By Tom Pfaendler
Bouldering is the fine art of leaping gazelle-like from the top of one boulder to the top of another, to another, in rapid succession without permanently damaging yourself. This back-wrenching activity is serious fun and an old guy like me has no business doing it. But we happen to live next to one of the best bouldering areas in the world, and every once in a while I just have to venture out to Oak Creek Canyon and give it a try.
There are two ways to find this beautiful canyon nestled between Mt. Wilson and Rainbow Peak. The shortest route is from the north and can be found by driving twelve miles around the Scenic Drive, then following dusty Oak Creek Canyon road to the parking lot. The mile-long access trail (actually an old road) runs straight as an arrow due west, is and very rocky. If you choose to go this way, try not to twist your ankle early on, there’s plenty of opportunity for that later.
The South Oak Creek Canyon route is longer, but somewhat more interesting, and it’s the way I chose to go for this article. To get there, follow highway 159 west about four miles past the Visitor’s Center and look for the Oak Creek Canyon sign. You’ll have to park along the highway, but there is plenty of room on both sides of the road. The trail leads through an old campground to a sign that announces the “New Oak Creek Trail System.” From here, it’s a 2.5-mile walk northwest to the canyon. The first mile or so follows another old rocky road through the desert. You’ll likely be sharing this route with mountain bikes and horses, as this is a popular spot for both of those activities. In fact, the bikers have cut a little side-trail along the main road, which makes things a bit smoother going for us hikers, too.
As you come around the Knoll (the little potato-shaped mountain standing alone at the foot of Mt. Wilson), the scenery changes dramatically. The open desert and noise from the highway disappear and the hard rocky road beneath your feet gives way to a soft red dirt path. You’ll find yourself now in a little forest of pine and juniper trees with Mt. Wilson towering to the west, and the Knoll beckoning with its own series of trails to the east. This would be an excellent spot for a family picnic, or to just spend the day exploring the base of Mt. Wilson, but… world-class bouldering is waiting only a short mile away!
As you continue along the path toward Oak Creek Canyon, it abruptly becomes narrow and harder to follow. (Bikers and horses usually turn east here, following the red dirt path around the Knoll). Just pick your way northwest through the brush and keep heading toward the canyon. You’ll soon discover how this canyon got its name; there are desert oak trees everywhere! Obviously, there’s year-round water down there somewhere, but it’s hard to see through all the growth.
The trail continues along the south canyon rim making its way around some big boulders and slowly dropping downward, where it roughly intersects with the trail from the north parking area. This is a gorgeous, almost secret area hidden between two magnificent mountains, but it can be a little challenging to get down here. Except for the native blue jays, songbirds, butterflies and other critters that call this canyon home, you’ll probably have the whole place to yourself.
Standing on the bottom of Oak Creek Canyon, you’ll see that this entire wash is a series of huge sandstone boulders. Big, colorful, round and just waiting for you to try out your rock hopping chops. You can follow the canyon west for another mile or so, but only by bouldering (or by helicopter… that’s how Search & Rescue will get you out). Keep in mind that this is a wash and if it looks like it might rain, stay out of here!
I’m always amazed at how unique each of the Red Rock canyons are, and Oak Creek is no exception. While being somewhat less accessible than the other canyons, Oak Creek offers great beauty and satisfaction for those of us who must have a little rock scrambling in their lives. So, grab your water bottles, lace up those high-top ankle-supporting boots and make some tracks of your own into Oak Creek Canyon. The bouldering alone would score nine boots out of ten, but the mile-long, rocky access roads and braided canyon trails only earn five, so the overall hiking experience averages a respectable seven boots. Hey, as soon as my ankles heal, I’m going back!
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