Red Rock Country

This old wagon trail scales steep desert hills and plunges into cloistered canyons as it journeys through the heart of Arizona.

  from The Most Scenic Drives in America
Arizona Desert Wilderness Vivid red rocks form the backdrop for this spin through the Arizona desert wilderness.

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When the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright first laid eyes on the town of Sedona, he declared that “nothing should ever be built here.” And Wright wasn’t the first traveler to be so transfixed by Red Rock Country; for centuries Indians and whites alike have gazed in wonder at these sandstone monoliths, shaped by the same patient forces that carved the Grand Canyon. Strung along the length of Arizona’s famed Rte. 89A, they form the vivid backdrop for this sinuous spin through some of the state’s most bewitching desert wilderness.

1. Oak Creek Vista Point
Road maps say the distance from Flagstaff to Sedona is only about 30 miles, less than an hour’s drive. But in fact, Sedona, tucked in a parched basin 2,600 feet below the cool alpine forests of the Coconino Plateau, seems a world away. To get there, Rte. 89A makes a dramatic descent down mile-wide Oak Creek Canyon, truly one of the most spectacular stretches of road in the entire state.

Pause a few miles south of Flagstaff at the Oak Creek Vista Point to get a sense of what lies ahead. A short trail leads from the parking area to a breathtaking overlook, where sheer rock faces of orange, red, pink, and chalky white plunge more than 1,000 feet to the canyon floor. (At Sedona, a half-hour drive to the south, the brilliantly dappled canyon walls stand nearly twice as high.)

2. West Fork Trail
Like a great winding staircase, the road descends from Oak Creek Vista Point in a series of dizzying hairpin turns to the canyon floor. Though each switchback brings a fresh perspective on this fabled gorge, the neck-craning view from below is just as dramatic. Near the bottom lies the Sterling Springs Fish Hatchery, which supplies Oak Creek with trout.

Along the canyon floor the road traces the west bank of Oak Creek for 14 miles downstream to the lovely town of Sedona. The eastern wall of the canyon is nearly as impenetrable as it looks, but to the west the Red Rocks Secret Mountain Wilderness — a maze of canyons, cliffs, and crystalline streams — is threaded with trails. One of the best, tracing the West Fork of Oak Creek, begins a mile south of Cave Springs Campground at the Call of the Canyons Day Use Area. Just three miles long, West Fork Trail leads through lush vegetation into an ever-narrowing canyon whose red walls tower hundreds of feet overhead. Pack your waterproof boots: in places the canyon becomes so tight you’ll have to wade through the ankle-deep stream.

3. Slide Rock State Park
Of the various stops along Oak Creek, there’s no such thing as a bad choice. Pause to fish the clear waters (trout flourish in the cool depths), picnic in the shade of cottonwoods and willows, or simply contemplate the red rocks, whose striking contours never grow tiresome. On a hot summer day, however, one particular spot shouldn’t be missed: Slide Rock. Snaking along a sandstone chute made slippery by algae, the creek drops suddenly to a frigid pool, creating an exhilarating ride for swimmers. Farther down the canyon, at the Grasshopper Swim Area, the creek curves through a narrow canyon pass and gathers in a series of still basins, where visitors can swim.

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