Coconino National Forest, Sedona
By Noah Austin
There’s a lot to do in Oak Creek Canyon, but beyond the resorts, hikes, campgrounds and other recreation spots, don’t forget that a simple road trip on State Route 89A, from Sedona to Oak Creek Vista, is one of America’s most scenic drives, even after a fire that burned the area in 2014. And on most days, you can go round-trip in 90 minutes or less.
The drive — a National Scenic Byway — begins amid the iconic red-rock buttes of Sedona, a city that belongs on the to-do list of every Arizona visitor (and resident, for that matter). After you’ve visited the Chapel of the Holy Cross or had your aura photographed, head north on SR 89A, which parallels the cool, clear water of Oak Creek. About 2 miles in, you’ll cross 200-foot Midgley Bridge, dedicated in 1939 and named for area rancher and businessman W.W. Midgley. Just across the bridge is a parking area that offers good views of the bridge and the canyon. But the most spectacular views are yet to come.
The canyon’s namesake oaks form a shaded canopy over much of the road, and this time of year, you’ll get a good dose of fall color — autumn usually waits until November in the canyon. There are several picnic areas along the way, but if you’d rather have a hot lunch, stop at Indian Gardens Oak Creek Market at Mile 4. Across the road is a historical marker noting that Indian Gardens was the homesite of Jim Thompson, who in the 1870s was the first European settler in the canyon.
At Mile 7 is Slide Rock State Park, where the Slide Fire began in May 2014. Up ahead, you’ll see a canyon wall with a patchwork of burned evergreens — one of the few obvious signs of the blaze, which burned 21,227 acres in and around the canyon. There are other signs of the fire along the way, but they’re not overwhelming.
As you gain altitude, the oaks and junipers are joined by ponderosa pines — a particularly tall one, at Mile 10.5, towers over the surrounding trees. There’s desert vegetation here, too — it’s a good illustration of Arizona’s ecological diversity. A few miles later, the ponderosas take over and dominate the beautiful scene.
The drive’s famous switchbacks begin 14 miles in, just after you cross Pumphouse Wash. Here’s where views of the canyon’s jagged cliffs and thick ponderosas really open up, but keep your eyes on the road: Traffic can slow to a crawl here. You’ll have plenty of time to gawk when you reach the scenic overlook above the switchbacks. The popular vista features restrooms, a visitor-information stand and Native American vendors. Get out, stretch your legs and see how many different languages you can identify among the tourists. And, of course, admire the unrivaled view of one of Arizona’s most picturesque canyons.
Photo: State Route 89A meanders through Sedona's iconic red rocks. | Jeff Kida
Note: Mileages are approximate.
Length: 16 miles one way
Directions: From the intersection of state routes 179 and 89A in Sedona, go north on SR 89A for 16 miles to Oak Creek Vista.
Vehicle requirements: None in good weather, but the road can become slippery after a winter storm.
Special consideration: A Red Rock Pass is required if you leave your vehicle unattended along the route. A daily pass is $5 and can be purchased online or at various locations in Oak Creek Canyon and Sedona. The pass is not required to park at the vista.
Information: Red Rock Ranger District, 928-203-2900 or www.fs.usda.gov/coconino