Interview with a Canyon: An Ode to Oak Creek

Craig OuthierJuly 6, 2023
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Photo by Mark Lipczynski
Photo by Mark Lipczynski

The more time you spend in Oak Creek Canyon, the more you realize it’s no mere high-country river gorge. Full of magic, trees and searching souls, it’s an Arizona treasure without peer.

He lies on a flat, sun-bleached rock in the middle of Oak Creek – an older gentleman, shirtless, his arms boyishly crossed behind his head, Huck Finn-fashion. He appears completely at ease and untroubled, just a friend of the canyon savoring the burbling water, the dappled, dancing sunlight and the whispers of sycamore and oak.

I hopscotch up to the rock and ask his name. “Rush Richardson,” he answers and, yes, his family has a cabin near this lovely ribbon of water slinking down the forested flank of northeast Sedona. 

Mindful that I’m intruding on a special, serene moment between river gorge and man, I ask if I can talk to him later about his love affair with Oak Creek Canyon, because it obviously is that.
I know love when I see it.  

“It seems like you enjoy this place very much,” I say, nodding at him, at his almost comical lack of self-consciousness.

“Yeah, this is my go-to place,” he says. “I disappear here.”

Chatting with Richardson and seeing the sun-tanned retiree commune with his canyon crystalizes a few notions I’ve harbored about Oak Creek since first seeing the canyon 25 years ago, driving that mythical stretch of the 89A highway from Flagstaff. First, Oak Creek is not just another pretty piece of Sedona. It’s wholly unique and quite possibly magical, in the way that places are magical when seemingly random environmental variables intertwine like a net and drape over your imagination, confounding you a bit. 

And second, it’s almost certainly underrated and underappreciated as a treasure of our state.

Variously described as a “smaller cousin of the Grand Canyon” or a “mini Grand Canyon,” Oak Creek is not quite the monster of spectacle and dimension that its counterpart to the north is known to be. But within its 800- to 2,000-foot depth (about a third of the Grand Canyon) and roughly 12-mile length, you’ll find richer biodiversity and just-as-improbable medleys of stone, water and plants. It all goes well beyond Slide Rock State Park, its most popular and trafficked feature. It’s the sum of the thing.

Since its settling by Anglos in the 1870s, Oak Creek Canyon has had a magnetic effect on farmers, philosophers, hoteliers and yogis, and moved countless writers, chefs, artists and filmmakers to action. Or, in the case of people like Richardson, blessed inaction.

So, think of this as a personality profile – and like all great personalities, Oak Creek has an epic origin story.

West Fork Trail; Photo by Mark Lipczynski
West Fork Trail; Photo by Mark Lipczynski

As described in a 1990 Northern Arizona University paper with the catchy title “Regional significance of recurrent faulting and intracanyon volcanism at Oak Creek Canyon, southern Colorado Plateau, Arizona,” by late geologist Richard F. Holm and Exxon researcher Robert Cloud, the creation of Oak Creek Canyon was a real tag-team effort.

The story begins 8 to 10 million years ago, during the Miocene epoch, when an “ancestral fault” wrenched open an early version of Oak Creek Canyon on the Colorado Plateau near present-day Flagstaff. Holm and Cloud go on to describe how the ancestral canyon was overwhelmed by repeated lava flows originating in the then-fractious San Francisco mountain range. Drowned in rock.

Then, around 6 million years ago, the Oak Creek Fault became active again, beginning the long, slow process of wresting the canyon free of its basalt tomb. Each seismic shift chipping away at the igneous rock. Earthquake after earthquake. Eon after eon.

The effort was soon aided by the erosional action of Oak Creek itself, formed by numerous artisanal springs originating at the top of the canyon near Flagstaff.

Slowly, the modern Oak Creek Canyon emerged, as fault and stream collaborated to shatter its volcanic sarcophagus and wash it away.

The process was not clean or balanced, which is why the west rim of the canyon is roughly 700 feet higher than the east rim and strewn with basalt boulders and other detritus. It’s an impressive spectacle.

“The [fault] exposure is incredible starting with the overlook,” says NAU geologist David Brumbaugh, referring to Oak Creek Vista, the federally managed observation area located off 89A that sits at the top of the canyon, looking down into Sedona from the lip of the Colorado Plateau just south of Flagstaff. “Then, if you [drive] down past the overlook and swing through the first hairpin turn… as you come out to the west and hairpin back again, there’s a little pullover where you can pull off the highway and see the fault and the basalt way up high, up close. It’s like 6 million years of history, written into the cliff.”

Brumbaugh clearly loves his exposed basalt. But even as a geologist, the fault zone is not what most impresses him about the canyon. It’s the quilt of ponderosa that lushly blankets the north part of the canyon as you follow the sinuous highway down to Sedona, and the just-as-thick stands of deciduous trees that blanket the southern, less-elevated part of the canyon.

