By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 2/23/2020
Posted: 7/6/2008
Topics/Keywords: #Arizona #Camping #OakCreek #Photography #Sedona #SlideRockStatePark #Zachary Page Views: 4368
What could be more fun that splashing in a natural creek with one's grandson?

On July 4th, the members of our extended family were scattered. Michael and I attended a terrific pool party hosted by our friend, Jay, which included the most divine pasta dishes (which I shouldn't have eaten, but did). Zach and his Mom and grandmother went to Zach friend Chris' house for barbecue and to watch the fireworks (though Zach pooped out before the fireworks started). Karen continued to house sit.

The red walls of Oak Creek Canyon have turned Sedona into a Mecca for tourists.

But, on July 5th, Michael and Jenny and Zach and I loaded up the Expedition and headed for Oak Creek Canyon.

Oak Creek Canyon runs from a few miles south of Flagstaff to Sedona. Lots of tourists visit Sedona for its famous red rocks walls and barely notice Oak Creek, which formed those walls. By the time the creek gets to Sedona, the walls are far apart and the canyon opens up. Further north, though, where the walls narrow, there are no T-shirt or crystal shops and true nature lovers like myself can better appreciate the rocks, the energy, and the scenery.

Our immediate destination was Slide Rock State Park, which we had visited once before and which Zach loved. However, so does everyone else. We had planned to leave at 6am in order to get to the gate before the park filled up. We actually left at 8:30. So, when we got to the park, it was full and a sullen but stern ranger waved off cars, not even letting us get into line.

Well, no problem. We bought a Coconino Forest Pass for the car and parked a few miles downstream from Slide Rock. Same water, same canyon; far fewer people.

Oak Creek from a roadside parking area.

We had bought a lunch at KFC and this seemed as good a place as any to eat it. Zach wasn't hungry; he couldn't get down to the water fast enough.

Zach in Oak Creek.

Being nine years old, he scampered down the steep rocks from the parking area to the water in seconds. It took 58-year-old me a little longer.

Paul climbing down to Oak Creek.

The water was cold but the day was warm; Zach climbed rocks and went in and out of the water. I so loved he had this chance to play in a natural setting. So many kids never have a chance to.

I was a little nervous about splashing around in the water with the digital camera, so turned it over to Jenny while Zach and I got wet.

Papa and Zach in Oak Creek. Zach and Papa in Oak Creek.

Then Jenny joined us in the water, while Michael took photos from the parking area. He'd over-exercised on Thursday and pulled some muscles, weakening his knees to the point that he didn't trust them to climb down to the water. That's okay; it was just as pretty on the bank and he still had the fresh air, birdsongs, and lunch to enjoy.

So, each remaining in sight of the other, we got to commune with nature, in mutual companionship, without any intrusions.

A creek runs through it. Zach and Jenny explore. The red stone monuments of Sedona could be seen towering over the trees. Those mountain boys, Zach and Papa. Zachary: King of the Rock

After Zach felt this particular area had been adequately explored, we got back into the car to see if there was any room in Slide Rock yet for us. There wasn't.

As we continued up Oak Creek Canyon, we reminisced about previous trips to Sedona. On one early one, before Zach could walk, we had taken him to a New Age store and I was carrying him around when we entered a darkened meditation room. There was some sort of fat dragon statue in a corner, and the moment Zach saw it he began to cry so hard that I had to take him out of the room. The moment we were outside, he stopped. I experimented. In the room, he cried in sheer terror. Outside, smiles and giggles.

There was some question as to what kind of statue it was. Michael thought it was a Buddha. I remembered a dragon-like face. "I don't think it was Buddha," I said. "It was chubby, like Buddha; but the face was definitely non-human."

"Buddhas aren't all chubby," Michael was quick to argue, somewhat defensively, I thought.

"Every Buddha statue I've ever seen was fat," I said.

"They are not! Some are definitely thin. It depends on which aspect of Buddha is being represented."

"Then how come I've never seen a Slender Buddha Weight-Loss Clinic?" I challenged. "Or a Buff Buddha 24-Hour Fitness Club?" But it did no good, and Jennifer had to change the subject.

We had packed our tents and camping gear when leaving the house (one reason we left so late). I, personally, had no hope we could possibly find a camp site in Oak Creek Canyon. We had arrived in the middle of a three-day weekend; surely, everyone who wanted to camp had already staked a tent to a site. Still, we headed north up the canyon on the off-chance we might find some room.

We passed camping ground after camping ground: FULL, FULL and FULL read the artistically-carved wooden signs at their gates. When we came to the last one, Cave Springs Campground, before reaching the canyon's throat and rim, which was also marked FULL, Jenny had a hunch and begged to be allowed to ask.

They had just had someone check out, so recently that they hadn't even had a chance to remove the sign. So, we were in.

