The pandemic has pushed more people outdoors and into the canyon. And in too many cases, they aren’t leaving the place better than they found it. Trash has piled up, the overload has people parking in undesignated areas cutting their own trails in pristine forests and harming the delicate ecosystem, and water has been contaminated with dog and human feces.
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Jenny Kittredge’s roots in Oak Creek Canyon date back 92 years to the day her grandfather rode into town on a motorcycle with a pet monkey, a baby coyote and a calling his granddaughter would inherit.
Like many before and after him, Robert Kittredge, Sr., was drawn to an Arizona desert canyon formed millions of years ago when tectonic shifts carved a 12-mile cradle in the red and gray cliffs. For water. For wild forests and flowers. For life on the Mogollon Rim.
Robert and his brother bought a tract of land in 1930 for $60 per acre. They had a book titled, “How to Build a Real Log House.” And with borrowed horses, they spent three years building a home in the canyon. Jenny’s family tells the story of her grandpa on their website for Forest Houses Resort, where one log cabin nestled against the creek and cliffs of limestone and sandstone has turned into a 16-cabin respite for honeymooners, hikers and anyone drawn to the region’s red rocks.
The enchanting canyon between Sedona and Flagstaff has become a global draw for people looking for a connection to nature, to something bigger than themselves in a place that’s often called “God’s Country.” Locals understand the draw. Jenny understands as her grandfather before her did. But more Arizonans now worry that the spirit and health of the canyon and its creatures are being loved to death.
On a chilly morning in January, Jenny talks about her work caring for the getaway on 20 acres in upper Oak Creek Canyon.
For three generations of her family, the canyon has been home. For visitors who come and go, there’s an understanding of what the canyon means to people past and present. For Jenny, the canyon is healing.
“It truly is a place where I get a sense of peace and rejuvenation that I don’t really find anywhere else,” she says.
Oak Creek Canyon winding trails cut across creeks and over mountains studded with watchful ancient oaks and leafy maple trees that turn yellow and red in the fall. Deep into the trails when the water runs fast over hundreds of channels and chasms in the canyon floor, mist grows like ghosts carrying you back in time.
Like many popular Arizona eco-tourist destinations, Oak Creek Canyon faces an environmental crisis that threatens wildlife, lands and humankind.
Although the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t count every person who visits, fee machines in the Oak Creek Canyon area showed a 36% increase in sales of daily and weekly passes in 2020 before dropping back down in 2021. A trail counter shows the same jump in visitors in 2020.
The pandemic has pushed more people outdoors and into the canyon. And in too many cases, they aren’t leaving the place better than they found it. Trash has piled up. The overload has people parking in undesignated areas cutting their own trails in pristine forests and harming the delicate ecosystem. And water has been contaminated with dog and human feces.
But the pandemic has also united people across Northern Arizona in building community alliances to protect the canyon for future generations who will read about COVID-19 and its grip on humanity in history books. They’re balancing the call of the wild for visitors from across the world fighting isolation, the economic force of canyon tourism and preservation efforts. Together, they’re battling trash, pollution, land overuse and E. coli in the mountain streams.
Through a partnership between the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, or ADEQ, and Oak Creek Watershed Council, volunteers have installed pet-waste stations, completed trash cleanups and worked on trail-rehabilitation projects to route visitors away from land that has been damaged by people who veer off designated hiking areas.
“When you start to create that kind of collaborative relationship, you know, I think that’s how we can really make a difference,” said Meghan Smart, a senior scientist at ADEQ.
The area holds ancestral and economic value for local Indigenous communities who have lived on the lands since long before Arizona became a state.
Dorothy Denetsosie Gishie manages economic development programs for Native Americans for Community Action. The Indigenous-led nonprofit advocates for and empowers Native American families. Dorothy’s work with Indigenous vendors at the Oak Creek Overlook Vista is among efforts to advance economic, health and prosperity opportunities for Native Americans.
The vista atop the switchbacks of Oak Creek Canyon gifts visitors a bird’s-eye view of breathtaking scenery often called the “Gateway to Sedona.” Through a 1988 agreement with the Forest Service and NACA, the site off Highway 89-A has seen multiple generations of Indigenous artist families share their creations with canyon visitors.
“It’s an area that is well received by a lot of our visitors and then an area that is looked upon in a very positive manner by our Native American people because of the economic opportunities that it provides,” Dorothy says.
The land is also sacred to Indigenous people. Dorothy says it’s a place for prayers and honoring ancestors.
“Our forefathers have taken care of these areas,” she says. “It’s a place we want to preserve.”
Vendors partner with two Forest Service rangers on site, she says, to help keep the area clean. For Indigenous people, she says, stewardship of the land is a cultural value. She wants visitors to be able to bring their children here knowing that their family members before them took care of it.
“We have a responsibility to our mother earth and to our environment,” she says.
Loving Oak Creek to death
Overuse is rampant in the pandemic on undesignated trails alongside creeks and streams, as well as at popular natural swimming holes including Slide Rock State Park. The old apple farm has become an international destination for people of all ages drawn to the 80-foot-long natural chute worn into sandstone for family fun and Instagram-worthy photos.
