Reach the top of the Cathedral Rock Trail and you’ll be surrounded by massive rock walls, spy expansive views of Courthouse Butte and Mingus Mountain — and walk along the edge of a cliff if you are feeling adventurous.
Cathedral Rock is one of the most popular hikes in Sedona — understandably so.
If you’ve never been to Sedona, it’s like Arizona’s version of Zion. It offers both locals and tourists a day in the land of red rocks, vortexes and new age bookstores. Although Sedona doesn’t claim National Park status, it is plentiful in its hiking trails, camping and killer places to eat — everything you need for your weekend getaway.
The Path Less Traveled
Now, you may be wondering why I am suggesting a crowded trail. A majority of people prefer to go hiking or spend a day in nature for some peace and quiet, right? Don’t fret — there is a method to my madness here.
The standard route for hiking Cathedral Rock is from the trailhead on Back O’ Beyond Road — just off the 179 in between downtown Sedona and the Village of Oak Creek. However, I am here to tell you that there is a backdoor trail to the top that will not require you to battle traffic or crowds — at least not until you’re near the top.
Instead we’ll take the “back way.” Forget Back O’ Beyond and take Verde Valley School Road to the trailhead near the road’s end.
From here, it’s a combination of the Red Rock Crossing Trail, Baldwin Trail, and Templeton Trail — in that order. I frequented this area for its proper swimming holes, until one day, my friend Olivia and I decided to keep going to see where it led. Before we knew it, it spit us out more than halfway up the Cathedral Rock Trail. Who knew? We certainly didn’t.
This combination of trails not only cuts the strenuous, vertical climb of the standard Cathedral Rock Trail into a gradual climb, it’s also easy on your feet and is a pathway to a natural playground.
From the get-go, you trek alongside Oak Creek and through a light forest of sycamore and juniper trees. There are several one-off trails that lead you to the edge of the creek, so if you have enough time and the sunshine is heating up your skin, take a dip. Nothing compares to washing away city life in natural waters. There is even a handful of sunbathing rocks.
A little less than a quarter-mile in, the area expands outward with plenty of room to roam and mosey about. You may not be out of breath, but this is the perfect spot to let your inner child explore a bit. There is a small shore, a tree for climbing, and a rope swing if you keep following the creek.
To continue onward to Cathedral Rock, kiss Oak Creek goodbye and keep right along the rock wall. The trail will weave upward, and eventually, you will find yourself on the backside of the rock wall you were originally following, along with some spectacular views due to your elevation gain.
You will also come across a large, layered carving in the red rock — it almost looks like an amphitheater. This is where Olivia and I took a breather after the steep incline and enjoyed the silence before merging into trail traffic. That’s right — the “back way” eventually comes to a close.
Enjoy the Top
But not to worry — the saddle of Cathedral Rock is incredibly spacious and you can usually make out some space for yourself without being bombarded by other hikers. And to be fair, the hiking community typically attracts positive and happy folks. Who knows, maybe you’ll make a friend or two.
As you make your ascent, just be sure to follow the white markings on the rocks. It’s a bit of a free-for-all and some areas are extremely sketchy, so by following the symbols, you’ll avoid any treacherous territory.
Once you’ve made it to the top, you may say to yourself, “Oh, that climb was totally worth it,” because it is. So, take a load off and enjoy.
There is a claim that Cathedral Rock is home to one of the several vortexes in Sedona. In theory, these are areas that have a rich amount of metaphysical energy that can be felt throughout your body.
But even if you’re not into all that, we can all agree that it is vital for us humans to shed our technology and artificial clutter every once in a while. Take off your shoes, play in the sunshine, feel the wind — the works! Soaking up Cathedral Rock is a hearty dose of natural medicine.
When it comes time for the descent, it can almost be as tricky as the climb up. Please, watch your step. There will be some butt crawling, too. A majority of people will be heading back to the main trailhead, so don’t forget to hang a left onto the Templeton Trail and go back the way which you came.
Directions & Deets
Getting there: From Phoenix, take the I-17 North for 125 miles, about an hour and 45 minutes, and take exit 298/AZ-179. Continue straight for another seven miles and take a left at the second roundabout onto Verde Valley School Road. This road will eventually turn into dirt (but stays passenger car accessible), and after about six miles, you park in the lot on your left. Walk down the dirt road until you reach a dead end, and the trail begins on your right.
Note: unless you have an annual Red Rock pass, you will want to take a pitstop at Clark’s Market and Pharmacy (on the right after roundabout) to purchase a $5 parking pass.
Distance / Elevation Gain: 4 miles / 850 feet
Dogs: Allowed, but proceed with caution during the ascent and descent to and from Cathedral Rock. Your furry friend(s) must also be kept on a leash.