Michael and Paul set up our tent.

We had two tents: My old workhouse on its last trip, and Zach's brand-new tent. We also had two queen-sized air mattresses. Zach's tent was too small for the mattress to fit in; so Jenny cleverly put the tent on top of the mattress. And, after a quick trip to Sedona's Basha's for supplies, we had a picnic table cloth to provide a homey touch. (We got the tablecloth after I caught Michael trying to "clean" the cement table top with Wipe-ees.)

Jenny and Zach at home in camp.

Once camp was set up, it was time to wash up for dinner. Where? Why, in the creek, of course!

Zach, ready to wash up in the creek.

Notice how different the environment is here, ten miles north and a thousand feet higher in the canyon than our previous parking area.


I had gotten Michael a pair of river shoes at Walgreens, since he'd forgotten his sandals. That's what he's carrying in the picture below, as he navigates the stones in the river bed in his tennis shoes. Apparently I should have spent a little more time explaining how they were to be used.

Michael and Paul ford our way downstream. Michael is HOLDING his river shoes. Zach, on a log. Jenny, on a log. Michael looks happy in the wilderness. A kid demonstrates proper jumping technique.

We came upon a deep pool beneath a well-placed jumping-off rock. There were already one or two families gathered there, with a couple of older teen-agers jumping from it. Both families spoke primarily Spanish, but seemed in no way bothered that we had stopped at "their" pool. The older boys offered to show Zach the way to the jumping platform. He had no trouble getting there, but for some reason was reluctant to jump into the icy water, even though last year he didn't hesitate.

Zach, hesitant to jump.

Back in camp, Zach got to fulfill a life-long wish and light the fire.

Zach lights the campfire. Success! The fire is lit.

Dinner was hot dogs. Zach and I wanted ours cooked directly in the fire. Michael, of course, was disgusted at the idea and insisted on making his on a sheet of aluminum foil. One of mine actually fell into the ashes; I scraped the white flakes off on the grill and bit into the dog while Michael wretched.

My final victory came when Zach mentioned that Big Papa (me) was a better cook than Baby Papa (Michael). That's not generally true, but the expression on Michael's face was worth taking a long journey to see. Then Zach, ever the diplomat, quickly added, "…of hot dogs. But Baby Papa makes the best deserts." Which I couldn't argue with at all.

Then, because there was no television to watch after dinner, we remained at the table and talked. Well, we adults talked while Zachary continued to irritate the fire, moving this branch here, that branch there. As he worked, he began to sing to himself: "Hanukkah, Hanukkah, Hanukkah…"

"Do you still remember that song from when we sang it when you were little?" Michael asked, impressed.

"Oh, we sang it at school last Christmas," Zach replied.

"At school?" Jenny was appalled. "They sang religious songs in public school?"

"They can do it only if it's part of a multi-cultural winter presentation," I pointed out, "which I like. They can sing 'Silent Night' if they also sing things like 'Hanukkah, Hanukkah, Hanukkah' and 'I'm A Little Buddha, Short and Stout'…"

At which point Michael's lemonade came spewing out his nose. And even Zachary got the joke.

Zach and Jenny, ready for bed.

As 9 pm came upon us, all of us got too sleepy to stay awake. I set the alarm on my phone to wake us at 7:30 in the morning; we visited the pit toilets; Zach put on his pajamas and Michael and I, our sleeping shorts; and crawled into our respective tents.

There were a number of other families at the campground, as I implied; and they weren't about to go to bed as early as we. Some were playing music and dancing or having limbo contests; others were loudly playing charades, which I assume they began thinking it would be a quiet game, forgetting that only one person in charades isn't allowed to talk. There was someone who, for some reason, felt that banging a couple of saucepans together was a good idea. I pretty much fell asleep anyway, though I was awakened briefly by some man speaking the word, "RELAX!" once but at a decibel level that contravened local weapons test ban treaties.

"Tell me a story, Papa," Zachary asked through the tent walls.

At first I demurred, explaining that it would be exhausting to yell a story over the din of our neighbors. But he persisted. "Tell me a story about the Indians," he pleaded, and I did.

"Once upon a time," I began, "there was a lost tribe of Indians who lived out in these hills, hidden, so they were undiscovered. And the son of the Chief was a young man named Falling Rock, and he liked to go exploring.

It was the custom of these people that a young man, before he could replace his father as Chief, had to go on a vision quest. And Falling Rock wanted to travel beyond the canyon walls that hid and protected his tribe.

His father, Running Bull, begged him not to go. "Stay here in our canyon for your vision quest," the Chief pleaded. "No one who has ventured beyond our canyon has ever returned."

"I must go, father," Falling Rock insisted. "I have to find out what lies outside our canyon." And so he went.

