Located in Oak Creek Canyon northeast of Sedona, the Harding Springs Trail offers visitors excellent views of the colorful and sculptured west side of the canyon that contains the creek at its base that gave the area its name.
Oak Creek Canyon is a well-known and popular location that plays host to both locals and tourists alike.
The road from Sedona winds its way along the meandering creek and passes by dense stands of pine forest and riparian vegetation. They blend together to give the area a subdued solitude about it, in spite of the often-heavy vehicle traffic along its route. The road eventually climbs out of the canyon and passes through ponderosa forest prevalent in this part of the state.
Sheer walls rise almost straight up in places, reaching heights of more than a thousand feet above the creek bed. On the west side of the canyon, picturesque formations, known locally as hoodoos, remind one of statues and figurines seen in cathedrals and grottos. Some even could be mistaken for gargoyles, were it not for their natural origin.
The walls of the canyon, especially on the west side, are composed of layers of sandstone, clay, and other geologic formations that are probably second only to the Grand Canyon itself, to the northwest. Multicolored, as well as multilayered, these walls are a tantalizing scene for those visitors hiking this trail.
All along the many switchbacks on the Cookstove leg up the east side, there are numerous places where one can stop and rest while studying the natural architecture across the canyon.
Once on top, the rest of the hike is a leisurely stroll through open areas of chaparral and scrub, interspersed with thick stands of tall pines where the trail is covered with soft collections of needles and grasses.
The trail follows the contours of the canyon and winds along near its edge until it reaches the junction with the Harding Springs leg of the loop.
This section drops back down to the canyon floor almost as rapidly as the ascent from the other end.
On the south end of this part of the trail, open views of the canyon are plentiful and provide one the opportunity to see just how deep and narrow it is, as it winds along before opening up, as it reaches its mouth.
When it rains, a soft, veil-like mist drifts through the canyon walls, before settling gently on the vegetation below.
Of the two trailheads that allow access to the loop, the Harding Springs approach is probably the easiest.
This is a relative description, as both are fairly steep.
The Harding Springs side, however, has the advantage in that it has the better shade to provide relief on those sunny, cloudless days common to Arizona.
Also, the Harding Springs Trail is better maintained and doesn't contain the many downed trees that make navigating the Cookstove Trail more of a challenge.
Beginning at the Cookstove trailhead, located directly across the road from the north end of Pine Flat Campground (vehicle parking available here), the trail immediately begins to switchback as it quickly climbs up the eastside wall. The sign for the trailhead is small and not easy to see.
It is directly across the street from a rock pillar, built by the Forest Service sitting near the road.
This part of the hike is the most difficult as it is steep and rocky. In places, it is very narrow and footing can sometimes be a little tricky.
It is not so difficult that an average hiker can't handle it, however. The day the author was on it, a family with young children passed by, on their way down.
Once you reach the top, watch for the trail to bear to the right as it begins to follow the edge of the wall. There are sections of the trail on top that are not well-defined and it requires a visitor to pay close attention to it while walking along.
Even though it follows the contours of the canyon rim, this can be misleading as it won't always tend to be in a straight line to the south.
In several places, it will even veer off to the east and back to the north, as it makes its way along the top.
There is no signage on this part of the loop and only a few rock cairns to mark its route.
After about two miles on top, the trail drops down slightly and links up with the Harding Springs Trail. There is a short spur here that continues on to a spot where there are some excellent views of the south end of the canyon. Returning to the junction, the Harding Springs leg will take you back down to the road.
This trail head is right across the street from the parking area for the Cave Springs Campground where a shuttle vehicle can be left. This campground is approximately 1.3 miles south of the Pine Flat Campground location.
Although this is a short hike of about four miles total, it requires a certain amount of effort and will have the effect of a longer hike on less difficult terrain.
As on any hike in this part of Arizona, especially during the monsoon season, rain gear is always a must, as sunny skies can turn cloudy and wet with little warning.
To Get There
From the town of Sedona, proceed north on Highway 89A for approximately 12 miles. You will pass by the Cave Springs Campground before reaching the Pine Flat Campground, which is located about halfway between mile markers 386 and 387.
The only water source available is a fountain built into the Forest Service pillar.
Check out: "Favorite Hikes, Flagstaff and Sedona" (ISBN-09664769-3-x).