Where to Grab a Bite Nearby
Nothing complements a successful hike more than a solid meal and a beer if you’re into that kind of thing. Here’s a handful of some of my favorite places to grub after a well-spent day in Sedona’s wonders of nature.
Thai Spices Natural Restaurant
2611 AZ-89A, Sedona, AZ 86336
I’ve frequented Thai Spices more than any other restaurant in this list. I have yet to meet anyone who isn’t a fan of Thai food, so I have zero hesitation recommending this spot. All of your curry, pad thai, tom kah and fried rice needs are taken care of. Vegan and gluten-intolerant folks have several options for their choosing. My personal favorite is the Three Herbs Vitality, which is an array of vegetables tossed in ginger, garlic and tumeric. You can also top if off with meat or fish, if you’d like. Hours here can be a little finicky, so it’s safer to call ahead to be sure they’re open for you.
Indian Gardens Cafe and Market
3951 N State Rte 89A, Sedona, AZ 86336
Indian Gardens is the furthest restaurant from the Verde Valley School Road trailhead, but if you decide to camp in Oak Creek Canyon (see below), this could be your go-to. And even if you don’t stay overnight in the canyon, I find it difficult not to take a drive through every single time I visit. Oak Creek Canyon is easily one of the top scenic drives in Arizona, and Indian Gardens is located right in the heart of it. The breakfast menu (served 8-11am) offers egg sammies, burritos, huevos rancheros and pancakes. For lunch/dinner (from 11am–4pm.), you can choose from a variety of sandwiches, like the reuben, pulled pork or garden pita. There is also quesadillas, hummus plates and green chile mac n’ cheese. You can wash it all down with one of their artisan coffee drinks.
Chocolatree Organic Eatery
1595 West Hwy 89A, Sedona, AZ 86336
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For all the organic-only, vegetarians and vegans out there, this one’s for you. Chocolatree stands by moral correctness in their dish preparation and delivery, and offers multiple styles of food, like American, Thai and Mexican. For example, you could try the sweet potato pizza pie, the vegetable spinach curry, or the Sedona 2020 enchilada. There is also an abundant selection of different chocolates, treats and baked goods. For beverages, whether you want beer, wine, a cocktail, natural soda, tea or coffee, they’ve got you covered. Chocolatree has it all, with a leafy spin.
1910 AZ-89A, Sedona, AZ 86336
I personally enjoy Indian food because of its spiciness, heartiness, and the fact that I get to eat with my hands. So, if you’re craving some foreign eats, this is your place. All of the classics, like kormas, masalas and dals come in several varieties, which can be veggie or meat-eater friendly. During lunch time, (Mon–Fri 11 am–2:30pm and Sat–Sun 11am–3pm) it’s buffet style. Then, from 5–10pm, it’s table service. Although I’ve personally never had an unpleasant experience here, some patrons claim service can be hit or miss, but this is the only Indian restaurant in Sedona. If you’re on a time crunch, it may be wise to steer clear to avoid any frustration. Our meals are meant to be savored!
Where to Slumber
If you live in the Phoenix area and you’ve done a day trip to Sedona, you know how exhausting it can be. A two-hour drive each way doesn’t seem that demanding, but by the time you’ve wrapped up your Sedona adventure and filled your belly, driving south on I-17 in the dark is a recipe for falling asleep at the wheel. I should know, I’ve set this trap for myself one too many times. Do yourself a favor — pitch a tent or secure a space on Airbnb. We’ll even help you do some of the legwork.
Snagging a spot at one of the campgrounds in Oak Creek Canyon is your best bet for some proper camping in Sedona. There are three established sites: Cave Springs, Manzanita and Pine Flat. Because these sites are operated by the Coconino National Forest, there is a fee and reservations are recommended to secure your spot. If you arrive on a weekday between before noon, there is a chance you can snag a walkup site. These sites are only open from early April to late October.
However, if you aren’t into the classic picnic table, fire ring and saying hello to your temporary neighbors kind of experience, there are several one-off forest roads along the 89A between Oak Creek Canyon and the outskirts of Flagstaff where you could set up camp. It’ll require a bit of searching for a site, but if you are seeking solitude for the night, you will find it.
As rewarding as camping can be, sometimes it’s nice to bundle up on a comfy bed with several blankets and have more than a popup stove to cook your dinner. Airbnb makes this all possible. Depending on your budget, you can have a whole space to yourself, or just pay for a private room and share space with the homeowner. Some of the most unique and extraordinary people call Sedona home, so you are bound to have an adventure wherever you choose to stay.
Editor’s Note: Also consider staying at the Forest Houses Resort in the heart of Oak Creek Canyon. Each cabin was handbuilt by Robert Kittredge, Sr. over the course of six decades. The Kittredge family still owns and operates the property, and it’s hard to find a more nature-immersed place to stay in the area (the price is right too).