Oak Creek Canyon, Arizona

A version of this article by Darin Jenke and Stephanie Bittner was originally published in Oak News & Notes Vol 18, No. 1. Photos by Ryan Russell.

Oak Creek Canyon is an extensive drainage basin on the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau in North Central Arizona. The canyon is located at the geological fault between the Basin and Range Province and the Colorado Plateau. The fault forms an extensive area of highlands known as the Mogollon Rim, and many large creeks drain the area. Oak Creek Canyon, in the Coconino National Forest, is one of the most beautiful of these creeks, and it is home to many different species of deciduous and evergreen oaks.

The mouth of Oak Creek Canyon starts near the red rocks of Sedona, and the canyon extends northward, narrowing as it goes. It cuts through the different strata of the Colorado Plateau, revealing first the beautiful red sandstones of the Sedona area at the mouth and then white sandstones farther north in the canyon. The rim of the canyon is made of black basalt. The stream that cuts down through the canyon is scattered with large boulders of these various rock types, which have been washed downstream in the periodic flash floods that occur during the monsoon and heavy winter rains. Oak Creek originates from a number of tributary springs that come down from the headwaters of the many side canyons that join Oak Creek, including West Fork canyon. Oak Creek Canyon drains the Colorado Plateau from north to south, while the side canyons enter from the east and west. The tributary springs well up at the transition between the white sandstone strata and the more impermeable basalt layer.

View from scenic outlook

The Mogollon Rim forms a floristic boundary between the colder Rocky Mountain flora, Great Basin flora and the warmer Madrean oak woodlands and Sonoran desert floras. Oak Creek Canyon encompasses many of these different types of terrestrial ecosystems, which occur in different locations depending on the slope, exposure, elevation, and soil type. Precipitation in the canyon is significantly higher than in the surrounding region, leading to a greater diversity of habitat types.

Starting at the Sedona area and travelling north, visitors to the lower canyon mouth first encounter areas of desert grasslands and patches of Great Basin pinyon-juniper woodlands. The desert grassland is characterized by summer bunchgrasses and ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens Engelm.), with scattered oaks and junipers where the grasslands mix with chaparral and pinyon-juniper woodlands. Soil type and slope are key factors for good grass stand development in this area. Juniper woodlands are also common at lower and middle elevations in the Oak Creek area. Dominant species are Juniperus mixed with Quercus turbinella Greene and, at higher elevations, shrubby Q. gambelii Nutt. Steeper slopes near the canyon mouth are covered with thick interior chaparral. Trees near the canyon mouth generally range from 5 to 30 ft/1.5 to 9 m tall.

Large Quercus gambelii

Small Quercus gambelii

North of the mouth the canyon narrows, and the terrain becomes dense interior chaparral and Madrean oak woodland. Interior chaparral is a shrub-dominated ecosystem made up of many species adapted to drought and fire. Oaks in this area are evergreen, not deciduous. The most important component of interior chaparral is Q. turbinella, which forms extensive stands in Central Arizona. Turbinella oak is often a shrub (5 x 5 ft/1.5 x 1.5 m), but can be a small tree up to 15 ft/4.6 m tall. It has small thick leathery leaves with an extensive underground root system to gather moisture. Bearberry (Arctostaphylos pungens Kunth), a large shrub with bright red bark and small, pointy, glossy leaves, dominates higher-elevation south slopes and forms pure stands in the Oak Creek area. Rhus ovata S. Watson, known locally as Sugarberry, is a shrub with large oblong leaves found in lower elevation chaparral. Q. palmeri Engelm. is a large shrub oak that is abundant in the Oak Creek area. Palmer oak often hybridizes with Q. chrysolepis Liebm. in middle elevations of the canyon. Madrean oak woodlands are at their northern limit on the Mogollon Rim and are mostly composed of several evergreen oak species, specifically Q. emoryi Torr., Q. grisea Liebm., and Q. arizonica Sarg. Q. grisea is often found mixed with junipers, and turbinella oak grows on dry south slopes. Q. grisea is often a small tree or shrub and hybridizes with turbinella oak. Q. arizonica is a large tree that grows on north slopes and in riparian areas. It often hybridizes with Q. grisea, forming hybrid swarms in intermediate habitats. Q. emoryi is a large to small tree common in middle elevation areas. Q. emoryi attains its greatest size on the banks of Oak Creek next to giant Q. arizonica.