“I’m from Ohio… and you know the Midwest has a lot of trees and farmland,” he says. “That’s what [Oak Creek Canyon] reminds me of. It’s like the Midwest in Arizona, because you see the water and trees.”

He’s hardly alone. The feeling of Oak Creek being a place that exists both inside and outside Arizona – often reminding the beholder of a faraway vacation spot or a home they left – is a near-universal and indelible first impression among visitors.

“You don’t realize you’re in Arizona,” says Rob Olson, second-generation owner of Briar Patch Inn, a bed-and-breakfast on Oak Creek. “You could be in the Northeast, you could be in the Pacific Northwest… you could be in Hawaii, because it’s so lush near the creek. Except there’s no humidity.”

In 1960, Olson’s parents, Ike and JoAnn, moved the family to Scottsdale from Tacoma, Washington. “They were tired of the rain and wanted sunshine,” he laughs.

After a few years in the Valley of the Sun, some rain and occasional cloud cover didn’t sound half bad. Always fond of Oak Creek Canyon – it reminded them of Washington, after all – Ike and JoAnn  were intrigued when a colony of one-room cottages, built by a German carpenter in the 1940s to accommodate movie stars and film crews shooting in Sedona, hit the market in 1983. Refurbishing the cottages and adding 2 acres of grassy lounge space, the Olsons relaunched the property as Briar Patch Inn.

Today, Briar Patch – one of roughly a dozen hotel or guest house operations in Oak Creek Canyon – is a dreamy getaway filled with cots and walking paths, with an elaborate, complimentary daily breakfast to enjoy creekside. JoAnn still helps run the place, but Rob has taken over day-to-day duties.

“It’s so serene and peaceful here, with the plants and wildlife,” he says of the canyon. “If you enjoy all that, there’s no better place to be in Arizona.”

To be sure, it’s the creek itself that’s most responsible for making Oak Creek Canyon such a captivating oddity. The high country in Northern Arizona does not have a great number of perennial streams i.e., rivers and creeks that flow all year long. Fed by underground springs, Oak Creek is one of the rare few. As such, the canyon is blessed with a range of floral diversity that’s unusually broad for Arizona.

From the beginning, Rochelle Daniel was enamored.

Chef Rochelle Daniel foraging in her favorite Oak Creek Canyon spots with Atria pastry chef Alicia Motter and sous chef Anthony Suazo; Photo by Mark Lipczynski; Photo by Mark Lipczynski
Chef Rochelle Daniel foraging in her favorite Oak Creek Canyon spots with Atria pastry chef Alicia Motter and sous chef Anthony Suazo; Photo by Mark Lipczynski; Photo by Mark Lipczynski

Currently the James Beard Award-nominated visionary chef behind Atria in Flagstaff, Daniel was working under Zinc Bistro mastermind Matt Carter in Phoenix, circa 2015, when she was recruited by the esteemed L’Auberge de Sedona resort to run its culinary program. Situated on the southernmost foot of the canyon, the resort’s flagship restaurant – which Daniel reconceived and rebranded as Cress on Oak Creek – has long been one of Sedona’s top dining destinations, with a wide, signature dining patio that sits over the water.

After taking the job, Daniel – an accomplished forager who believes passionately in farm-to-table and hyperlocal sourcing – got to work collecting the leafy herbs, vegetables and mushrooms that grow on the banks of the creek.

“I do love foraging in the canyon,” she says. “You can find a lot of goodies in there. Between the rain and the creek water, it makes it very easy to find fun, edible things. That’s where I came up with the name Cress… I would go and pick that every day on my way to work.”

A mild, peppery leaf similar to arugula, creek cress assumed a featured role on Daniel’s menu. “That kind of started it. Then it was like, ‘What else can I find?’”

She acquainted herself with the blackberry bushes that run up and down the canyon, pickling them for jam. She collected ponderosa pine and incorporated it into various butters and mousses. Discovering a colony of nettles “where I could find them all year long,” she harvested the spinach-like herbs and chopped them up for bright green sauces.

“Morels and lobster mushrooms and oyster [mushrooms],” she goes on, counting down her Oak Creek hit list. “The lobsters come and go in bursts. If they’re super meaty, I’ll butter-braise them… and then use the oysters and chanterelles with the duck.”

Leading the Cress kitchen, she became a vocal advocate of the canyon’s culinary endowments, which play a critical role in its history. First explored and occupied by Yavapai people in the 13th century, Oak Creek provided a steady source of food for the Wipukepa, a Yavapai tribal subgroup that translates as “People from the Foot of the Red Rock.”

