Oak Creek Canyon Drive: 14 Miles of Beauty Between Flagstaff & Sedona
Oak Creek Canyon Scenic Drive is an extremely picturesque 14 mile drive located along Route 89a in Northern Arizona: a beautiful means of transportation from Flagstaff to Sedona. The drive starts just south of Flagstaff as you pass beautiful ponderosa pine forests and continuously brings forth even better scenery up until you eventually arrive at the beautiful million+ year old red rocks.
Oak Creek Canyon is amongst the most gorgeous drives in the country, and therefore, should definitely be incorporated into any Northern Arizona trip. Along the way, there are numerous scenic overlooks, fun things to do (hiking trails, restaurants, Native American Craft markets), picnic areas, and swimming holes (Slide Rock State Park is a top rated attraction which features natural waterslides).
The drive is a fun and beautiful means of transportation to or from Sedona. Along with the gorgeous rock formations and colorful mountains that make up Oak Creek, you will also be able to take in the beautiful variety of trees (fall is a gorgeous time to plan your visit!). The landscape is so lush you will forget that you are in Arizona as you quickly realize that the state isn’t just brown, dry desert!
Oak Creek Canyon, a river gorge located along the Mongollan rim, is often referred to as the smaller cousin of the Grand Canyon. As so, it is the 2nd most visited tourist attraction in the state. The canyon, located in the beautiful Cococino National Forest, is 2000 feet deep and 12 feet long. The canyon is home to many plants and wildlife species.
The difference in elevation and temperatures along the way is dramatic (7000-4000ft), leading to a wonderful diversity of trees, from the ponderosa pines near Flagstaff to all different types of deciduous trees as you move further along. There are so many varieties of trees on this drive, unlike nearby Flagstaff which sees mostly pine trees. Thus, Oak Creek Canyon is the perfect place in Arizona to enjoy some fall colors.
This is one drive where you will never lose interest at any point. Even if you choose to sit in your car the entire time and not enjoy any activities or overlooks, it is worth it for the tremendous views you will experience from every window. There is a panoramic view at every corner. You will find yourself totally lost in nature anytime you take the scenic journey – it never gets old! Pictures do no justice – this is one ride you have to experience yourself! Due to the immense popularity, roads can get really congested on weekend mornings/afternoons.
Check out some of the fantastic views along the way!
Breakfast in a pretty natural setting
There are a only a few dining choices along the route. Indian Gardens is the perfect place to stop for breakfast along the way. The food here is delicious, the espresso drinks are perfectly brewed, and the outdoor patio is relaxing, shady, and frequently visited by all types of birds. Here you can fill up on a protein rich omelet or breakfast bowl before spending the day in Sedona or treat yourself to a healthy salad or sandwich after a long hike. In addition, there are snacks, bottled drinks, and delicious homemade treats if you want something extra to bring along on your drive.
Activities along the way
Oak Creek Vista Scenic Overlook – The Oak Creek Vista Scenic Overlook, located off the side of the road right before you enter the canyon, is one of your first stops along the way for a glimpse of the scenery to come. Along with views, you can shop for unique Native American crafts from a variety of vendors. Plan to stop here in the morning, rather than on your return route, as hours are pretty limited (9am-5pm).
West Fork hiking trail – This scenic hiking hotspot is the most popular in the entire Cococino County National forest! Visiting during the colorful fall season leads to even better photo opportunities. It’s a great option for most fitness levels as the hike is pretty easy and should only take about 2-3 hours roundtrip (depending on how many breaks you take to enjoy the scenery!). There are several river crossings and many beautiful views of the canyon walls along the 6 mile journey.
Native American craft markets and shops – There are several places to buy unique Native American crafts such as dream catchers, pottery, and jewelry. Along with the many vendors you will see lined up at the Oak Creek Vista, you will also find numerous other public displays along your route. Conveniently, you can pull over anytime you see a market that catches your eye.
Slide Rock State Park – Slide Rock is as unique as it gets. At this natural swimming hole, you will find waterslides made out of the natural red sandstone. Aside from the slide for which the park is most famous for, picnicking, hiking, apple picking, and sunbathing are other popular activities to enjoy during your visit.
There are many places to get out of your car, stretch your legs, and admire the breathtaking scenery. Take your time, drive slow (the roads are very twisty with elevation changes), and enjoy the journey. When you arrive in Sedona, you will be treated to even more spectacular views. While the drive ends in Uptown Sedona, the fun and breathtaking views linger on. In Uptown Sedona’s shopping district, you will find restaurants, shops, tours, bars, galleries, and much more. The area is very walkable, and therefore, is the perfect place to spend an hour or 2 strolling around.
While you are in town, you must check out at least one hiking trail. Devil’s Bridge is amongst the most beautiful options. Also be sure to check out Red Rock State Park: a quieter option with gorgeous views, pretty trees, and lots of wildlife. For an easy nature stroll with great views, check out the Fay Canyon trail.
Tips for a smooth visit
*Plan your drive on a weekday for fewer crowds, preferably as early in the morning as possible. This is also when you will have the greatest opportunity to see wildlife.
*Summertime sees the most crowds. Plan a spring, late fall or winter trip for less road congestion. Roads are paved during the winter, although they can be slippery.
*Plan for a hike in Sedona after your drive. Seeing the beautiful scenery up close is a much different experience.
*Pack a picnic lunch and enjoy one of the numerous picnic sites along the way.
*Slide Rock State Park is very busy during the summer season. If planning to check it out, be sure to do so on a weekday.
*Stop at Indian Gardens for a cup of coffee or light breakfast. The patio is one of the best outdoor dining areas in Sedona.
*Bring with a camera. There are numerous overlooks where you can take your photo with the mountains in the background.
*Drive slow – the roads are very curvy and at times steep and a bit scary.
*Be sure to drink plenty of water as you will be driving through high elevation areas. If your ears start popping, chew gum or drink more water.
*Wear layers. The weather changes dramatically from Sedona to Flagstaff. Flagstaff sees cool temps year round, oftentimes during the summer season. Summer daytime temperatures in Flagstaff often fall in the mid 70’s-lower 80’s with lows in the 50’s-60’s. On the opposite end, highs in Sedona can be well into the 90’s!
*Have an itinerary planned for the day. There is so much to see and do, both on the drive and when you arrive in Sedona. You will not have time for everything in one day, so plan accordingly! I recommend planning a restaurant or 2, a hike, time to take photos by the overlooks, and extra time browsing for some unique Native American crafts to take home as a souvenir. If you have more than 1 day, a jeep tour, hot air balloon ride, or spa visit would add to the experience.
*Book a hotel to maximize your experience. One day simply isn’t enough time. Lodging options nearby include hotels, inns, and resorts both in Flagstaff and Sedona, along with more peaceful lodging along Oak Creek Canyon drive. Book well in advance to ensure your desired date.
For directions, visit the Cococino National Forest website.
Have you ever driven Oak Creek Canyon? What are some of your favorite hikes and activities in Sedona?