Hiking Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon: The Spectacular Cookstove Trail
In terms of hiking in Northern Arizona, it doesn’t get much better than a day out exploring the beautiful scenery of Oak Creek Canyon, a unique area of the state home to dense green forests and towering multi-hue sandstone formations. A number of hiking trails are available to soak in the views of this incredible area, which happens to be the second most popular tourist attraction after the Grand Canyon.
A challenging workout
The gorgeous Cookstove Trail, a quiet, desolate, and short Oak Creek hiking trail, is a fantastic cardio workout offering fitness buffs some of the best views in the area. Although the 0.7 mile out-and-back trek will take no longer than an hour, it’s quite a tough workout, especially in the hot summer months. The trail begins with a series of very steep switchbacks up the East side of the canyon. In certain sections, the trail is so steep that staircases have been put in. With an elevation gain of almost 1000 feet, this trail definitely suits more advanced hikers only.
Anyone up for an extreme cardio challenge will be rewarded with some pretty nice scenery as a trade off for their hard work. Great views of the colorful rock formations pop up at many points along the uphill climb. It’s just over a half mile up, although it feels much harder due to the steepness. Taking a few much needed breaks along the way will allow you to take some great photos and fully absorb the breathtaking scenery. A note of caution to those scared of heights – the first section of the trail has a number of steep drop offs!
Diverse plant and animal life
This trail offers a rare glimpse into the diverse trees and plant life which make up Oak Creek Canyon. You will see more pines on this one vs. the typical cacti and scrub views you will encounter on the majority of Sedona hikes. This high desert area supports a wide range of plant life. Oak and sycamore trees provide plenty of shade, making this a great summer option.
Oak Creek also happens to be one of the best areas in Northern Arizona for fall leaf peeping due to the variety of deciduous trees. Summertime, you may be lucky to see some gorgeous wildflowers. Prickly pear cacti are abundant as these sturdy plants can thrive in all different climates and grow in altitudes up to 9000 feet. The area supports a diverse range of wildlife including black bear, mountain lion, and javelina.
A great non-touristy option
Cookstove remains one of the quieter trails as it is often overlooked by tourists too busy taking in the amazing beauty along Oak Creek Canyon drive. Understandably it’s hard not to fully immerse yourself in the natural splendor. In fact, if you aren’t paying attention, you may miss the parking sign. Fortunately, the lack of popularity means that you will ikely have the entire trail to yourself.
The serene walk through the forest combined with a lack of crowds make Cookstove one of Sedona’s more peaceful, less touristy feeling hikes. On one slight downside, it can be a bit noisy at the beginning due to the heavy road traffic on Hwy 89a. Don’t worry – the noise begins to wear off as soon as you climb up because as at this point you will only be paying attention to the intensity of your workout and the magnificent views!
Upon reaching the summit, you will have the opportunity to take in the most amazing views in the region. Stay awhile and enjoy the otherworldly scenery. From here, you can venture back down for a quick out-and-back hike of just under a mile, or you can connect to the Harding Springs trail to make it a more challenging, longer loop trail. I recommend taking it easy if visiting during the warmer months and simply completing the out-and-back for a nice scenic, short trail.
Take a break and recover from the strenuous climb before completing the much easier trek downhill. As you arrive back, you will be greeted with the smell of campfires coming from nearby Pine Flats Campground. This definitely adds to the rustic nature of the hike.
On an interesting side note, the Cookstove Trail was originally built to give firemen access to the canyon’s wooded slopes. Today, it is used recreationally by hikers wanting to explore this gorgeous area of Arizona.
Tips for a great hike
*Be aware that the intense summer heat can make any steep hike at high elevation feel that much harder. Unfortunately, it does not matter if it is a dry heat – it’s very hot either way, especially when climbing uphill at high altitude. Thus, you will want to save the Cookstove trail for fall or spring – it will be much more comfortable!
*Plan your hike early in the morning. Temps will be much cooler, traffic will be less congested, and it will be easier to find parking.
*Bring lots of water for this trail. The short distance is misleading – this is a moderate-hard hike. Fill up a camelbak or bring several water bottles. Fill up at the spring station located directly across the street from the trail for the most delicious water ever!
*Stop for a relaxing breakfast at Indian Gardens, located just a few short miles up from where the hike begins. This fantastic local gem offers a great menu of healthy breakfast favorites and the best espresso drinks in town. The beautiful natural setting includes a shady outdoor patio.
*Wear hiking shoes with good traction and always carry a stick for extra balance. You can find one at any local hiking store in addition to the Visitor’s Center located next to Indian Gardens.
*Take frequent breaks when climbing uphill. The uphill elevated climb, combined with hot weather, makes this hike a lot harder than your typical uphill hike.
*Cool down at Slide Rock State Park, a unique Arizona attraction featuring natural waterslides made out of the red rock. For a cheaper alternative, the creek can be accessed via the Huckaby trailhead.
Distance: 0.7 out-and-back (1.4 miles roundtrip)
Difficulty: Moderate-hard depending on your fitness level and time of year (summer heat= harsher conditions)
Location: The Cookstove Trail is easy to miss if you do not look up directions in advance. Hence, its’ appealing secluded nature. Drive down scenic Hwy 89a until Milepost 387. Here, you will see a natural spring water station on the right side of the road. You will see plenty of people filling up water jugs and there is also a popular campsite right next door. You can park your car in any of the pullouts and simply cross the road to begin the hike.
There is no fee to park in this area.