Oak Creek Canyon
By Robert Stieve
Some of the most spectacular trails in Arizona are surprisingly accessible, and that can lead to trouble. The Bright Angel Trail on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is probably the best example. Think about it, there’s nothing — no long drive on a primitive road, no technical requirements, no checkpoint for unqualified hikers — to keep the hordes from venturing into a place that requires much more than an afterthought. And maybe that’s why Mother Nature put a moat around the Casner Canyon Trail.
There’s no way around it. If you want to hike this scenic trail, you’ll first have to wade through the waist-high waters of Oak Creek. Although the water levels will fluctuate throughout the year, you’re definitely going to get wet, especially in the spring, but don’t let that deter you.
Although there’s only one way to reach Casner Canyon itself, there are two ways to access the trail of the same name. The first is to park on the narrow shoulder of State Route 89A and then follow a steep path down the embankment to the trailhead. This is not your best option. Instead, park at Grasshopper Point and hop on the Allen’s Bend Trail. It’s a short and beautiful connector trail that winds for a half-mile along Oak Creek to its intersection with the Casner Canyon Trail.
From there, turn right onto the Casner Canyon Trail, cross a normally dry creekbed and make your way to the banks of Oak Creek. There’s no magic formula for getting across. Shoes on, shoes off, it doesn’t really matter. Either way, you’ll want to be careful. The rocks below the surface will be extremely slippery. If you have a walking stick, this is the time to use it. It’s not unusual for even graceful hikers to fall victim to the unscrupulous nature of the slippery rocks. Be prepared and aim for the cairns on the opposite bank.
Once you’re across, hug the rock ledge and follow the trail into Casner Canyon, which is small compared to Munds Canyon to the north, but enormous when it comes to payoff — the red-rock views from this trail are breathtaking, and can’t be seen from a backseat window. About 20 minutes into the hike, you’ll notice a large Utah juniper, the most common cedar in Arizona. You’ll also notice the quiet. At this point, you’ll be separated from the car noise of Sedona, and, more than likely, you’ll be alone. This trail doesn’t get the kind of traffic that other hikes in Sedona get, which makes the panoramic views even that much better.
Not far from the big juniper, the trail begins its gradual climb up from the canyon floor. It follows the north side of the canyon and quickly loses the shade of the riparian habitat below. Even in the springtime, the heat will take its toll, so carry plenty of water and go heavy on the sunscreen. Moving along, the gorgeous scene in front of you will command your attention, as it should, but make sure you turn around every once in a while and look the other way. All of the views are virtually unadulterated by anything man-made. It’s a rare treat. It’s also an opportunity to see what the Casner family saw when they moved cattle from Oak Creek to the high mesa at the end of this trail. The views haven’t changed at all since then. And neither has the steep and challenging grade.
Overall, this is a tough trail, despite its relatively short distance. But if you take it slowly, you’ll eventually come to an old wooden gate that marks the turnaround point. You can also continue a few hundred yards up to the top of the mesa, but the best views are in the other direction. Enjoy them on the way down. It’s Mother Nature’s reward for making it across her moat.
Photo: Hikers along Casner Canyon Trail are treated to the gentle waterfalls and languid pools of Oak Creek, as well as spectacular views of Sedona’s red-rock landscapes. | Derek von Briesen
Length: 5 miles round-trip
Elevation: 4,396 to 5,912 feet
Directions: From the roundabout junction of state routes 179 and 89A in Sedona, drive north on SR 89A for 2.4 miles to the Grasshopper Point parking lot on the right side of the highway.
Special Consideration: A $5 Red Rock pass is required along the highway; a $10 per vehicle (up to 5 people) fee is required in the Grasshopper Point parking area.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Dogs Allowed: Yes (on a leash)
USGS Map: Munds Park
Information: Red Rock Ranger Station, 928-282-4119 or www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino