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"Rare Birds and Red Rocks," by Julie Hammonds

"Rare Birds and Red Rocks" was published in the May–June 2009 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views. To support Arizona's award-winning wildlife magazine: subscribe here.

Imagine a place so amply provided with natural beauty that its panoramic vistas are a constant distraction from the quieter pleasures of watching wildlife. Imagine a center for environmental education where a passionate cadre of naturalists and other experts ignite the curiosity of visitors young and old. Imagine a piece of Arizona’s world-famous red rock country that feels like your very own as you walk its gentle trails.

Just a few miles from the commotion of downtown Sedona, Ariz., such a place exists. Its name: Red Rock State Park.

First Stop in Red Rock Country

The iron that stains the area’s rocks fiery red must be magnetic — how else to explain the power of Red Rock State Park to attract visitors? They come by the carload, browsing the bookstore, taking in the exhibits in the visitor center, watching a movie in the theater and wandering the meandering pathways on their own. As a center for environmental education, the park also hosts guided bird and nature walks; special sunset and moonlight hikes; and talks by experts in archaeology, astronomy, geology and other specialized fields. Some activities are offered daily, while others occur on a weekly or less frequent basis depending on the time of year.

According to Gary Arbeiter, who has managed the park since 2001, Red Rock State Park’s natural attractions aren’t due to magnetic forces. He says the park showcases a microcosm of red rock country, with the added advantage of people, displays and signage on hand to explain the area’s natural features. “We educate people about what’s available in the Sedona area,” he says, “So it’s a great place to start your visit. We’re 286 acres in the middle of all this grandeur. We have a little bit of everything.”

Where the Hiking is Easy

One of the many nice things about a visit to Red Rock State Park is the trail system. Park trails loop into and connect with one another, so there is no need for out-and-back hiking — every step can reveal new country. All park trails are rated easy to moderate, making them widely accessible. Oak Creek, in particular, is a short walk from the visitor center, offering easy access to the riparian habitat that is this park’s most fruitful place to look for wildlife.

Those looking to mix a bit more exercise in with their wildlife viewing will want to try out the Eagle’s Nest, Coyote Ridge, Javelina and Yavapai Ridge trails. These trails, which rise a few hundred feet in elevation, should come with a warning sign: The red-rock views are so spectacular, you may not see wildlife unless it steps into your camera frame.

These pinyon-juniper uplands feel much dryer than the lush riparian habitat along Oak Creek. But it still is possible to see wildlife and signs of animals in this habitat. When I hike the upper trails, especially during the warmer parts of the year, I keep one eye on the sky, watching for raptors. Hawks soar along the ridgelines, and golden eagles and peregrine falcons make the occasional appearance.

I also keep my ears tuned for other birds. Kingbirds, woodpeckers and Bewick’s wrens forage these hillsides. One fall day I lucked into a mixed flock of mountain bluebirds, cedar waxwings and dark-eyed juncos fluttering among the branches of a juniper tree. At the flock’s edges, spotted towhees chased one another. Time spent watching a flock of birds work a sunny hillside on a bright fall morning passes quickly; by the time the flock moved on, any cares I’d brought with me up the hillside had vanished.

That day as I hiked, I saw pile after pile of scat, set with apparent care in the center of the trail. Filled with red berries, they most likely were the calling cards of coyotes, according to volunteer Patty List, who often leads hikes in the park. Coyotes are partial to red juniper berries, a taste they share with the park’s squirrels. Other animal sign included tracks impressed in the softer dirt of the washes. Deer, javelina and other animals use these corridors to access the water supply in Oak Creek. I didn’t see tracks of ringtails or striped skunks, though these have been reported by other visitors.

If the feel of red dirt beneath your boots and the scenic glory all around give you that “bear went over the mountain (Why? To look at the other side!)” feeling, you can keep hiking for days, if you wish. Red Rock’s trail system connects at the park’s east gate with trails on adjacent U.S. Forest Service land. Going the other way? Take the Lime Kiln Trail, which ends 15 miles away at Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood, Ariz.

About Oak Creek

But let’s assume you’re keen to watch wildlife within Red Rock State Park. The center of attention has to be Oak Creek, which starts on the Mogollon Rim near Flagstaff and runs south and west to join the Verde River near Cottonwood. Running here between leafy boundaries of Fremont cottonwood, Arizona sycamore, willow and alder, Oak Creek supports a lush assemblage of plants — food and shelter to a variety of wildlife.

This river is why the Audubon Society recognized the park as part of an Important Bird Area of statewide significance, noting its special and unique value to birds. The Lower Oak Creek Important Bird Area also includes the Page Springs Fish Hatchery (owned by the Arizona Game and Fish Department) and property owned by Sen. John McCain and others. These land managers work with the Northern Arizona Audubon Society to ensure that bird-friendly habitats are managed with extra care.

What’s so special about Oak Creek? According to the Audubon Society, two things. First, this significant migration corridor attracts a wide variety and noteworthy abundance of birds. Peak migration times in the park typically are April and May and late August to mid-October. Second, some interesting bird species (including Bell’s vireo, Lucy’s warbler and Abert’s towhee) depend on riparian plants such as those along Oak Creek. Southwestern willow flycatcher, olive-sided flycatcher and Virginia’s warbler also are seen there.

