From the trickle of a few springs, Oak Creek gathers water from the southern part of the Mogollon Rim to start its thirteen-mile flow through the canyon that the creek helped form. From Oak Creek Canyon , the creek winds through Sedona and begins its eight-mile descent into the Verde Valley to meet up with the Verde River . Its waters affect, and are affected by, visitors to the area, as well as residents from Flagstaff through the Verde Valley. During its journey Oak Creek flows through one of the most spectacular scenic areas in the world, with the iconic Cathedral Rock as a stunning backdrop for parts of its way. Oak Creek is a national wonder visited by millions of tourists from throughout the world. In Arizona, Oak Creek and its canyon are only surpassed in the number of visitors by the Grand Canyon .
The creek’s ecosystem supports a rich environment for numerous mammal, bird and aquatic species. Mammals include elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, mountain lion, bobcat and many other smaller species. The state of Arizona stocks Oak Creek with trout. There are a number of native fish species that are listed as either threatened or endangered.
The American bald eagle, red tailed hawk and peregrine falcon are among the great raptors that use the creek’s habitat. These birds of prey that soar high on air thermals are joined by many other birds. The creek is within a major flyway for migrating birds and is a mecca for birdwatching enthusiasts. Oak Creek Canyon is known for its songbirds.
Oak Creek’s ecosystem contains an exceptionally rich and varied riparian habitat. There are five major tributaries to Oak Creek. The Forest Service has designated two areas of the creek and canyon as Research Natural Areas because they contain natural resources of scientific interest and should be managed for research and educational purposes.
People have lived in the Verde Valley and Oak Creek Canyon areas starting at least as far back as 12,000 B.C. One group of people who left much evidence of their inhabitance in the region, were the Sinagua. They were living throughout the area from as early as 650 A.D. to approximately 1400 A.D. Both the Yavapai and Apache groups, lived in the area by around 1300 to 1400 A.D., or perhaps earlier. Archeological sites and artifacts of early Native American residents can be found throughout the region.
Oak Creek Canyon
From the Oak Creek Vista at the top of the 89A switchbacks to Sedona and beyond, you see three main types of the area’s stunning geologic formations. At the top: grey pocked basalt shaded by one of the world’s largest ponderosa pine forests. Then comes buff sandstone . This starts to intersperse with and then transition to the distinctive red sandstone reflecting iron-oxide staining. These red rocks become the predominant features of the Sedona area. In these lower elevations, pinion pine and juniper pine dominate the view. Then along the creek, a diverse population of deciduous trees, such as cottonwood and Arizona sycamore, help form riparian habitat that keeps the water cool in the summer and delights travelers with bright yellow and red leaves in the fall.
Parts of the canyon are protected by the federal and state governments, though these protections are not all-encompassing. The higher elevations on the west side of the canyon are part of the Secret Mountain Wilderness. The Forest Service lands on the eastern side of the canyon are protected from land trades as part of the Coconino National Forest Land Management Plan. Due to the unique scenic and riparian nature of the Oak Creek/Sedona region, 160,000 acres are being managed to preserve its special qualities. There has also been an effort to have the area designated as a National Scenic Area. The State of Arizona has designated Oak Creek and the West Fork of Oak Creek as Unique Waters that are subject to higher water quality standards.
Two of the creek’s major tributaries are perennial streams. The creek in the canyon is fed by one of these streams: the West Fork, which cuts through a canyon before joining Oak Creek (the other perennial stream is Spring Creek, just south of Sedona). West Fork canyon is a high, steep-walled side canyon highlighted by the region’s red sandstone walls and unique riparian habitat. In the fall, the bright yellows and deep oranges leaves of deciduous trees stand out against the nearby red rocks, enticing hikers to enjoy the stunning beauty. Arizona Highways Magazine has identified the hike along the West Fork as one of the best hiking experiences in Arizona.
Oak Creek Canyon has other side canyons that add to the wonder of the area. Munds Canyon is a major, intermittently flowing tributary to Oak Creek. During major rain and snow runoff events, water from the Mogollon Rim area gushes through Munds Canyon, creating a spectacular waterfall at the bottom of Oak Creek Canyon.
Slide Rock State Park , named for the natural water slide that has been formed by Oak Creek through erosion of red sandstone, is also located in Oak Creek Canyon. Thousands of people make memories here by having fun with their families and friends. The park contains three hiking trails and the Pendley Homestead Historic District, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. At the homestead, you can see the various tractors and other equipment from the early 1900s used to farm an apple orchard. One of the canyon’s top attractions, the park came about because the homestead did not sell and the state saw the wisdom in investing in the preservation of this magnificent site. Without such foresight, many people would not be able to frolic in the creek’s cool waters by laughing while sliding along the slick red rocks.
Sedona and Red Rock Country
As the creek leaves Oak Creek Canyon, it flows through the City of Sedona , identified by USA Today in its May 16, 2003, edition as “the most beautiful place in America.” This is Red Rock Country . The creek flows around monumental red sandstone buttes, including Cathedral Rock. The setting of the creek flowing to the south of Cathedral Rock, with the butte in the background, is one of the most photographed sites in Arizona and the Southwestern United States. In fact, when the United States Postal Service designed a stamp commemorating the 100th year of Arizona statehood, Cathedral Rock graced the stamp.
Highlighting the importance of preserving the riparian habitat of Oak Creek, the state purchased land that later became Red Rock State Park , located just downstream from Cathedral Rock. The park is a 286-acre nature preserve and environmental education center with stunning scenery. It also contains trails that merge with surrounding national forest lands to create outstanding hiking experiences.
The creek soon leaves the red rocks of Sedona and flows through Page Springs. This area was named for the many springs that join Oak Creek. The creek’s rich and diverse habitat, along with the spring-fed ponds of the Page Springs Fish Hatchery and Bubbling Ponds , provide an exceptional setting for birdwatching. The Arizona Game and Fish Department and the Northern Arizona Audubon Society jointly manage this peaceful area. About 200 species of birds call this area home, whether throughout the year or as a stop along epic migrations. It is not uncommon to see such birds as osprey and herons, as well as mammals such as beautiful and playful otters.
As Oak Creek nears its confluence with the Verde River, it meanders through the rural community of Cornville . The creek supports small organic farming, recreation and a unique desert setting for horseback riding. The Cornville area is surrounded by national forest. The combination of riparian habitat and open lands provides a great quality of life for residents and visitors alike. The scenic beauty of the creek and surrounding area provides a rich environment for camping, hiking, fishing, birdwatching and solitude that is not replicated elsewhere.