Sedona’s color palette leans heavily toward a particular hue — 50 shades of red, you might say — but this time of year other vibrant tints come to the fore, briefly but memorably.
These may be considered fightin’ words by our neighbors in that lower elevation, but Sedona’s fall color leaf peeping pales, both in number and vividness, compared to Flagstaff’s offerings. But what Sedona offers that Flagstaff doesn’t is the juxtaposition, the stark contrast, of golden leaves cast among a red-rock backdrop.
By far the most popular fall colors spot down there is the West Fork Trail, flitting in an out of Oak Creek. It is, undeniably, beautiful, but also undeniably crowded — even on a weekday.
Let me propose an alternative. Actually, several Sedona tourism websites proposed it; I’m merely passing it along to you. It’s the Huckaby Trail, a 5.9-mile (round-trip) that starts off hugging the mesa with gorgeous views of Oak Creek, red-rock formations and the bustling metropolis that is uptown Sedona, then descends creekside with lush riparian foliage of many genus and hues, then fords two crossings of Oak Creek itself (one tricky when the creek runs high) and then scaling some switchbacks up to Midgley Bridge.
You, of course, can do the roughly 3-mile point-to-point trek starting either at the Schnebly Hill Trailhead and ending at the bridge parking lot — provided you organize a car shuttle. But, frankly, I recommend the out-and-back. Sure, it means soaking your shoes once more on the creek crossings and making a pretty steep climb the final three-quarters of a mile to return to the trailhead.
Where’s the upside into going longer? Well, as often is the case in out-and-back sojourns, you get a different perspective coming back than going out. In Huckaby’s case, creek views dominate the way out, mostly downhill; on the way back, you are rewarded with the more panoramic sweep of the canyon below, where the area’s trademark spires and hoodoos dot the horizon.
Fine, you say. But tell us about the fall colors.
Here’s the deal: You’ve got to time your visit just right, because the leaf-changing in Sedona has but a brief window. For instance, I traversed Huckaby during the first week of October, and only a few Type-A, uber-cooperative trees and shrubs had taken on a yellowish tint. Then again, temperatures in Sedona and the Verde Valley were still consistently hitting 90 degrees in early fall, so it was to be expected.
Best to try your luck this week or next, or maybe even into early November, if you want the full effect. (Or skip it and join the hordes at Flagstaff’s popular aspen hangouts. That’s your call.)
But let’s not lose sight of the forest (or, in this case, the riparian woods and high-desert mesas) for the trees. The Huckaby Trail, attempted any time of year, is a worthwhile venture. Check that: Doing this run or hike on an August afternoon amid triple-digit temps is miserable, since shade is at the minimum throughout. But any other time — like, now — it can be sublime.
I started from the Schnebly Hill Trailhead for two reasons: the parking lot is bigger; and the start of the trek, while steeply downhill, is not as steep as starting at Midgley Bridge and plunging down the rocky switchbacks.
The descent into Bear Wallow Wash (alas, no ursine sighting) is steep but the trail is so well-constructed that you’d have to be a real klutz to fall. (Full disclosure: I fell.)
The first views of Oak Creek and Uptown Sedona come after the first mile. There’s a small dirt pullout where you can get postcard-type views of the bend in the creek, hugged on both sides by junipers and manzanita, with the red-rock cliffs shining in the morning sun. You can also see cars zooming by on Highway 89A, but I chose to mentally Photoshop that out of my vision.
As you make a gradual descent toward the creek, you do pick up a bit of shade from the riparian trees. You eventually reach the sandy bottom parallel to the water and feel lulled by the whoosh of the creek’s swift passage. You better hope the whooshing isn’t too loud, because that would mean the creek was running too high for a safe crossing.
And, when I reached the first crossing, I had to make a judgment call. Water was flowing pretty darn swiftly, but there seemed to be enough expose boulders to make the rock-hopping necessary. Let’s face it, your shoes will not stay dry no matter how assiduously you dart from rock to rock.
Turns out, my judgment wasn’t that great. Not even halfway across, I made a small leap to what I perceived as a dry, albeit darkened, rounded boulder peeking out. It turned out to be slick as ice and down I went. Yes, a full baptism in Oak Creek. When I emerged on the other side, I was drenched. I’d like to say the water was cool and refreshing; in reality, it was quite cold.
But your clothes, if not your shoes, will dry considerably making that last push up to Midgley Bridge and then on the way back down. That’s when you’ll cross again and plunge into the drink. It was much more fun sloshing through the second time, since I was already wet and didn’t care as much.
Though I didn’t see the fall-leaf turning in full splendor, I got a much-needed bath, got to see views of greater Sedona from on high and, because a round-trip is slightly under 6 miles, still had time for a leisurely, socially-distanced breakfast.
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