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Fri, Nov. 22

Johnson: Oak Creek Canyon’s West Fork Trail, part 2
Hiking Arizona

West Fork Trail, Sedona. (Ted Johnson/Courtesy)

West Fork Trail, Sedona. (Ted Johnson/Courtesy)

Back in the ‘70s we hiked through the old fruit orchard at the mouth of the Canyon and picked apples in the fall. We’ve hiked here a dozen times, mostly on day hikes. I’ve hiked through once in each direction. Each through-hike was quite different.

A major flood between those two hikes changed everything. The first time, my dad and I had to float three ponds. The second time, solo hiking, I floated eight ponds. Prior to my first through hike, my brother and I hiked upstream to the first pond that required swimming (1976). We were not prepared for that so we returned the way we came. Neither were we prepared for what we saw coming down the Canyon, two naked hikers/swimmers.

People do funny things depending on the context. While my brother and I were embarrassed by seeing skinny dippers, they seemed oblivious and unconcerned by our presence. The song, The streak had been out a couple of years by this time. In the context of hiking slot canyons where floating ponds is required, it’s not unusual to swim these ponds naked, depending on your company and comfort level.

Since then, people watching has become an increasingly interesting experience, but I rarely associate it with hiking. Places like airports and stadiums are the places I think of when people watching. However, if you are hiking in the best slot canyon in Arizona, expect to find the people to be as diverse as any national park in the country. There was actually more diversity on display hiking West Fork than during my trip to the grocery store the next day.

I saw girls in flowing gowns as well as bikinis. There was plenty of body art on display and lots of dogs. I noticed people who were large and small, young and old. I heard silly laughter and painful crying. There were people of different races, parents with small children. Teens with multicolored hair strolled along. There was even a prominent plumber’s crack on display as he examined something on the ground with several kids.

When my dad and I approached the pond that had stopped our forward progress some 15 years earlier, I expressed concern about my dad being able to make it. He was 60. The water was very cold and this pond was long, some 75 yards with a bend in the middle so you could not see the end when you started paddling. I said, “Dad we don’t have to go on. We can turn back here.” I understood that once we took the plunge, we were going beyond the point of no return.

Commitment is part and parcel of hiking slot canyons. He looked at me and said, “I didn’t come this far to turn back now.” I always appreciated my dad’s determination. We bagged up our packs, inflated the rafts and pushed off. I handled the rafts and Dad just need to swim but the frigid water has a way of taking your breath away and he started thrashing and scratching the smooth walls in search of something to hold so he could rest. He found nothing but he made it, barely. He never hiked again. Since that hike, I started making notches on my hiking poles for those who quit hiking altogether after hiking with me. I’m up to seven.

Next: Hiking high to stay cool, beginning at 6,000 feet.

Ted Johnson is a columnist for The Daily Courier. Reach him by email at

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