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Sterling Pass Trail
There are a lot of hikes to choose from in the Sedona area. This is one of the best.
By Robert Stieve
You're either going up or you're going down on the Sterling Pass Trail. There's no in-between. No middle ground, no plateaus, no real respites. No matter, it's still one of the best hikes in Oak Creek Canyon. And that's saying something, because the canyon, which includes the world-famous Red Rock/Secret Mountain Wilderness, of which this trail is a part, is loaded with great hikes. A.B. Young, West Fork, Loy Canyon ... there aren't any bad options in this vicinity, but Sterling Pass ranks near the top because it's easy to find, moderate to climb and extreme in the way of scenic beauty.
Named for a local settler — as so many hikes in Arizona are — the Sterling Pass Trail is located about 10 feet from the side of the highway, and you need to be careful. Although State Route 89A through Oak Creek Canyon is one of the most spectacular drives in the world, there are still people who feel a need to race down the road as if they were Tony Stewart. Again, be careful. Once you're on the trail, the engine noises will quickly disappear and be replaced by the idyllic sounds of the birds and the breeze.
The trail kicks off with a series of short switchbacks, nothing too strenuous, that lead to an unnamed drainage. At this point, the trail is a little hard to see, but if you cross the wash, you'll see a cairn marking the route. The trail is easy to follow the rest of the way, which allows you to focus on Mother Nature, in particular, the vermilion- and buff-colored cliffs, mesas and spires that make Sedona one of the state's scenic wonders — it's second only to the Grand Canyon in terms of recognition around the globe.
Among the rock formations is the trail's namesake, Sterling Pass, which is a short saddle that sits between Wilson Mountain and the Mogollon Rim. It also separates Oak Creek Canyon and Sterling Canyon. The saddle is easy to see, but to get there, you'll first have to climb 1,100 feet through a mixed conifer forest dominated by ponderosas, junipers and manzanitas. About 10 minutes into the hike you'll come to some dead trees, too. They're the victims of a fire, and because the trail cuts right through the burn area, you'll get an up-close look at what happens to the Earth when fire restrictions are ignored.
Even with the burnouts, the trail is gorgeous, and after about 20 minutes you'll begin the switchbacks up to Sterling Pass. The climb offers a good workout, like Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, and the switches get tighter near the top. Enjoy the views from above, because you're about to start switching again. Immediately. This time, zigzagging downhill into Sterling Canyon. The terrain is similar to what you saw coming up, but the views are more open, more panoramic.
Eventually, after 2.4 miles, you'll come to the end, where the trail meets the Vultee Arch Trail, which is yet another one of the area's great hikes. In fact, if you were to hike every trail in the Red Rock/Secret Mountain Wilderness, you'd realize that it's impossible to make a wrong turn. Every hike is worth taking. Sterling Pass just happens to be the one we chose for this month's issue.
Trail Guideclick to expand
Length: 4.8 miles round-trip
Elevation: 4,850 to 5,950 feet
Directions: From Sedona, drive north on State Route 89A for 6 miles to the trailhead on the west side of the road, about a half-mile north of Milepost 380. Park in one of the roadside pullouts across from Manzanita Campground.