Sedona Westerners in the Red Rock News

November 22, 2013

Hiking's Sterling Moments


The Mustang group of the Sedona Westerners recently set off on a nippy late fall morning to hike Sterling Pass. This pass provides the only practical hiking connection between Oak Creek Canyon and the Upper Dry Creek drainage, which is not the same as saying it is easy.

Beginning at a small dirt pullout less than a mile south of Slide Rock, the trail begins steep and stays steep, but only for the first two miles. As hike leader Brad Bell warned at the sign-in area, there would be no gentle warm up on this one. On the other hand, hikers who were slightly underdressed soon generated plenty of heat themselves to make up for it, and those who were warm in the parking area were not long in requesting a stop for a "clothing adjustment".

Vultee Arch

Fall is special in Oak Creek Canyon, and many people drive the length of it to see the colors change as they pass though the various vegetation zones. A hike over Sterling Pass and down the other side accomplishes about the same thing, with shrub oak and sumac at eye level and oak, maple, aspen, sycamore and cottonwood all contributing here and there, according to the elevation, shade and availability of water. There are many microclimates on this hike.

The Brins fire of 2006 almost reached Highway 89A in Oak Creek Canyon near this point, and there are many dead Ponderosa and other pines which are yet to fall. A crew of Forest Service volunteers was at work clearing some large trees that had recently fallen across the trail about a half mile in. As this is part of the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness, the crew could use hand tools only. Their work was hard and much appreciated.

Sterling Pass itself is at just under 6000 feet in elevation, and the hike down into the Dry Creek drainage is gentler than the ascent, with an easier grade and a better hiking surface. After a long descent, the trail levels out toward Forest Road 152, several more miles ahead. A well marked trail breaks off to the right toward Vultee Arch, one of the largest arches in the Sedona area. It is named after Jerry and Sylvia Vultee, whose plane crashed in a snowstorm in January, 1938. There is a plaque near the arch placed by the Westerners and the Vultee Club of California, although the crash site itself is on the Mogollon Rim at least a mile and 1600 vertical feet away from the arch itself. For hikers visiting the arch, the crash site is definitely a "you cannot get there from here" situation.

After conferring with the group, the leaders decided to view Vultee Arch from the main trail rather than to approach it, in order to do some sightseeing farther down the drainage, including the enormous face of Lost Wilson Mountain rising up on the south. All this left just enough daylight for the return over Sterling Pass and down to the cars in Oak Creek Canyon. In the end, leader Brad Bell and tailgater Frank Will had taken the Mustangs safely on a strenuous hike of 8.6 miles, including a combined ascent of almost 2700 feet.

The Sedona Westerners always welcome new members. If you are interested in joining the club, please go to our website at or just come to one of our monthly meetings. The next one will be on Thursday, Jan 9, 2014 at 7 pm at the Sedona Elks Club, 110 Airport Road.