The Oak Creek Watershed drains a portion of the Verde River Basin beginning on the Colorado Plateau and continuing into the transition zone between the Colorado Plateau and Sonora desert, in North Central Arizona. The headwaters of Oak Creek begin at about 5,700 feet in elevation, in steep escarpments below the edge of the Mogollon Rim of the Colorado Plateau.
Oak Creek is a valuable perennial stream that originates at the confluence of Sterling Springs Canyon and Pumphouse Wash. It generally flows south to its convergence with the Verde River, at about 3,200 feet in elevation. Sterling Spring discharges into a tributary of Oak Creek. This is the start of perennial flow for Oak Creek. The spring source has been developed and most of the surface flow is diverted to Sterling Springs Fish Hatchery, located downstream from the source. Spring flow used in the fish hatchery reenters the channel downstream of the source.
Basin runoff and groundwater discharge from springs provide reliable surface flows year-round. Spring peak flows inundate adjacent floodplains—along with perennial surface water and shallow subsurface water underneath adjacent floodplains—and sustain excellent lotic riparian vegetation, and rich terrestrial and aquatic communities along Oak Creek throughout the year.
Although Oak Creek is classified by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality as an “outstanding” watercourse, it’s also on the impaired waters list because of the presence of the E. coli bacteria, suggesting fecal contamination. It’s a persistent problem that results in periodic closures of recreational areas and can cause water illnesses. E. coli in the watershed may indicate various contamination sources, including recreational users as well as domestic and wild animals.
The Oak Creek Watershed offers tourists and residents alike an unmatched opportunity for recreation in a pristine environmental wonderland. Sedona, the thriving tourist epicenter through which Oak Creek gently meanders, attracts between four million and six million tourists annually (Sedona Chamber of Commerce, 2014). Many of these visitors, in combination with approximately 11,000 year-around residents, enjoy Oak Creek’s life-supporting waters and environmental sanctuary.
Yet, as tourism expands and the economy grows, so do serious impacts on the watershed. With love comes use, and in the case of Oak Creek, we may be stepping on the boundaries of loving Oak Creek a little too much.
Thanks to a partnership among the US Forest Service, the Sedona Chamber of Commerce, Recreation Resource Management, and the Arizona Natural History Association, four visitor centers provide information about the Sedona Red Rock area. Three of these are called “gateway” visitor centers because they are at the main entrances into Sedona. The centers offer recreation resources, Arizona Natural History Association maps and guidebooks, Federal park passes and Red Rock passes, Chamber of Commerce information, and restrooms.
Locations and Hours
Red Rock Ranger Station Visitor Center: 928-282-4119 or 928-203-2900. Open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Located off State Route 179 at mile marker 304.7, 6 miles north of the junction with I-17.
Sedona Chamber of Commerce: 928-282-7722. Open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Located at State Route 89A and Forest Road at mile marker 374.1 in Uptown Sedona in the Sedona Chamber of Commerce.
Oak Creek Vista: Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Located on State Route 89A North at the Oak Creek Vista Overlook at mile marker 390. American Indian crafts market and Arizona Natural History Association bookstore.
Oak Creek Visitor Center: 928-203-0624. Open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily, March 30 through November. Located at Indian Gardens in Oak Creek Canyon at mile marker 378.2. Fishing licenses and supplies available.
Oak Creek is accessible year round.
Fees apply at designated sites, visit specific site for cost
ADA Accessibility Notes
Please visit or contact local visitor centers for ADA accessible locations.
Pet Friendly Notes
Pets are welcome in most areas, but must be kept leashed at all times.
Many hikers and other visitors enjoy the watershed trails with their dogs. Although some city and federal laws require dogs to be on a leash, many hikers allow their dogs to run free. Off-leash dogs add to soil erosion through off-trail running and habitat destruction, and they can disturb wildlife. Dogs can also leave their mark in other ways, especially with the contribution of their feces to the watershed.
Some dog owners are prepared with plastic bags to pick up and properly dispose of dog waste, but many choose to leave or inadequately bury their pet waste. One gram of dog feces contains 23 million E. coli bacteria and can contaminate an entire section of Oak Creek. If enjoying Oak Creek with your pet, please remember to bring a dog bag and pack out everything you packed in!