West Fork trail is one of the best hiking trails in Arizona. This is because of the beautiful and very photogenic views, the diversity of the natural environment, and its history, dating back to the Wild West days. No wonder it is difficult to find a parking spot in the Call of the Canyon recreational area, where the trailhead is located. This area is at the confluence of the West Fork and Oak Creek. The trailhead is on the left side of the parking lot. A rusty arched bridge crosses over the creek and commands great views of the rapid, bubbling stream, which is lined with lush deciduous trees along the banks. After crossing the bridge the trail follows a sheer cliff on one side.
An orchard at the foothills of the cliff was planted by the first pioneers, who settled in this area. In fact, the first white man, who made this place his home, was Howard “Bear,” an escaped convict. In 1870, Jesse Jefferson Howard was a rancher and raised horses in Northern California. He had a dispute with a neighbor, who allowed his sheep to graze on Howard’s land. As a result of their dispute, Howard shot his neighbor.
Some say that this was unintentional because he just wanted to scare his neighbor. Unfortunately, the neighbor died and Howard turned himself in to the local sheriff. The sheriff was not very sympathetic to the sheep man and left the door of the jail unlocked. Howard’s daughter, Martha, helped him to escape by providing horses. However, Howard was put onto the most wanted list in California. Because of this, he made a break to a remote region of Arizona and settled in the West Fork of the Oak Creek Canyon. His daughter and son-in-law moved with him.
First, Howard changed his name to Charles Smith Howard, and then he built a cabin. Wildlife and especially grizzly bears were in abundance in the canyon. Once, a grizzly bear mauled Howard’s friend. After this tragic accident Howard hunted and killed every bear in the canyon. As a result, he got his nickname “Bear” and a reputation of being a fearless hunter. Legends said that he killed several bears only with his knife and was able to spend cold nights sitting in a cave without a coat to ambush a bear.
He was a tough man. Once he fought against a bunch of rag tags when they attacked him in a local bar and beat up their ring leader. Howard Bear sold bears’ meat to a butcher shop in Flagstaff. Later, when all bears were hunted out Howard turned to his previous business of raising horses.
The Western writer Zane Grey was inspired by the beauty of the canyon and wrote a novel “The Call of the Canyon.” A movie “The Call of the Canyon” was shot in the canyon in 1923 based on his novel. A photographer from Flagstaff Carl Mayhew was invited to work on the film. After the movie was shot, Mayhew purchased the land, where the action took place. He built more cabins and opened Mayhew Lodge in 1926. The Mayhew family operated the Lodge until 1968. Many prominent individuals visited the Lodge. Among them were President Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Stewart, Walt Disney, and Clark Gable.
The serene beauty of the Canyon attracted many people, from outlaws and pioneers of the Old West to the renowned and famous. It is also very much loved by hikers of different ages and physical abilities. The trail follows the creek, crossing it several times on the 3 miles one-way path. To cross the creek hikers have to do some rock hopping. The water in the stream is very clear. Sometimes the stream runs and bubbles through the boulders, sometimes it forms quiet pools. Lush and tall trees reflect in the rippled water of the pools and dragonflies swerve over the surface. Some pools are inhabited by lots of scurrying tiny fish.
Canyon walls rise tall, exposing layers of sedimentary rocks and basalt lava flows faulted at a different angels as a result of geologic activity, which formed the canyon about eight to ten million years ago. Towering pines, maples, and cottonwood trees along the trail create a shady canopy during hot summer days. Wind rushes through the canyon and makes giant pines sway slowly. Their crowns rustle and whisper their secrets to the gusts of wind tangled in their branches.
Wildlife is in abundance in the canyon, but there are no bears, thanks to Howard Bear. Hikers can enjoy the beautiful songs of feathered singers, who, most of the time, are invisible in the lush foliage of the trees. Ravens, on the other hand, are not so shy and give calls, breaking a fragile silence with their cracked and raspy voices.
The air is filled with the scent of pine needles, fluttering large colorful butterflies, and floating reflections of sunlight, which break through the lush foliage. The trail is very popular and the sounds of people talking and children laughing intertwine with the sounds of nature.
I wish the trail stays as it is: serene, enticing, and full of natural beauty. We’ll be back, perhaps during another season.
How to get to the West Fork trailhead: drive 89A to the north from Sedona’s downtown for 9.5 miles. The parking lot is on the left in the Call of the Canyon area and between the mile markers 384 and 385. Fees are $ 10 per vehicle.