A hike up Cathedral Rock is unforgettable. Rising sharply above the desert floor, Cathedral is topped by twin spires, and a large saddle in between that offers spectacular views of both the east and western portions of Sedona. The hike is short but steep and strenuous in parts. If you’re not a seasoned hiker go slowly, rest often, and enjoy the beautiful views all the way to the top.
The first part of the hike is an easy climb through light vegetation and short trees. In the spring daisies and wildflowers paint the stunning landscape and vivid agave blooms reach to the sky. At the top of this segment, you’ll reach a wide mesa with panoramic views. Stop for photos, sip some water, and drink in the splendor of nature’s majesty.
On the mesa, follow the cairns around to the right, to a well-marked but steep climb that takes you up a crack in the rocks, until you reach the next plateau. It looks scary, but you are well-wedged between rocks and there are hand and foot holds carved in the stone. Don’t forget to pause and enjoy the views on the way up.
At the top of the crack, you’ll reach another series of plateaus, and short, steep climbs. These will take you to a relatively flat segment of the trail that curves around the mountain to the left, until you are within sight of the saddle. The sky seems to glow with an electric blue against the red rocks. You’re almost there.
At the top enjoy amazing views on both sides of the saddle. Wander to the right along the cliff-hugging ledge for incredible photos, or turn to the left and hug the cliff until you reach a narrow gap in the rocks where you can climb briefly to yet another breathtaking view. Take a nap. Rest in the shade. Have a snack. You won’t want to hurry back.
There are many legends about the stones here. From the west side of the saddle look back at the two spires in between the main ones and you will notice that they look like a man and woman standing back to back. According to the story, they once lived in the peaceful valley below, but they were anything but peaceful.
They bickered incessantly until one day the Great Spirit told them that they must reconcile their differences or their hearts would harden and they would turn to stone. Unfortunately, they never came to agreement and today their forms are etched in the spires as a testament to what happens when two people don’t find peace. With or without the legend, Cathedral is a breathtaking climb with some of the best views in the area.
Cathedral Rock is also one of Sedona’s major vortex spots – a place where the earth has very strong energy. The actual point of the vortex is said to be a conical pile of black lava rocks just below the western ledge of the saddle, but the entire area is part of the vortex.
I have always felt energized, refreshed, and rejuvenated after a visit and the feeling seems to last for days. Others I’ve met at the top have said the same. Perhaps it is the sheer beauty, the friendliness and camaraderie of the hikers, or even the earth’s magnetic field atop this ancient underwater volcano No matter what you believe about energy, you’ll love the spectacular views and wonderful photos that this beautiful climb affords you.
Sunrise on Cathedral Rock is unforgettable. You’ll have to wake up very early and hike up in dark to very dim light so bring a flashlight or headlamp. Wear layers. It will be chilly except during mid-summer until the sun rises. Start an hour to 45 minutes before sunrise if you’re a seasoned hiker, earlier if not.
Bring a blanket, and find a comfy place on the saddle with the few others who sit in silence awaiting day break. It’s a perfect time to meditate or focus on your dreams.
The sun bursts in glory over a jagged ridge of mountains in the distance. Its golden white rays scatter, bathing and sweeping across the landscape below. The dawn-kissed cliffs begin glow and the place practically hums with energy.
Enjoy the serenade of morning birdsong, and the warm kiss of sunshine. Mystical, magical, and a beautifully energizing way to begin your day.
Sunset is a magnificent splendor atop Cathedral Rock. You can watch it from the saddle. Well in advance, as the sun begins to dip lower in the late afternoon sky, the red rock cliffs take on an ethereal glow. Giant rays of red and gold paint the landscape as the sun sinks beneath the mountains in the distance, glowing as if on fire. On most nights a reverent hush falls over the crowd.
Spend a few more minutes in silence, listening to the crickets beginning to chirp and feeling the absolute stillness and peace. Then, hike down soon, to avoid a walk in the dark. A flashlight is highly recommended and in cooler weather, a windbreaker or jacket. Temperatures here in the high desert dip quickly in the fading light.
From Phoenix, take I-17 north to Hwy 179 (exit 298). Turn left onto 179 and follow it past the Village of Oak Creek, past Bell rock and into the residential area. Look for a large sign that reads “Back O’ Beyond.” There will be a large roundabout and the sign/road is to the left. Go around the roundabout and onto Back O’ Beyond Road. If you miss it don’t worry – just go to the roundabout at Chapel Road and turn back around.
Once on Back O’ Beyond, go a little over half a mile where you will see a parking area on the left.There is additional parking just down the road. Walk across the dry wash and follow the cairns (piles of stones in wire mesh) all the way to the top. When you reach one, stop, and look for the next before proceeding. Go slowly and carefully if you are not used to hiking, and bring some water.
Easy to moderate, if you are an experienced hiker. Strenuous if you’re not accustomed to exercising. The trail is about 3/4 mile and rises 600 feet. It is steep but well-marked.
Things to bring:
Wear hiking shoes with decent traction and bring a water bottle. If you plan to stay for sunset anytime except summer, bring a jacket. If you go at sunrise during cooler weather you may want to wear a few layers that you can peel off once the sun rises. Otherwise, nothing much is needed except a camera, a journal, snacks, lunch, and plenty of time to enjoy the view!
Check with the US Forest Service for pass and fee information before your trip. A Red Rock Pass is required for parking in most locations.
Notes from the journal
March, 1999 – First time up Cathedral Rock! I’ve passed this trail so many times, I can’t believe I haven’t hiked here before.
The trail is amazing. It rises steadily up red rock mesas until I reach a spot where I have to climb up a steep incline in a crevice wedged between huge boulders. Steps have been carved out and I feel perfectly safe. Up and up I go until I am met with a view that takes my breath away. I can barely believe the glory of nature that lies before me. I stand on a narrow ledge looking out over the valley. Oak creek meanders far beneath me. Behind me, the red rock cliffs and unspoiled valleys of Sedona seem to go on forever. Up here, in what feels very close to heaven on earth, the rocks are turning a golden orange in the waning afternoon light.
On the west side of the saddle, to my left as I reach the top, another short but steep climb takes me to a ledge perched between two towering spires. The ravens circle overhead, their cries echoing like laughter. Swallows whoosh in between the cliffs, swooping so quickly they make the wind seem slow. As the sun sinks even deeper I pray, asking for balance, stamina, and the courage to follow my path. I feel the spirit of nature so strongly here. The energy is palpable. I am buzzing with life, and deeply moved.
Sunset is another delicious feast for the senses. I sit on the ledge and watch our glowing star melt like liquid gold seeping into the horizon. The creek below turns to slivers of silver and the sky fades from sapphire to an electric periwinkle. A night breeze rushes up the cliffs as the birds sing a sunset serenade. I pick my way slowly and carefully down the trail, giving thanks all the way down. My soul is filled to the brim.
I cannot resist waking up early the next morning to climb Cathedral once again. Alone, I greet the sun and pray for blessings in this new year of my life. I sing my prayers aloud and shiver until the light bursts over the horizon to the east, illuminating the few clouds with a passionate pink and turning the silver sky into the palest of blues. The air is cool, the colors brilliant, and the silence so very embracing.
This is pure magic. I am grateful to be alive.