According to the Sedona Historical Society, the Yavapai had abandoned Oak Creek Canyon – because of either war or disease, or both – by the time the first Anglo settler, John James Thompson, arrived in 1876. But they left Thompson a gift, a small, abandoned orchard that was still bearing apples and other crops as he built his homestead – hence the name Indian Gardens, a small community perched halfway up the canyon.

Daniel returned to the Valley after a few years in Sedona and worked again with Carter before launching Atria, but the lessons and habits she learned in Oak Creek remain with her. “That was the first time I’ve gone out and really wanted to see what Northern Arizona had to give,” says the Valley native. “I run a lot [for fitness], and usually when I’m running, I always keep an eye out for my trail goodies. So, I’m still foraging. Flagstaff is just not quite [as abundant] as Oak Creek.”

She misses something else about Oak Creek Canyon – the analgesic effect it had on her body and mind. “It used to be at the end of my shift, if I had a bad day, I didn’t need a drink,” she says. “Just that drive up the canyon would do it for me.”

The calming, restorative and otherwise healing effect of the canyon is another one of its enduring narratives. Olson from Briar Patch Inn says many of his extended-stay guests are actively on the mend – from injury, disease, grief or whatever trauma they might bring. As such, the canyon is a popular locale for tai chi, yoga and other meditative disciplines.

Sedona tai chi instructor Juan Manuel Jijon remembers the first time he laid eyes on Oak Creek Canyon, as a teenager in 2000. “I couldn’t believe how lush it was,” the Washington, D.C., native says. “It was, like, ‘Whoa, that’s the desert?’ It reminded me of the East Coast.”

Moving to Sedona about a decade later, Jijon gravitated to the canyon as a milieu for his tai chi classes, in which students practice balance and mindful breathing while clearing their minds. “It’s the trees,” he says, explaining why he sometimes prefers Oak Creek to the juniper flats of Sedona proper. “The thing is, ever since ancient times, tai chi was supposed to be practiced around trees, and running water even better, to absorb the energy of nature. Tai chi is rooted to the ground while reaching to the sky, and [Oak Creek] embodies that polarity with its deciduous trees, which are very rare in the desert.”

Jijon teaches a weekly class at Briar Patch Inn but says the same “power spot” qualities tend to settle, mist-like, over the length of the canyon. “I like all it, man. Every inch of it. This summer, my girlfriend and I are gonna get inner tubes, put ’em on the water and see how far we can get.”

Juan Manuel Jijon teaches tai chi at Briar Patch Inn; Photo by Mark Lipczynski
Juan Manuel Jijon teaches tai chi at Briar Patch Inn; Photo by Mark Lipczynski

When it comes to explaining the metaphysics of Sedona – which is to say, the vortices and energy plumes and other concepts that feel crunchy to some skeptics, but venerate the power of the human consciousness – no Sedonan speaks more articulately than Pete Sanders, a 40-plus-year resident who has written books on the topic and cites a degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in biomedical chemistry and brain science. He’s sort of the Carl Sagan of vortices.

Sanders first visited Sedona in the 1960s as a child and remembers the experience quite vividly.

“It had the same impact on me as it has on everybody else,” he says. “Red-orange as a color is neuro-stimulating. It’s caffeine for the higher mind. And where else in the world are giant red-orange rocks rising out of the earth like that? Only one other place: [Uluru/Ayers Rock] in Australia. It’s incredibly novel.”

Digressing slightly, but irresistibly for a movie fan like myself, Sanders cites the Steven Spielberg-directed 1977 science fiction epic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which culminates with a friendly alien landing on a Sedona-like hoodoo in Wyoming. He theorizes that the scene was inspired by Sedona (Spielberg spent his teenage years in Phoenix and almost certainly visited Red Rock country during that time) and thinks the filmmaker  would have probably preferred to film the scene in Arizona. “Why did Spielberg film in Wyoming at Devils Tower?” he asks rhetorically. “He goes to great pains to make Devils Tower look redder than it is. Anyone who’s been there knows it’s quite gray. The answer: It’s easier to get a filming permit in Wyoming than Sedona.”

Canyon Appreciation

Some spots of interest for your next tour of Oak Creek Canyon.

Photos clockwise from top left: by Craig Outhier (4); Courtesy Briar Patch Inn
Photos clockwise from top left: by Craig Outhier (4); Courtesy Briar Patch Inn

To be sure, Sanders is priestly and a bit evangelical in his love of Sedona’s red rock geology. Which is why – where Oak Creek Canyon is concerned – he’s most moved by the canyon’s southern half, after the gray basalt rock of the canyon’s top half has resolved into the distinctive red-to-orange sandstone for which Sedona is known. Coupled with the canyon’s sylvan leafiness, the red mountains lifting up above the tree line complete a sensual stew unlike anything else on the planet.

