Only a couple of days after my Sedona trip with Tim I left for Houston to spend some time traveling East Texas with my new wife. I flew out and the next morning we headed north in her little Honda Civic for Nacogdoches, a small town a couple of hours north of Houston. The claim to fame of this little Texas tourist destination is that it is the oldest town in Texas. Originally a settlement of Caddo Indians, the official town of Nacogdoches was founded in 1779 by Gil Y’Barbo with permission from the Spanish Government.
My wife and I spent a day hiking trails and exploring the small downtown shops and restaurants after spending the night in a really nice, rustic B&B cottage outside of town. The history in Nacogdoches is rich and there are still some original buildings from the early 1800′s. Outside of town are the Caddo Mounds, archaeological sites from around 800 A.D.
While in Nacogdoches the weather turned incredibly cold (for the southwest), reaching down to the low 20′s overnight. I checked the weather back in Arizona and saw there was supposed to be a storm system moving in. This put me on the lookout for snow. Soon, the weather forecasts were calling for snow over the weekend in Flagstaff and Sedona, a few days earlier than the historic forecasts had estimated. I immediately put a message out to my occasional hiking partner and photographer, Jabon Eagar exclaiming, “Snow in Sedona this weekend! Time to play hookie!”
Jabon and I had been talking about heading to Sedona to catch images of fresh snow for months. Jabon had been discussing this prospect with another friend for close to two years. So when snow came to Sedona, we both were ready to drop everything and go. It was starting to snow in the upper elevations around Sedona by Friday night, I didn’t get back in to Phoenix until Saturday evening and had plans for Saturday night. Jabon and I laid plans to drive up Sunday morning, early, and be in Sedona before sunrise…and this time I meant it!
Once again, I found myself forced to leave a party early so I could get a few hours’ sleep before driving north for an adventure. Jabon arrived at my place right at 5AM, I was already packed and had the truck running to warm it up. Jabon’s buddy Mike was due to join us, but no one had heard from him and Jabon’s attempts to reach him went unanswered. We soon left, figuring if he was running late he’d call and we could turn around and toss him in the truck. We never did hear from him.
There was little traffic on the cold, dark drive to Sedona. Aside from hitting a patch of black-ice at about 80 MPH (and totally maintaining control of the truck without spilling a drop of the coffee in my hand) and missing my exit onto 179, the drive was uneventful. Even with lost time we hit Bell Rock just as the first light of the morning sun was beginning to endow the frosty morning mists with a supernatural glow.
We stopped the truck and quickly got out to chase the first photo-ops of the morning. I ran across the road and scrambled to higher ground across frost covered red rock ledges looking to capture the mood of the view that was unfolding. The thick, wispy clouds clung to the desert floor and gathered around the base of the red rock towers to the east. As the sun climbed higher it gave life to the misty fog, like stormy seas crashing around these crimson battleships in the desert.
We were there for the photography that day, and Mother Nature was giving the performance of her life. Jabon and I hiked on and off-trail looking for angles, framing compositions in the viewfinder, excitedly shouting back and forth, “The light is amazing from this spot!” “Look, the fog is clearing over there!” “This is incredible, I’ve never seen it like this!” “This is perfect!”
When we came off the trail, after exhausting every photographic consideration, the parking lot had filled with early morning photographers looking to snap their own versions of this amazing sunrise. I was glad our ambition had carried us there first, before it got crowded. There was thick frost on the ground, but we still weren’t high enough to be in the snow…and that’s why we were there. So we loaded up and continued through Sedona and on in to Oak Creek Canyon where the snow had collected over the weekend.
I had to stop the truck several times before we made it to West Fork because the view along the road was too good to pass up. We would stop, pile out of the truck and scurry along the narrow shoulder snapping shots as the light and shadow played with the mountain tops. Then quickly back to the truck to move on so we wouldn’t miss the best light further up.
We finally made it to the West Fork parking lot, which was closed, and found a spot further up along the road where we could legally park. We hiked back toward the trailhead along the roadside careful of the growing traffic on the narrow, winding roads. We were not the first ones to the West Fork trailhead and we followed the footprints through the snow back in to the canyon collecting shots along the way. Once we reached the first creek crossing, the foot traffic grew thinner…not many wanted to cross the frozen water.
We took our time and watched for subtle changes in the light inside the canyon trying desperately to choose our shots wisely. The snow was 6 to 8 inches thick and clung fresh and soft to the rocks and trees. This was one of those perfect places where you could easily snap off thousands of photographs if you weren’t more discerning. The combination of the brilliant red rock in the intense morning light against the stark, clean whiteness of the snow was a dramatic scene. Then layer in the deep emerald of the tall evergreens, the electric blue of the sky all of it wrapped in the ever-changing misty morning clouds.
Living in southern Arizona and growing up in California, I haven’t had opportunity for much hiking in the snow. I really enjoyed this hike! Snow along a trail, even an easy one like West Fork Trail, completely changes the hiking experience. Finding the route is challenging unless there are footprints to follow, the deeper snow forces you to pay closer attention to each step. Snow covered trails also means fewer people in most cases, which is how I like it. My wife loved snowshoeing in Tahoe for the same reasons. I’ve collected better Winter gear and will be looking forward to more snow hiking.
Soon there was only one other set of footprints in the snow, only one person ahead of us. We finally came across her as she was headed back, another photographer out to capture this pristine wilderness. Soon after that we stopped near a large boulder along the creek and where I heated up water for hot cider. We sat there for a while, watching the light change in the canyon and snapping off the occasional picture. Jabon took some shots of the frozen creek and we both worked to find angles for shooting the icicles hanging from the huge boulder next to us.
Heading back out of the canyon, being scolded for hiking in a “closed” area. Some of the other early morning opportunists had received violations for parking in front of the closed gate. We drove higher up the mountain after helping an older couple get their car out of the snow bank long the road. There was little more to see and the casual visitors were starting to get thick as the morning grew late. Jabon suggested we head in to more remote country and offered to show me a set of ruins he’d photographed a while back. He was anxious to get another opportunity to shoot them, especially with snow around.
We had time so we headed down a muddy 4-wheel-drive road to a remote canyon where Jabon led the way into a small obscure canyon. After climbing up the drainage, we reached the head of the canyon. A rounded bowl lined with 100 ft sheer red rock cliffs opened before us. Tucked unobtrusively under a recessed ledge at the base of one side of the vertical canyon walls is a small, semi-circular stone structure. The lower portion of the walls are original, still held together with ancient mortar. The top has been obviously reconstructed including the lintel above the entrance. The interior shows recent use, and even relatively recent remnants of a camp fire. The site was simple, but the setting was magical. I was really glad we could squeeze this last little excursion in to the day.
It was getting late after that and we’d had an incredible morning. Both of us were anxious to get back and start going through our images. I am really happy with what we captured in Sedona that day. It was one of those trips that we’d talked about taking for a long time and it turned out to be even better than we could have imagined. Luckily the first snow of the season was a good one and it laid down thick and clean all over the upper elevations around Sedona. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to top this trip…but that won’t stop me from trying!
Jabon is another one of those great friends I’ve met through Social Media. I found him a couple of years ago when I did a quick search and discovered that he and I were planning to take groups on the same hike on the same weekend. I reached out to him about the possibility of combining our groups and we hiked to the Pueblo Canyon Ruins together a few months later. Since then we’ve talked about many possible adventures and collaborations. We also have done Cold Spring Canyon, a quick photo-hike to Tom’s Thumb and this Sedona trip. You can check out more of Jabon’s photography on his website or visit his Facebook Page.