As COVID-19 capacity restrictions were relaxed in the spring of 2021, there was “a significant increase in visitation” at Slide Rock, said park manager Hank Vincent. As the pandemic endured, people continued to flock to the outdoor canyon pool. According to Vincent, visitation in August of 2021 was 32% higher than August of 2020.
Community, civic and nonprofit groups were forced to tackle problems like rising E. coli bacteria levels in waterways with public campaigns, as well as boosted preservation and clean-up efforts.
E. coli naturally occurs in the environment, but when samples in swimming areas display more than 235 colony-forming units per 100 milliliters of water, it’s considered an “exceedance” of state standards that can be dangerous. Beyond its threats to human health, E. coli is also an indicator species, meaning that its presence can indicate the presence of other waterborne diseases.
Unsafe E. coli contamination is often triggered by visitors not being adequately prepared for their trip to Oak Creek.
“A lot of people want to escape the heat in the summertime and want to go to the creek, and they might not know, you know, the best access points, or they might plan on a place that’s already full,” said Kalai Kollus, executive director of Oak Creek Watershed Council.
This can lead to visitors recreating in areas without parking, restrooms, trash cans or clear access to the creek.
When visitors create their own access by way of “social trails,” this can cause erosion and sedimentation, which contributes to the E. coli contamination. It can also damage the habitat of wildlife such as the narrow-headed garter snake, which is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, designated stretches of the canyon a critical habitat for the olive-green snake.
Other sources of contamination come from trash that pollutes the water and attracts wildlife, which then leave their feces in the creek. Contamination can also come from pet and human feces in what’s known as “honey-bucket situations.”
“Basically, people will craft their own toilets, and will use them for a period of time and then they’ll just leave them,” Kollus said. “And so during monsoon season, it wouldn’t take much for all of that to wash into the creek.”
A collaboration involving the ADEQ, Forest Service, Arizona State Parks & Trails, Oak Creek Watershed Council, National Forest Foundation and Arizona Conservation Corps is working to improve the water quality at Oak Creek.
The partnership between ADEQ and Oak Creek Watershed Council has made a significant difference, with a 65% decrease in E. coli exceedances in Oak Creek in the past year, said Smart, the ADEQ scientist.
Oak Creek Watershed Council’s efforts focus on stewardship. They also enlist the help of other groups and agencies to care for the land, including partnering with the Forest Service, National Forest Foundation, REI Co-op, the City of Sedona and the Sedona Chamber of Commerce.
The Forest Service is closing social trails as part of an Oak Creek restoration project.
“We block off areas to delay that erosion process and allow everything to rehabilitate,” said Laura Varon-Burkhart with the Forest Service.
Sedona government officials have warned hikers of the damage they’re causing to the delicate ecosystem, including contributing to “increased stormwater pollution issues from increased erosion” that spurs rising E. coli levels.
“Many of these trails become well defined and mistaken by hikers for the actual trail, resulting in more damage,” officials said in a report on responsible recreation.
“Social trails may impact sensitive areas, which are areas of habitat for plants, animals, or microbes that are sensitive to encroachments, and may result in irreparable harm to the species impacted.”
Restoration crews have found more than 100 human-made trails in the area.
What you can do to help
Smart has a civic project at ADEQ that the public can get involved in. She runs a citizen scientist program called Water Watch, which is accessible by mobile app. The program empowers people to help inform the state about water quality and exceedances.
Visitors have the opportunity to volunteer on projects to improve the watershed.
“We also work with the Sedona Chamber of Commerce to do volun-tourism cleanup events,” Kollus said. “These events are focused on working with tourists or people that are kind of wanting to visit Sedona, but also give back.”
The Arizona Conservation Corps enlisted volunteers to close off social trails, and offers a variety of statewide projects for young people and adults who want to help care for public lands.
Everyone can help to make Oak Creek a healthy and safe place by researching and planning ahead before visiting to find out which sites have the facilities they need. It is important to pack out all trash and make use of the restrooms and pet-waste stations where available. People can help by practicing Leave No Trace Principles.
Jenny says just one visitor taking 5-10 minutes to clean up their picnic area can make a difference.
“I’d love for people to know that every little bit helps, that it doesn’t take coming out every single day and picking up tons of trash and it doesn’t take a corporation to make real change here,” she says.
The overuse issues affecting Oak Creek don’t necessarily mean that people need to stop visiting, but they should recreate responsibly.
“Above all, I’d say go to Oak Creek, go to anywhere in Arizona, because it’s beautiful,” Smart said. “You know, don’t just sit behind the TV, go outside and enjoy the amazing water bodies that we have in the state.”
Jenny takes many images of Oak Creek Canyon scenery, sharing them on her family’s Forest Houses social media pages — the cabins her grandfather built over 55 years; the quiet days over desert seasons in a sacred space that sees snow, storms and sun — each scene is life preserved in Oak Creek Canyon.
Jenny remembers moving to Tucson and away from her home when she was still a teenager.
“I went away for college and I came back here,” she says. It felt like my heart was being pulled back here.”
In one image — taken last monsoon season as the pandemic endured — Jenny captured plumes of mist in the canyon floor. Growing like ghosts carrying you back in time.