I love Sterling Pass. In the past, ponderosa pines rose to the heavens obscuring the views of the red rock cliffs until you were just upon them. A huge forest fire in 2004 ripped through here and now many of the ponderosas are simply blackened charcoal trunks. There is never loss without some gain. The views are amazing now, and the new growth is already climbing to the heavens.
This hike which used to be a walk through a simple pine forest is now a walk with pines, oaks, maples, an abundance of flowers, and a variety of other plants. I call it the “Resurrection” hike because it reminds me that whenever there are endings, new life beings as well. I go there when I want to recreate my life in some fashion. It inspires me.
The trail beings with a steep ascent on a narrow path to a (usually) dry red rock wash. From there it climbs more gradually through a lush forest deep into the canyon. You’ll see evidence of the fire from years ago in the blackened pine skeletons, but new life has grown quickly, creating a thick green cover in the summer and some vibrant color in autumn.
In the morning you’ll be serenaded by birdsong and may hear the rustling of other critters that populate the canyon. I’ve seen skunks and squirrels, and once was forced to step off the trail to make way for three panting Javalina who looked too winded to give up their right of way on the trail!
I’ve never had a problem with wildlife in Sedona. The animals seem to keep their distance, or simply walk on by. Ignorant in the ways of skunks, however, I was glad to be with a friend at the time I met one, who knew that the little guy was giving me a final warning by stomping his foot! Respectfully, I backed off and continued to tell him how cute he was from a distance! Satisfied, he went back to munching something on the forest floor!
As you near the back of the canyon the trail begins to climb steadily and swiftly upward, via narrow dirt switchbacks. If you don’t like heights you may want to stop before the climb. If you’re ok with them, keep going. Pause often to turn around and take in the view behind you. It is hard to believe how high you climb in such short time. The views are stunning.
Eventually you’ll climb up onto the rim where the views are obscured by low growing scrub oak trees and maples that put on a beautiful autumn show after most of the fall color peaks in other areas of the region. You can stop here at the rim, or continue onward.
If you are an enthusiastic hiker, and in decent shape, continue over the top and walk downhill via a series of steep dirt switchbacks through the forest, for another 2.4 miles. At the bottom, you’ll run into the Vultee Arch trail.
Remember… what goes down must come up and although this trail is beautiful and offers amazing views you’ll need to turn around and climb back up to the rim, then down to the parking area once again. Make sure you’re up for the round trip before going over the rim.
The descent to Vultee Arch leads you through a beautiful forest with huge old pines, amazing views, and gorgeous flowers in season. I’ve stumbled upon a huge patch of shamrocks back there, and patches of white violet-like flowers. This is some serious exercise, however, to take the round trip. Go slow if you’re not in top shape and conserve energy for the way back.
From Phoenix, take I-17 north to Hwy 179 (exit 298). Turn left onto 179 and follow it past the Village of Oak Creek to the Sedona (Burger King) “Y”. Turn right at the “Y” onto North 89A. You will go through uptown and then meander along the creek for a total of 6.5 miles just past mile marker 381 and the manzanita campground. There are only a few pull offs for parking on the left, and if they’re full, its best to try another hike. When you’re parked, a rust trail sign, #46 Sterling Pass marks the beginning of the trail.
Moderate if you’re in shape. Strenuous if you’re not, due to the steep increase in elevation.
Things to bring:
Wear very comfortable walking or hiking shoes that have traction to avoid slipping on the narrow parts of the trail. Bring plenty of water, lunch, snacks, and your camera.
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.