On an average summer weekend in Oak Creek Canyon, nearly every roadside space that can reasonably fit a car will be used as parking. On the creek beaches below, almost every flat rock will see swimmers and sun bathers.
And yet, for all the cars and people, there are few bathrooms and few trashcans. Many visitors simply leave their waste behind, including dirty diapers, toilet paper, beer cans and all manner of food wrappers. Hundreds of pounds of trash are often picked up after major holidays by the Oak Creek Watershed Council, a nonprofit group of volunteers.
And as the embers of the Slide fire slowly burn themselves out, many in Flagstaff and Sedona have lobbied for the closure of the forests, including Oak Creek Canyon.
The human-caused fire started near the banks of Oak Creek Canyon between Slide Rock State Park and the Halfway picnic area. It’s a stretch of canyon popular with swimmers and day trippers.
Fossil Creek is another overrun creek site on the Coconino National Forest, also within easy driving distance from Phoenix. In response to high fire danger and visitors ignoring fire restrictions, U.S. Forest Service officials elected to close Fossil Creek beginning this weekend.
Such a proposition in Oak Creek Canyon is unlikely. It’s home to hundreds of residents and dozens of businesses that rely on the traffic summertime brings. Even the Arizona Department of Transportation’s move to close the north end of the canyon at the switchbacks for construction has proved unpopular with many.
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But last year, the Coconino National Forest explored prohibiting roadside parking and forcing Oak Creek Canyon visitors to ride a shuttle bus by banning most private vehicles. Currently, there is no public transportation. The plan was shelved.
“Data suggests that demand exists for some level of new or expanded transit service in and around Sedona, serving Oak Creek Canyon,” according to the study authors.
To complete the project, millions of dollars worth of infrastructure, including bus stops and barricades, as well as trash cans and stop signs and all manner of other signage, would likely have had to be installed.
Daniel Garland, who owns the Indian Gardens market, participated in the U.S. Forest Service study. He said that as both a resident and a business owner he was torn about the project. He’d like to see the congestion reduced, but he and other businesses in the canyon cater to Sedona residents and summertime tourists driving the scenic road to camp, bike, swim and fish. Bus stops would instead be built at current popular destinations.
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The final draft of the Red Rock Ranger District Alternative Transportation compared Oak Creek Canyon options to shuttle bus programs already in use by the National Park Service in places like Zion and Muir Woods.
Ultimately, the Forest Service heard back from stakeholders in Oak Creek Canyon that the shuttle should only be utilized on weekends during the busiest time of the year. Any complete closure would be a non-starter.
But stakeholders interviewed by the Forest Service noted that traffic jams are currently common heading south into Sedona on weekend afternoons. And the study found that many were concerned about safety in the event of a wildfire or other emergency forcing people out. Those fears did not manifest during the Slide fire, as the evacuation was completed with relatively few complications.
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At peak hours on June weekends, as many as 900 cars will drive up and down Oak Creek Canyon every hour. A 2013 count of parking spaces in Oak Creek Canyon found 1,300 legal parking spots between Uptown Sedona and the Overlook. The majority of those spaces are unmanaged, meaning there is no fee for parking.
According to the study, Slide Rock State Park, the canyon’s most popular destination, is one of the few with its own ample parking. It can hold as many as 150 cars. The lot often fills to capacity, forcing visitors to drive up canyon looking for somewhere else to park and scamper down to the water. It’s not always possible to park. Currently, that shortage of parking serves as an upper limit on visitation, the study found.
The Forest Service study authors also estimated that not having a shuttle could also be bearing an economic cost. No one has ever examined how many people might avoid Sedona because of overcrowding, but based on past economic studies, if 5 percent of the current visitors stayed away it would have a $1 million a month impact.
That loss could have a bigger impact than the cost of the shuttle project, they said. The projected total cost for the two-phase plan: $3.7 million. Cheaper alternatives were also proposed.
However, the current lack of parking is all that limits visitors. So a shuttle could potentially increase congestion in areas off roadways, adding stress to the creek and trails, as well a fueling e. coli concerns, the study said. A projection of potential shuttle riders suggested that as many as 40,000 visitors could reasonably ride the buses each year.
Forest Service officials said that although the plan is currently dead, it could be resurrected again in the future.
Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.