“Human consciousness associates green with hope,” he says. “Combined with the stimulating red-orange of [the rocks], it creates an incredible tower of natural energy, which is what uplifts people.”

Sanders cautions that Oak Creek Canyon is not one of the seven main vortices that he and others have identified in the area – defined as up-drafts or down-drafts, depending on the terrain, of polarized energy that runs through the body of people who visit these sites.

“If anything, I would characterize Oak Creek as a combination vortex,” he says. “With both inflow, which is the energy that helps you go inward for recharging through nature, and up flow, for new insight and connecting with the beyond.”

Though he’s not personally fond of the stereotype, he says inflow energy is sometimes characterized as the “feminine” half of the yin-yang vortex theory.

For a quick hands-on primer on vortices, or just for a great hike and splash afterward, Sanders recommends West Fork Trail, located just north of Slide Rock State Park.

“West Fork Trail is magical, from a pure science point of view, the most biodiverse spot in Arizona,” he says. “The trail itself is more about inflow, for healing and nurturing, but in places where the canyon opens up and you can see the cliff sides, you get that combination effect.

“It’s also 10 degrees cooler than Sedona,” he adds.

This might all sound aspirational to left-brain folk, but one can’t deny the restorative energy of the canyon, even if it’s purely subjective and sensory in nature. Personally, I like to think Glenn Kilbourne and Carley Burch, the protagonist lovers in Zane Grey’s 1923 novel The Call of the Canyon, were deeply but unknowingly manipulated by vortices, as Arizona girl Flo Hutter nursed Glenn’s war-broken body back to health. New Age beneficiaries before New Age was even a thing.

With its history and sustained role in Arizona’s collective conscience, Oak Creek is hardly a secret hot spot waiting to be discovered. According to Slide Rock State Park manager Hank Vincent, somewhere between 400,000 and half a million people drive up – or down – 89A every year to cool off in the park’s streams and catch a few adrenaline-soaked thrills on its smooth, slickened boulders.

That’s about 10 percent of Grand Canyon’s total visitors per year, but still significant – and still a concern to the long-term health of Oak Creek Canyon, as everything those half million people put on or excrete from their bodies ultimately finds its way down stream into the creek. Not to mention the pollution from their cars and other environmental stressors.

Vincent and other stakeholders, like the Oak Creek Watershed Council, are mindful of the pitfalls of popularity where the creek and canyon are concerned. “We all have the same mission: plan to protect and preserve the canyon,” he says.

To that end, the park recently adopted some “mitigation efforts” to tamp down crowds. “For example, we no longer allow walk-in traffic to discourage people parking on the highway,” Vincent says. “At 180 cars, our parking lot is at peak capacity, and you can no longer drop off someone or walk in. We think it improved the visitor experience down in the line.”

That alone will stabilize water quality, he says. “You have to remember, there’s always bacteria in natural bodies of water. But if [e. coli counts are] above a certain threshold, we advise the public [that it’s] not safe for swimming.”

Vincent estimates such alerts happen three to four times a year. Interestingly, it is not human traffic that most strongly correlates to water health, but rain patterns. “[Bacterial counts] can be elevated during the monsoon,” he says. “The rain tends to push all that animal scat off the canyon downhill into the water. That’s where it comes from.”

Like any part of rural Arizona, Oak Creek Canyon is not immune from the ravages of drought and fire, as sadly demonstrated by the Slide Fire of 2014, which burned 21,227 acres.

But Vincent believes the forest in and around the canyon is in generally good shape and will continue to be – given enough rainfall. “The last big issue we had with forest health was in 2006 and 2007, when the bark beetle came in and [feasted on] the ponderosa,” he says. “But then they went away when the moisture came in.”

My theory, completely unsupported by any real environmental education or acumen: Oak Creek is a resilient little mother, with a toughness belied by its leafy comeliness and prim creek flow. The  creek, after all, is a miracle of aggregation, fed by numerous artisanal wells, not to mention surface flow in the spring from snowmelt in Flagstaff. There’s strength in such redundancy.

Like many of the people who seek her out, Oak Creek is also a product of trauma. Millions of years of violent fault actions and molten outpourings. There’s strength in that, too.

On a solitary hike of the Wilson Mountain Trail, right around the midpoint of the canyon, I see some still-standing arboreal victims of the Slide Fire, now surrounded by breathtaking lushness, including banks of white, honeysuckle-like flowers so sweet-smelling, it conjures a doughnut shop; and canopies of oak leaf so low and tight over the trail, I have to fight off a brief surge of claustrophobia.

My shirtless, sunbathing pal from before never does return my emails, but that’s understandable. For some, the last thing you want to do with a love affair is talk about it.