Locals know that Oak Creek Canyon is loveliest in autumn, when woodsmoke scents the breeze and falling leaves are set off by the ocher hues of the sculptured sandstone canyon.
Scenic State 89A cuts right through the canyon, which begins north of Sedona and stretches into the Colorado Plateau, near Flagstaff. On a leisurely half-day drive, you pass rustic resorts, a state park, and a national forest, all linked by the spring-fed waters of Oak Creek. But as pretty as the drive is, you'll see more of the canyon from its many hiking trails.
A dozen trails follow the creek or climb the canyon's craggy walls in this section of the vast Coconino National Forest. Cooling days make for ideal hiking weather, and pockets of autumn color―from turning maple, box elder, oak―begin to dot the conifer forest.
One of the area's most popular hikes begins at Call of the Canyon picnic area, 10 miles north of Sedona off State 89A. West Fork Trail follows a small tributary of Oak Creek, crossing the stream several times and passing pools reflecting the glorious reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn foliage. Though you can continue into challenging slot canyons, most day-hikers turn around after reaching the last of a series of three pools; it makes for about a 3-mile one-way hike (rated moderate). Backtrack to return.
If you want more solitude, try the Thomas Point Trail (trailhead is off State 89A just a few hundred yards south of Call of the Canyon). The 1 1/2-mile trail makes a moderately strenuous climb to the canyon's rim. It switchbacks through butterscotch-scented ponderosa pines, then turns through low chaparral. As you hike, dazzling vistas into the canyon take in red orange sandstone buttresses and, far below, the golden ribbon of water that is Oak Creek. At the trail's end, the forest opens up to a parklike expanse, with views stretching north to Flagstaff's San Francisco Peaks.
Bring a pair of binoculars to search for soaring hawks and ravens. If the trek has piqued your appetite, drive back a couple of miles toward Sedona, where Junipine Cafe (8351 N. State 89A; 928/282-7406) rewards the weary with the local brew and the house specialty―fresh Oak Creek trout.
WHERE: Access West Fork and Thomas Point trailheads from Call of the Canyon picnic area, 10 miles north of Sedona off State 89A.
COST: $5 parking fee at Call of the Canyon.
FYI: Area subject to closure during periods of high fire danger; call first.
CONTACT: Coconino National Forest: (928) 282-4119 or www.redrockcountry.org.