Running Bull sat, day after day, at the cleft in the canyon wall through which Falling Rock had climbed. Every day Running Bull waited patiently for his son's return, and every night Running Bull returned to his tipi disappointed.

Years passed. Finally, one day when Running Bull was very, very old, someone came through the cleft in the cliff wall. It was not Falling Rock. It was someone strange, wearing strange clothes, and with strangely pale skin. Running Bull's tribe had finally been discovered by white men!

The newcomer described the amazing world beyond the canyon walls, a world with automobiles, and television, and rock bands and video games. But all Running Bull was interested in, was one thing: his missing son. Alas, the white man had neither seen nor heard of Falling Rock. "But we have all sorts of amazing ways of communi­cating with people, to spread the word if someone goes missing or something needs to be found. I'm sure we can think of some way of finding your son."

And on his way back to civilization, the hiker thought to himself, "What would be the best way to locate the old Indian's son?" Knowing that he, himself, had come to the canyon by highway, he figured that Falling Rock must have come first upon a highway; he may have been picked up as a hitchhiker and gotten so lost on the road that he couldn't find his way back." And so, thinking that Falling Rock was still on the road somewhere, he figured that the best way to find him would be to erect signs asking after him. And even though years have gone by since the Chief's son was found and brought back home, those signs remain. You may have seen one along the road.

They read, "Watch For Falling Rock".

Eventually the quiet hour came and people actually quieted down. Michael marveled at the brightness of the stars through the mesh vent on the ceiling of our tent, and the sighing of the wind through the Ponderosa pines overhead. And we went to sleep.

Having gone to bed early, we awoke early. Michael hadn't slept very well and was a bit grumpy. "Let's find a couple of saucepans and bang them together for no apparent reason," he suggested; but settled for having breakfast, cereal and milk with fresh blueberries and bananas.

The sun peered over the eastern wall of the canyon, kissing the western wall and bringing a cheerful glint to the day.

Morning in camp.

We were packed and out of the campground by 7:45 am. As we approached Slide Rock State Park, we turned a corner and were faced with an exquisite panorama of rock and pine.

Pines line the walls of Oak Creek Canyon.

Rejoice! The line into Slide Rock State Park was short and moving quickly. My strategy had paid off. In fact, once in the park, we even had a convenient parking space.

Entrance was $10 and had to be paid in cash, to a self-pay post. There were a couple of people roaming around, asking for change for a twenty. (Unfortunately, we were unable to help.)

The stroll to the swimming part of Slide Rock State Park goes past a farm museum. What is now the park, used to be Pendley Homestead, a working farm and apple orchard. The apple trees remain and the apples can be picked and eaten, though they were not yet ripe when we were there. For all the presence of the trees and fields, the massive canyon walls cannot be ignored.

A canyon wall marks the border of Slide Rock State Park.

Michael's first view of the swimming area—the thing that Slide Rock is named for—was an eye-opener for him. When we went last year, Michael had chosen to remain in Sedona and shop. "I thought it was an amusement park, like SunSplash," he explained. "I thought it was a big flume that went from the top of the mountain to the creek."

It's not.

Slide Rock

Rather, it's a broad, flat stretch of Oak Creek that flows over a smooth, slippery rock. If you sit down, the force of the water carries you a distance over the rock. It's what they call "fun". And the water moves with enough force that fat Buddhas can enjoy it as much as can slender Buddhas.

The rock is primarily sandstone and limestone, eroded smooth and in layers so as to make natural steps and, therefore, easy climbing.

Zach climbing.

The water was icy cold, especially in the early morning when the air temperature was still low. But it was crystal clear and not too cold to sit in once you got used to it!

The water was crystal clear.

Not yet ready to immerse himself, Michael was content to pose in the early morning sunshine.

Michael at Slide Rock.

Jenny and Zach preferred to spend the time exploring.

Zach and Jenny at Slide Rock.

In those few places where the natural contours of the rock made traversal difficult, steps had been carved.

Human-carved steps at Slide Rock.

Zach returned to the twelve-foot leap into deep water that he'd jumped off of last year, but couldn't quite get up the nerve to do it again. Perhaps, at nine, he's grown a little more aware of what can go wrong.

Zach: Not gonna jump this year, maybe next.

But he found a higher, faster, natural flume upstream and urged Michael and me until we agreed to run it. It was fun; I went down it several times and Zach probably a dozen or so. Michael, only once; but he did find it fun. However, by now, Jenny was ready for lunch.

We had our sandwiches, bought the night before, in the park, enjoying the view as we ate. And then Zach felt swum out and wanted to return home so Michael could take him to see a matinee of the new Narnia movie.

And so, another adventure concluded, we returned to the car for the drive home.

The slide rock at Slide Rock.