Our recent road trip through Nevada, Utah and Arizona led us to a number of incredible natural wonders. Each new area brought new spectacles, and one of our favourites in Arizona was the beautiful Cathedral Rock. Lying just outside the adorable little town of Sedona in the Coconino National Forest, Cathedral Rock towers over the surrounding landscape with immeasurable grandeur.
Not only is the Cathedral Rock trail a hiking must-do for the area, but it’s also an area with supposed traditional healing powers that attracts spiritualists from around the world.
Cathedral Rock is a towering red sandstone formation with a cathedral-like shape (hence its name), although apparently its pious name is a far cry from its macabre past as a site of public hangings. While today it’s mostly just a beautiful hiking destination, it does also still hold significance as a spiritual site.
Throughout Arizona, various sites are known as vortexes, or places where the earth’s energy is thought to be exceptionally alive. The energy from these sites is supposed to swirl and circle towards the earth like a tornado, and it’s common to find trees with twisted, spiralling trunks in the vicinity. Spiritualists from around the world come to Arizona to visit the various vortexes, and Cathedral Rock is a well known home to one of them. In fact, as we were there the air came alive with the sound of drums as pilgrims (/hippies :D) came to enjoy its spiritual powers.
To get to the trailhead, take the Back O Beyond road off the 179, and the parking lot will be obvious on your left after a couple of minutes. The actual route up the Cathedral Rock trail doesn’t lead to the true summit, but rather to one of three saddle points on top of the main rock base. The saddle points are gaps between the major spires on Cathedral Rock, and are points that offer spectacular and almost 360 degree views of the entire valley. The hike is short and steep and rises quickly to an elevation of approx. 600ft and a length of around 1 mile (1.6km).
There are several spots where the trail gets fairly steep, and the use of our hands was helpful, but there was never a point where we felt particularly exposed. Having said that, our experiences in the Canadian Rockies has raised the bar a little on what we would typically consider scary, and perhaps to the unseasoned outdoorsman it might be a little daunting. There were certainly large numbers of hikers that were sliding down the steeper sections on their bums.
The rock is smooth and steep at times, but over time footholds and steps have been worn into the ground. This certainly helped us to make our way up the hillside, but again there was never a point where we felt particularly at risk. I would say though that if the weather was wet, it would quickly become exceptionally slippery. Definitely a hike that’s better done on a dry day.
The route is easy to follow, with large rock cairns lining the trail virtually the entire way to the top. With such great visibility from top to bottom, it’s pretty tough to get lost. Even if you stray too far from the trail, it’s pretty easy to make your way back to the route if you point yourself towards the parking lot.
Once you reach the top of the Cathedral Rock trail, you’ll be led to the major saddle. The major saddle has incredible views of the valley both in front and behind, and is perfectly positioned for sunset. This was where the majority of the crowds posted up, and even at around 4.30pm there were plenty of photographers reserving their spots for sunset.
While most hikers will stick to the main saddle, a little exploration will yield a couple more view points from the other two saddles. The first can be found by following the trail around to the left from the main saddle. We virtually had this saddle to ourselves for a good 2 hours because it’s not immediately obvious from the major saddle.
From this second saddle you can also descend down the other side and then turn left up the third and final saddle. The views from this one aren’t quite as spectacular, but you can use it to make your way back down the trail and back to the parking lot. This turns the trail into a loop if you’re looking for more variety.
We visited Cathedral Rock trail during the Easter long weekend/spring break. Without realizing it we’d managed to arrange our visit during one of the busiest holidays of the year, and not surprisingly the hike was teeming with tourists. We arrived at the trailhead parking lot around 3pm on the Saturday, and managed to snag the last parking spot in the overflow parking lot. Cars were lining the street and we could spot dozens of hikers on the trail even from where we parked.
Obviously the ecology of the area is desert, so it didn’t surprise us at all that the trail was getting busier towards the end of the day as the temperature cooled off. As the hike is only short, our advice would be to start aroud sunrise and aim to get to the top and back down before the day starts to heat up. With that being said, the top of the hike has incredible positioning for sunset, so if you’re after the best light we’d recommend hiking just before sunset. The perfect North/South orientation of Cathedral Rock means that one side will give you great sunrises, the other great sunsets.
Overall, this was definitely a highlight of our trip and something we’d happily recommend the Cathedral Rock Trail to even the most exercise adverse tourists. The views don’t get much better than this and it’s an easy hike that we even saw plenty of kids getting involved with. In total we could have easily been up and down within an hour, but we easily spent 3 hours up there enjoying the scenery and waiting for sunset.