Quercus arizonica

Cool north slopes at the middle elevations of the canyon bear forests of ponderosa pine and Gambel oak that resemble those found in the Rocky Mountains. This forest also dominates higher elevation south slopes and the forested Colorado Plateau above the canyon. Important species are Pinus ponderosa Douglas ex C. Lawson, Q. gambelii, Juniperus spp., and Q. turbinella. Ponderosa pine, the most common and important tree of this habitat, grows very large, often over 100 ft/30 m tall. Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum Sarg.) is found along the canyon rim and scattered in middle elevations of the canyon. Forests of white fir and Douglas fir (Abies concolor Lindl. and Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirb.) Franco) sprout at the higher elevations of the canyon, particularly at the head of the canyon, and on lower north and east slopes, along with shrubs of snowberries (Symphoricarpos longiflorus A. Gray).

Quercus turbinella

Oak Creek itself and its contributing springs are lined with rich riparian deciduous forest. Many of the riparian trees reach 50 ft/15 m or taller, and some may grow as tall as 90 ft/27 m. Arizona sycamore (Platanus wrightii S. Watson), a large tree with striking white bark, is the most prominent riparian inhabitant of the lower and middle reaches of the canyon. Arizona walnut (Juglans major (Torr.) A. Heller), oak (Q. arizonica), ash (Fraxinus velutina Torr.), and alder (Alnus oblongifolia Torr.) mix with the sycamore. In the cool, moist side canyons, many moisture-loving trees like maples, cottonwoods, and willows occur. Narrow-leaf cottonwood (Populus angustifolia E. James) is common in the upper reaches of the canyon, and Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii S. Watson) in lower elevations. Willow species grow throughout the canyon. Maples such as ash-leaf (Acer negundo L.), bigtooth (Acer grandidentatum Nutt.), and Rocky Mountain (Acer glabrum Torr.) are generally found along Oak Creek, near springs, and on north slopes. A rare species, Knowlton hophornbeam (Ostrya knowltonii Coville), grows near the confluence of the west fork of Oak Creek. This species occurs in small colonies throughout the Western United States, but is never a common species. Grasses are quite common even in the riparian and woodland areas, and the transitions between habitats may be gradual. A number of nonnative trees also grow along the creek. Early homesteaders planted orchards of apples, plums, apricots, peaches, pears, and pecans. Many of the orchards survive and have spread across the canyon. Apples have recruited and are found along Oak Creek. Peaches and apricots have less success in reproducing, but scattered trees are found in the area.

Robinia neomexicana

Oak Creek Canyon suffered a couple of severe wildfires in 2006. The fires burnt the chaparral and ponderosa pines on the west side of the canyon. Though the fire benefited the chaparral habitat, traces of those fires can be seen today in the dead ponderosa and burnt logs that still cover the region. However, Oak Creek Canyon remains a popular spot for recreation and nature walks. It also contains Slide Rock State Park, where slippery red sandstone has formed natural waterslides that are very popular with locals during the hot summers. The creek is a beautiful, gentle stream that descends gradually through the canyon, forming still little pools interrupted by occasional stretches of rippling water. It isn't the place to visit if you're looking for rapids, but it's a peaceful place for a walk and hosts a healthy fishing community, who come to catch introduced rainbow trout from its cold waters.

Pinus ponderosa 

The trout species native to Oak Creek Canyon, the gila trout, unfortunately was long ago extirpated. Other native species survive, including desert sucker and a variety of chubs, and they feed on the abundant arthropods that thrive in the creek, including crayfish, mayflies, dragonflies, and aquatic insects.

The canyon varies seasonally in appearance. In the spring, the mouth of the canyon has abundant wildflowers. The forests open their flowers during the monsoon summer. The monsoon can cause huge thunderstorms that spark wildfires and cause flash floods, but these storms are also very beautiful. After a big storm, the normally sunny and dry canyon becomes cool, cloudy, and misty. In the autumn, the deciduous trees turn lovely colors, and some flower species are still in bloom, particularly Asteraceae. The maples become vibrant red and orange, and the cottonwood and willows go bright yellow, with orange and red at the edges. The one deciduous oak in the canyon, Gambel oak, turns a muted red. The sycamores become a russet brown, but they keep their leaves for most of the winter. In the winter, the higher mountains become tipped with snow. The canyon is cold in the winter, but it's worth a visit year round.