Sterling Pass/Vultee Arch Hike – A Sedona Westerners Favorite
May 08, 2020
By Dave Minott
Just before the COVID-19 restrictions cut short our hiking season, the Mustangs hiking group of the Sedona Westerners completed a final hike and it turned out to be a gem! Led by Charlie Schudson and Dave Minott, our group departed from the trailhead along Route 89A in Oak Creek Canyon and headed up the Sterling Pass Trail. This challenging hike had us first ascending to the Sterling Pass saddle, an aerie that looms one thousand feet above the trailhead. Then, from the Sterling Pass saddle, we continued on, descending into Sterling Canyon to explore Vultee Arch.
And just whom was the Sterling Pass and Canyon named for? That would be Charles Sterling, an early Sedona-area settler who allegedly hid in Sterling Canyon while pursuing his “career” as both a cattle rustler and counterfeiter.
The Sterling Pass Trail climbs steeply through an area that had been devastated in 2006 by the historic Brins Fire, a fire which killed almost all the large Ponderosa pines that grew there, leaving the area denuded. As we hiked along, we encountered many large, dead, charred Ponderosas that had fallen across the trail, hindering our progress. Hike leader, Charlie Schudson, remarked that there are now many more fallen trees blocking the trail than last year. Evidently, some of the last standing dead trees finally have fallen, their root structures no longer able to resist erosion and wind. The good news – today, the canyon appears to be rebounding from the fire; the ground is lush with low-lying growth of oak and other native vegetation. Some of the fallen tree trunks provided an unusual artistic offering; the log surfaces were covered with complex engraved patterns. No, not Dürer; insects were the skilled artists!
Approaching the Sterling Pass Trail's saddle, the trail became a series of steep, rocky switchbacks, requiring us to be mindful of our footing. In addition, here, the rocky walls along the trail are reputedly a preferred lair for local rattlesnakes, although none greeted us on this hike. Reaching the Sterling Pass saddle, we were ready to take a much-needed break and enjoy the reward we had earned – the opportunity to gaze in awe back down into the canyon, an amphitheater of sheer rock walls and spires of dramatic shapes and coloration.
Our group then descended from the Sterling Pass saddle, hiking down the opposite side from which we had climbed up. We were astounded by how profoundly the ecosystem differs when hiking up to the Sterling Pass saddle from one side, versus hiking down from it on the other side. Climbing up to the saddle, the terrain is in full sun, with low-growing vegetation. Hiking down into Sterling Canyon was a different world – a cool forest of Ponderosa pines, Douglas firs, Oaks, and Maples. As we hiked farther down into Sterling Canyon, we saw several impressive rock spires that kept our heads craning upward, and we passed a very tall rock formation having many different-colored layers that some of our hikers remarked made it look like a Tiramisu cake.
Eventually, we came upon the turn-off to the Vultee Arch Trail. Ascending on this trail, we encountered a large ledge with a plaque commemorating Charles Vultee and his wife, Sylvia, whose small plane crashed near there in 1938, killing them both. The plaque had been placed in 1969 by the Sedona Westerners. Continuing on, we climbed steeply up the canyon sidewall onto high ledges, arriving at Vultee Arch, a classic, picturesque rock-arch structure. Most of our group decided to venture (carefully!) out onto the flat, but very narrow, top surface of the arch, providing a fine “photo opportunity.”
The return leg of our hike had us retracing our steps, trekking back up to the Sterling Pass saddle, then down to our trailhead, completing an elevation gain of 2,300 feet for the entire hike. Sterling Pass/Vultee Arch is a challenging and tiring hike, but we all agreed, a “sterling” hike, tops in scenery and satisfaction.
Written by Dave Minott