Switchbacks & Sunshine: A Holiday Weekend in Oak Creek Canyon

by Dustin Christensen

oak creek canyon holiday weekend

Even during a busy holiday weekend, you can still find pockets of solitude in Oak Creek Canyon.

By the time Memorial Day rolls around in Phoenix, things begin heating up and it’s the perfect first long weekend of the year to escape to cooler weather.

This year we hit Oak Creek Canyon for the holiday, and though it’s usually packed to the gills, we made plans to avoid the bigger crowds and find some peace and quiet in the canyon we’ve come to know as a temporary home away from home. 

oak creek canyon 89A

Our vehicle of choice for the weekend was a GMC Terrain AWD SLT, a tough, stocky all-black SUV that held all our camping gear and still offered room to stretch on the way.

Getting up north and into the canyon isn’t anything too wild, but having the Terrain’s 2.0L turbo engine – especially on the winding 89A between Sedona and Flagstaff – made sure we got up in no time at all.

It had snowed the day before we arrived, so we also wanted something that would deal with weather and (sorry, Arizona) our state’s usual mix of inattentive drivers hauling up I-17 for the weekend. The Terrain’s driver alert and safety features made it an an easy choice for an extended weekend in the canyon.

Settin’ Up Shop

We camped at Pine Flat Campground, the northernmost of Oak Creek Canyon’s three designated camping areas.

It’s smaller than nearby Cave Springs and the furthest campground from Sedona, making it a cooler and often quieter destination for those looking to avoid the touristy draws to the south.

Creekside campsites and meandering trails in the area are perfect for families and low-key campers, and my daughters and their cousins quickly took to the woods to explore.

exploring pine flat campground hiking pine flat

We set up camp on the south side of the campground, where you can reserve campsites online ahead of time. The north end’s available on a first-come, first-serve basis and was noticeably more crowded and bustling.

Talking to the camp host, it sounded like the snowfall just before the weekend scared off a handful of campers with reservations, so we found ourselves at the far end of a quiet and sparsely populated camping area.

pine flat campsite

Canyon Roaming 

After exploring for a bit, we took a drive up the canyon on 89A to the switchbacks leading to Flagstaff.

It’s one of our favorite drives in the state and since we arrived on Thursday before most of the weekend crowd, the highway wasn’t clogged with cars yet.

89a scenic drive

At the top, we stopped at Oak Creek Vista, an outlook offering sweeping southern views of the canyon and beyond.

Next we hit some of the forest roads at the top of the switchbacks and scoped out a few of the available dispersed campsites, which are a solid option if the canyon’s three campgrounds below are booked. 

89a switchbacks

The slow-winding drive down from the top of the canyon to Sedona is one of the best stretches of highway in Arizona, and part of the fun of staying in the area is enjoying the scenic drive in both directions.

pine flat neighborhood

There are plenty of spots along the highway to pull over and explore, and if you’re hiking closer to Sedona, snag a Red Rock Pass so you can park wherever you need to in the area (map).

Camp Life

camping in oak creek
Gettin’ a little s’more kiss.

Back at camp, we enjoyed our break from the conveniences of home with daily routines of walking, hiking, eating and the occasional – and accidental – fall into the creek.

exploring oak creek
Exploring the creek near Pine Flat.

The weather was gorgeous throughout the weekend and because we never ventured too far south, we had a relatively low-key trip – a sharp contrast to the traffic and throngs of people in downtown Sedona.

Our girls found all sorts of things to explore and do at Pine Flat, and when they were occupied with their older cousins, my wife and I enjoyed our time around camp.

pine flat camp ground

After camping a handful of times, our girls love the roughing it routine and asked if they could stay forever.

Sadly, I had to inform them that not only did our reservation only take us through the weekend, but a 7-day limit at Pine Flat meant we’d never be able to really stay forever.

And as much as I love camping, anyone with a three-year-old knows forever is a long time to be away from the creature comforts of home.

pine flat camping

In the mornings and at dusk, a few of the older boys in my wife’s family would hit a small watering hole just to the south of the campground, and after a few hours had something to show for their efforts.

fishing oak creek trout oak creek

In the afternoons, we hit the canyon wall to the west, exploring the washes and steep red rock formations that make the area so distinct.

red rock scrambling

At the north end of the campground there’s a spring with water that beats anything we can get in Phoenix, and it’s a must-stop part of the trip if you have water containers to fill.

pine flat spring

Avoiding the Main Draws

Over the years we’ve made our rounds at the usual Oak Creek haunts – Slide Rock, Grasshopper Point, West Fork – but we typically try to do those in the offseason and during the week.

For example, West Fork is a great mid-week autumn hike when the summer crowd’s dispersed and temps are cooler.

But on a busy holiday weekend like Memorial Day, we avoid the crowds and hit the trails less traveled.

This weekend we stuck close to our home base and climbed the Cookstove Trail on the northeast end of Pine Flat Campground. I grabbed my trail running gear and landed at the trailhead just a few minutes from our campsite.

cookstove trail oak creek
Cookstove Trail winding up the canyon wall.

Cookstove is an intermediate and relatively short hike that switchbacks up the canyon wall with plenty of scenic stops along the way.

It was originally used by firefighters to access the upper reaches of Oak Creek Canyon during fire season.

At the top, there’s room to wander the rim of pine, alligator juniper and scrub oak. I hung out at the rim to enjoy the views, catch my breath and take in the quiet hustle of the highway and campground below.

cookstove trail views
Oak Creek Canyon views to the south.

From there I jogged back down the trail, but you can also choose to connect to Harding Springs Trail to the south.

It’s an old cattle route that’s wider and less steep than Cookstove and makes for a relaxed, gradual descent down the canyon.

oak creek canyon 89A
The canyon’s west wall towering over 89A.

Our days of exploring turned into chilly nights around the campfire, enjoying dinner and drink until we couldn’t hang anymore, which is usually pretty early these days.

Headin’ Home

oak creek canyon scenic drive
Any good trip has its ending, and after a great weekend up north we headed back to our home in the desert.

I’ve been camping in Arizona since I was a kid, and one of the best parts of our trips now is watching our girls’ adventurous sides shine.

Sure, it’s not the same as the rugged backpacking trips or desert river runs that were so easy to tackle before kids, but it’s an adventure with more (and different) reflection and meaning.

They first camped at four-months-old and haven’t looked back. Okay, there’s one picture of Adalynn looking back.


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this girl 💙

A post shared by Dustin Christensen (@dt.christensen) on

They’ve inherited the same restless spirit I have, and for better and worse, that means adventure’s always on the horizon.

We had a blast camping for the long weekend, but in its own way heading home is a small contemplative adventure, the close of one story and the early roots of the next.

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