Every visit to Red Rock State Park should include time along these singing waters. Year-round, visitors see and hear belted kingfishers, American kestrels, gila woodpeckers, Northern cardinals and great blue herons along the creek. Summer draws common black-hawks, lazuli buntings, tanagers, grosbeaks, violet-green swallows and hooded orioles. Spring and fall bring migrating warblers and flycatchers. Winter attracts sparrows, migrating ducks and a few migrants that see the country and decide to stay all season.

There’s a reason why the “Arizona Wildlife Viewing Guide” designates Red Rock State Park as a “great site.” But you won’t really know unless you go.

A Fabled History

When you do go, chances are your first question will be, “Who lives in that house?”
The unoccupied home to which first-time visitors are referring, perched on a nearby hill, is a remnant of the park’s history. In 1941, Jack and Helen Frye started buying land near Sedona, including what is now the park. Jack, who was president of Transcontinental and Western Airlines at the time, was a wealthy entrepreneur. This power couple also owned an estate in Kansas and a mansion in Virginia. But they loved the rustic seclusion of their Sedona getaway, which they called “Smoke Trail Ranch.”

The Fryes built a home at Smoke Trail Ranch, into which they moved in 1948. Designed by Helen Frye, the “House of Apache Fires” has the flair of Southwest style, while at the same time fitting naturally into its surroundings. At the time it was built, a story in a local newspaper described the home as a “modern pueblo.”

Sadly, this glamorous couple divorced in 1950. Helen Frye, who continued to live on the property until her death in 1979, is remembered in Sedona as a benefactor. Among other legacies, she co-founded “Canyon Kiva,” the predecessor to the Sedona Arts Center. During her lifetime and afterward, parts of Smoke Trail Ranch were sold off, but the core holding remained intact. The Arizona State Parks Board acquired the park in 1986 and opened it to the public in 1991.

You can still hike up to this famous home, but the building is not open to the public. However, the view from the bluff, looking out across Oak Creek and the adjoining grasslands northeast toward Cathedral Rock, makes a photo hike well worth doing.

Tips for Watching Wildlife

If this description of fabulous photo opportunities, easy hiking and wildlife-watching opportunities has enticed you to start a tour of red rock country at Red Rock State Park, here are some tips to maximize your chances of seeing wildlife.

  • Visit in spring or fall. During bird migration, the chances of seeing higher numbers or an unusual species go up. In fall, there’s the added bonus of watching the deciduous trees turn color along Oak Creek.
  • Start with the list. At the visitor center, staff and volunteers maintain an unscientific but fascinating list of birds and animals seen recently. As you scan the list, mentally picture the wildlife to get your mind set for what you’re most likely to see. If you’re hoping for a specific critter, don’t be shy — ask the people in the visitor center whether, when and where it’s been seen. They’ll be happy to share what they know.
  • Go early or late in the day. When your boots are among the first on the trail — and you’re taking care to step quietly, stop often and keep speaking to a minimum — you maintain the maximum chance of seeing a herd of deer or javelina.
  • Visit the secondary riparian area along a hundred-year-old, hand-dug ditch between Oak Creek and the pinyon-juniper uplands. Fewer people stop here, yet the riparian habitat attracts wildlife just like nearby Oak Creek does.
  • Check the hummingbird feeders by the visitor center. Anna’s hummingbirds are seen all year long; when the weather is warm, rufous and black-chinned hummingbirds zip through.
    Watch for reptiles. During the warmer part of the year, greater earless and collared lizards, Madrean alligator lizards and Clark’s spiny lizards are seen, as are many kinds of snakes. The black-tailed rattlesnake is among these, so be careful.
  • One final tip: “Sit down and sit still — that’s the key to watching wildlife,” according to Gary Arbeiter, the park manager. “A slight movement like the twitch of a deer’s ear can be all that gives away its position, but you won’t see it unless you’re still.”

Improving the chance to see wildlife: What better excuse can there be to stop moving and watch a creek roll by?

This article was published in the May–June 2009 issue of Arizona Wildlife Views magazine. To subscribe or give a gift, order online.

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If You Go

The park entrance is on Lower Red Rock Loop Road off state Route 89A, between Sedona and Cottonwood. A scenic alternative is to head south from Sedona on 89A and turn left onto Upper Red Rock Loop Road. Part of this road is dirt.

There is a fee to enter the park (currently $7/vehicle). The Red Rock Pass, a hiking pass program administered on U.S. Forest Service land in red rock country, is not valid for entry to this state-managed park.

For more information:
(928) 282-6907
Information accurate as of press time

A Center for Environmental Education

Red Rock State Park hosts programs for as many as 3,000 school-age youth every year, largely thanks to the efforts of volunteers. Last year, 90 volunteers donated 14,000 hours — the equivalent of seven full-time employees. Park manager Gary Arbeiter says, “Twenty percent of state park operations statewide are done by volunteers, but in our case it’s 50 percent. We offer 1,000 guided nature programs a year and keep our visitor center and entry station open thanks to their efforts.”

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