cool breeze in Oak Creek Canyon — just stay in your car, roll down the windows, and cruise the breathtaking route. Officially called The Sedona-Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Road, the picturesque drive starts at Highway 89A and ends at the top of the Mogollon Rim. The endless switchbacks and jaw-dropping panoramas with unusual geologic formations and multiple plant communities create stunning photo opportunities around every bend. Stop at the many scenic vistas and overlooks along the road, especially the Huckaby-Oak Creek Vista at Midgley Bridge and Oak Creek Canyon Vista at the top, which gives you a bird’s-eye view of the canyon.
Set up Camp
Once you experience Oak Creek Canyon’s soothing effects you’ll want to stay. You can pitch a tent at a handful of designated campsites in the canyon, which are on a first-come, first-served basis. Reservations are accepted at some campgrounds as well. For cozier accommodations, reserve a room at one of the many charming rustic cabins, cottages, and bed and breakfasts scattered along the creek, including Garland’s Oak Creek Lodge, Slide Rock Lodge, Oak Creek Terrace Resort, Canyon Wren Cabins, and Briar Patch Cottages. 
SALLY J. CLASEN is a Phoenix-based writer who explores the world at large.
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If You Go
Plan accordingly: Oak Creek Canyon is a summer “hot” spot for Arizona residents looking to escape the triple digits. Expect large crowds, especially on the weekends. The best time to visit is in the early mornings and on weekdays.
Go fish: Fishing licenses and supplies are available at the Visitor Center at Indian Gardens, mile marker 378. Day use fees of $9 to $20 may also be paid here. The center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 928-203-0624.
Become a junior park ranger: Kids ages 6 to 12 can earn the rank of junior ranger and receive an official button when they pledge to protect, preserve, and promote Slide Rock State Park. Kids must complete specific activities before they are sworn in by a park ranger.
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