On a recent Tuesday morning, a group of us Sedona Westerners, met at Posse Grounds and commuted up Oak Creek Canyon to the Sterling Pass trailhead. It’s about 4.5 miles north of Midgley Bridge on 89A, across from the Manzanita Campground. Parking is limited to about 5 or 6 cars along the dirt shoulder. There is a metal sign designating the trailhead.
Named for a local settler, Sterling Pass Trail leads over a high saddle from Oak Creek Canyon into nearby and equally scenic Sterling Canyon. The climb is steep right from the trailhead. If you need to stop to catch your breath do so… and take in the beauty of what lies up ahead. The trail climbs up an unnamed drainage (a dry streambed) through a mixed conifer forest dominated by huge orange-barked ponderosa pines, Douglas fir and a few spruces. Early on, the trail wonders back and forth over the streambed several times. The area feels primeval and you are quickly taken by the stunning vistas that appear up ahead and on both sides. A forest fire swept through this area a number of years ago, still you are surrounded by thick vegetation and lots of new growth.
This is a steep hike and hikers of varied abilities can do it. Wearing good hiking boots and taking breaks is encouraged. After about a mile and a quarter, you start to edge above the trees and can take in the sweeping classic views of Oak Creek Canyon behind you. You are surrounded by soaring red and white cliffs above you, with trees on all sides. You will want to pinch yourself, the scene looks delightfully surreal. As you approach the top you will come across a "peek-a-boo" slot on your left that lets you look through at stunning views of an adjacent canyon. The crest is just above that, a perfect place for a good rest and snack.
Some hikers stop and turn around at the Pass. But the "icing on the cake" is to continue on down the opposite side into Sterling Canyon, and continue on to Vultee Arch. This is a zig-zag trail with a reasonable gradient. After about 20 minutes, the trail opens into a tranquil valley and on to the intersection of the Vultee Arch Trail. Looking up to your right, you will easily see the Arch halfway up the side of the canyon. We worked our way up a narrow slot of manzanita where the trail climbs up onto the red rock area of the arch. This takes some patience, and about 15 or 20 minutes. The Arch is named for Gerald Vultee, a pioneer aviation developer and his wife Sylvia, who lost their lives in an airplane crash in 1938 on nearby East Pocket. The arch is narrow… a little wider than your typical sidewalk. If you have a fear of heights, this may not be for you. It does give you a spectacular place for lunch. A number of hikers in our group enjoyed the remarkable view from down below on a large rock plateau.
Our return takes us back up Sterling canyon to the Pass through the shaded forest the way we came down. Once again, take your time, and enjoy the beautiful red rock cliffs, large eroded formations and the magical evergreen environment. The area was just beginning to sprout a variety of grasses, and wild flowers. We caught a glimpse of deer racing up a nearby hillside. This is not an easy hike, but if you take your time, you will be richly rewarded by one of Sedona's more memorable hikes.
If you are interested in joining the club, go to our website or come to one of our monthly meetings. The next and final meeting will be May 1st, our spring cookout, at 11:00 A.M. at the Sedona Elks Lodge, 110 Airport Road.