On The Other Side of the Red Rocks: Exploring the Backwoods of Sedona
It’s 9 a.m. and 90 degrees hot already, but a quiet trail through a secluded canyon sets out before my feet with a tall canopy of forestry bending overhead, offering plentiful shade.
The drive here down a long, rough dirt road took nearly an hour to negotiate, but it was worth seeing a new side of Sedona’s Red Rock Country for the first time. I’ve lived here for twelve years now, and before that, visited twice a year, so uncovering my own unseen territory makes me feel like the Christopher Columbus of the southwest.
We are truly in the backwoods of Sedona, Arizona, at the dead end of Forest Road 152, a 4.5 mile long road just off Dry Creek Rd. deemed accessible only to “High Clearance Vehicles.” My bright orange (well, now dusty red) Nissan Exterra hops boulders and mini stair steps of red rocks like I’m hosting a Pink Jeep Tour, and now the drive has proven to be half the fun of our little expedition.
As we travel at a furious speed of 0.2 mph wishing we had a true 4WD vehicle, the scene around us morphs from open fields of sandstone, red rock and sun, to encroaching thickets of Sycamores, Arizona Cypress, and even Pine trees.
Finally, the dirt road dumps us right at the trail head, and immediately, we are awed by unusual views upwards to the east.
My friend, Gina, and I are both long-time residents, yet, as we set out on a new trail that more closely resembles a pine-filled forest than a scorching, dry desert, she begs my pardon repeatedly, stopping to take photos every fifty feet. “Sorry I’m going all touristy on you, girl,” she says, “But look at these gorgeous wildflowers!” “Look at these unusual trees!” “Oh, WOW, look at that view!”
I’m thankful she’s documenting each bend and twist, vista and view of our little journey, though, because this trail’s making me feel like a tourist again, too.
About 100 feet into the trail, the woods descend almost completely over us. We dip in and out of sunlight and shade for the rest of this gentle hike, the trees approaching to cool us each time the sun starts to heat our backs.
The trail crisscrosses a dry creek bed at the bottom of Sterling Canyon, and new red rocks pop up along both sides of us around each curve. We are all alone on the trail – a rare treasure to be had on an early summer morning in a city that gets four million visitors annually.
To the east, the backside of Lost Wilson Mountain rises out so high above us, I mistake it for Thunder Mountain – Sedona’s largest mountain range. This is a side of our well-known red rocks Gina and I have never seen before. The mountain’s sheer cliffs resemble the inside of a geode after it’s been chiseled and broken open.
We hike nearly two miles in until the trail becomes a bit too overgrown to continue safely – ah, the price for seclusion, a rarely traversed, now hairy (or snaky?) trail!
Little did we know we stopped probably a few hundred feet before a fork in the trail that would have taken us a short 300 feet up to Vultee Arch – a rare, natural stone arch jutting out of the wilderness. We weren’t the least bit disappointed, though. The old adage, “It’s the journey, not the destination!” proved true on this venture!
Had we continued further, the trail would have dead-ended at a bronze plaque placed in memoriam for Gerard and Sylvia Vultee who lost their lives in an aircraft crash nearby in 1938. Another 2.4 miles and we would’ve unknowingly landed in Sedona’s well-known Oak Creek Canyon.
Our trek back brought our eyes down from the red rocks to the forest before us, as we ooh-ed and ah-ed over wildflowers and tree trunks. We stopped for more tourist-moments, photographing the unusual bark of several trees such as the Arizona Sycamore. Their thin, pale bark curled back into billions of pieces to reveal a tapestry underneath that looked as if it had been hand-painted in soft sunset colors.
Butterflies danced with us on our way out, stopping to fan their wings in the sun. Indian Paintbrush poked out onto the trail to greet us as we passed by. Two hours later, we emerged out of the canyon renewed by our forage into this hidden canyon.
Vultee Arch Trail #22 proved to be just the unexpected dose of green I needed on a sizzling summer day, and feeling like a born-again, traveling tourist in a land I’ve loved for decades was an unexpected bonus!
For more information on the Vultee Arch Trail and other Sedona hiking trails, visit the Coconino National Forest website.
Photos: Courtesy of Gina Ault
Megan Aronson is the Tourism, Travel and Toddlers Editor for Sedona, Arizona; Breckenridge, Colorado and beyond
All photos courtesy and copyright Megan Aronson