Woods Canyon and Beyond
This hike features a moderately rigorous collection of less-commonly-used trail sections, starting at the Woods Canyon trailhead, taking Woods Canyon to the Hot Loop Trail just up the Horse Mesa, traveling back down to pick up Jacks Canyon, then using an fairly obscure connector link to loop through the Pine Valley Ridge and Pine Valley Trails, then backward the same way (skipping Horse Mesa) to the Woods Canyon trailhead. We hike about 16 miles, with an accumulated elevation change, round trip, of about 2900 feet.
The hike offers a bit of everything – open shrublands, rim forests, tree-covered mesas, expansive views, red-rock creek beds, Sedona real estate, the horses at Jacks Canyon trailhead, Courthouse Butte – but not a lot of anyone thing. We get the varied, and a reasonable amount of spectacular.
One item, though, does occur a lot – gates, of all types. After passing, close them, both an obvious courtesy and moreover standard hiking etiquette.
The hike starts at the extreme southern end of the Visitor Center south of Oak Creek village. A trailhead marker near a single boulder announces “Woods Canyon,” followed then by an old-style metal marker with “Trail 93” cutout, then a gate, and tall grasses.
Soon, though, the trail evolves to a mixture of open shrubland of low plants and common Southwest pinyons, juniper and other short trees. This continues as you rise slowly on Woods Canyon trail, the canyon itself formed by mesas to your left and right. The mesas might be considered unremarkable: low, flat, with gently-sloping tree-covered sides – no towering cliffs, only a little of the deep reds or browns or oranges, few bands or striations revealing geologic processes. But this unremarkableness brings a wonder – what would a 300 million year time lapse reveal about why Woods Canyon presents to us tree-covered green, while in a dozen miles Courthouse Butte will present to us a completely different view.
After about 1.8 miles, you reach the Hot Loop junction, marked nicely by a sign post. The ascent pitches up to a moderate incline, bringing you after about .8 miles to another nicely marked “T” junction of Hot Loop, with one leg of the “T” ascending to Horse Mesa. Go right and follow that up (about 1.3 miles) until you judge yourself close enough to the northern rim of the mesa to go north off trail (a short bit) to overlook Jack’s Canyon and the formations beyond. Rest a bit, you will have climbed 1200 feet, but mainly to take in the view and work a few pictures.
Your view across Jacks Canyon provides an expansive panorama of Lee Mountain, Courthouse Butte, and Bell Rock. Beneath you, in Jacks Canyon itself, lies the eastern edges of Oak Creek Village, including estates on roads sufficiently private that no Google street view exists. Far in the background rise Doe, Bear and Black mountains.
Travel back down, to the “T” junction, and now proceed north. This portion of the hike weaves through the wooded slopes of Horse Mesa and the smaller mesa that stood to your left on the beginning of the hike. Of interest, red rock occasionally breaks through the vegetation, hinting that the slopes consist of rock eroded down from strata once above the tops of the mesas.
About 2.8 miles after leaving the viewpoint on Horse Mesa, the hike reaches the horse trailer area at the Jacks Canyon trailhead. With good fortune, you might observe a couple horses being groomed and readied for riding. The estates of eastern Oak Creek village will also appear to the north.
Now pick up the interconnector. This will not be reached by taking the Jack Canyon trail. Rather, look for an unmarked single red trail a couple dozen feet more north than the trailhead for Jacks Canyon. Proceed a short distance on the interconnector, cross the road, pick up the connector again, and proceed up a short hill to a gate. Here, you stand up-close to a large estate, of intriguing architecture. The gate marks the start of Pine Valley Ridge trail and a continued gentle incline.
Proceed about .9 miles, and at the bend of the trail, take a short trek off-trail to the rim for wide view of the escarpment on a southern exposure of Lee Mountain, as well as an angle view on the infamous Rabbit Ears formation. Most of us lack a deep knowledge of geology, but even the casual observer can see the bands, layers and striations in the escarpment, formed as Sedona alternated between sea, beach, river and inland environments circa 275 million years ago.
At this point, one can drop down on a relatively uncataloged “Rabbit Ear” trail, or continue on Pine Valley Ridge, to arrive at the eastern side of Courthouse Butte. Again, geology will be evident, as will a bit denser crowds. You can peruse Courthourse Butte and Bell Rock on the typical trails, as you like, but when done take Big Park Loop south to an unmarked junction with Pine Valley Trail (GPS 34.794682, -111.747949). You will travel back about 1.5 miles on Pine Valley, until you “T” into Pine Valley Ridge. Go right, and shortly you will be at the gate to the interconnector. Proceed back to the Visitor Center, but eliminating the spur up to the top of Horse Mesa. Even though you traversed these trail sections earlier, the sun will now be at a different angle, and you view will be from a different viewpoint, and the time will be later in the day. So don’t be in so much of a hurry to not practice a bit more photography, or nature viewing, or geology study, or whatever your fancy.