Hiking in Sedona: A Trail Review

April 22, 2021
Bell Rock view about half-way up

Hiking in Sedona, Arizona is like walking through a dreamworld. The landscapes are expansive, almost cartoonish in their grandeur. There is nowhere like it in the USA — it occupies a rare location where stunning desert meets vibrant forest. The vibe in Sedona is undeniably good. They say it is one of three vortex centers on the planet, the others being the Pyramids and Bermuda Triangle. It’s an odd assertion, but one worth pondering. People are drawn here for the beauty, but perhaps there is something more to it.

The internet is ridden with Sedona photographs, few more popular than Devil’s Bridge or Cathedral Rock. The trails are relatively easy with some moderate-to-difficult scampering required on certain paths. The best time to hike is at sunrise because it is cooler and the trails are less crowded. Sunset is also spectacular, but people are everywhere at that time. Because Sedona is a popular place to visit, the trails are inundated with hikers at certain times of the year. We visited in late-March and it was ridiculous how crowded the entire area had become.

We did our best to research which the best hiking trails, and we managed to squeeze in seven hikes in four days. What follows is a loosely arranged ranking of the hikes with tips and photos. Rankings were based on the following criteria: Payoff, Trail, Child Friendly, Features, and Vibe.

We strongly recommend hiking in Sedona, and we hope you enjoy the article!

1. Soldier Pass

Soldier Pass view for hiking in Sedona

The Soldier Pass Trail was our favorite of the trip. The payoff is big and the trail rolls between broad, rocky hillsides. There are several stops along the way that give variety to the adventure. If ever a hike could be likened to a bento box, this is it. There is so much to like and it is anything but boring.

The trail begins in a fancy neighborhood that disallows parking, so if you cannot find a space at the trailhead (maybe 20 parking spots), you are parking a couple miles away and hiking in on the roads. Because this is a popular hike you may find yourself waiting for a parking spot along with a dozen other cars. The gate opens at 08:00, so arrive a few minutes before. Diehards get dropped off at sunrise. Nutjobs hike in on the road.

The highlights of the trail are the Soldier’s Arch caves (pictured above). The one on the left is fairly easy to recognize once you arrive in the area. Look for the arch in the rock wall; inside the arch on the right-hand side you will see a narrow incline with a rope hanging down. Climb on up to enjoy a very unusual cave with a picture perfect window looking out to the valley.

The photo on the right is a separate cave which is hidden in the trees. To find it, while facing Soldier Arch, turn about 90 degrees to your right and look behind the small group of trees. You will see a large, obscured hole in the cliffside. You walked past the entrance on your way in, so backtrack a short ways and look for the faint trail that leads through the trees toward the cliff. Getting into the cave is fairly dangerous, so please, know your capabilities.

Soldier Pass hiking in Sedona

1.5 miles from the trailhead is a Y in the trail (pictured above). The “Trail” sign points left, and you can certainly go that way, but if you want to see the Soldier’s Arch caves head right. On our way back we ran into two consecutive parties that didn’t know which way to go.

After turning right at the Y, you will see what is pictured below. Head toward the rock wall in the distance — the caves are just over the hill to the left.

Soldier Pass hiking in Sedona

Another reason the Soldier Arch trail is superlative are the two incredible stops along the way. About ten minutes from the trailhead is the Devil’s Kitchen feature (below left). It is a huge hole in the ground, incredibly curious, and terrific for photo ops. I’m not sure what happened here, but something collapsed.

The Seven Sacred Pools (below right) show up about the midway point. Below the pools are an assortment of cairns that dress up the area. Hikers seem to collect in this area. It is a winsome milieu of curiosities and a good place to rest.

The trail is fairly easy. At 4 miles RT this is an acceptable distance for children. The hike is generally flat with slight incline/declines along the way, although the ascent to the Arch is uphill for about a half mile.

2. Bell Rock

Hiking in Sedona to Bell Rock

Bell Rock was the best time we had hiking in Sedona. The path to the rock is short, about a quarter mile. From there it is a puzzle on how to navigate the rocky slopes that lead to the handle of the bell. The kids loved scampering up the rock so much we could hardly contain them. They went ballistic here, to the point that it frightened us as parents. No one lost their life, but a pair of pants didn’t make it home with us because someone had to butt-scoot their way down the steep slopes.

This is a very popular hike and the trailhead parking lot was full when we arrived mid-day. The signs are easy to follow once you get out of your car. The Bell is on the right, although there is a large dome-shaped rock directly to its left (pictured below). Once you gain a little bit of elevation — about halfway up the slopes of the bell — the view is spectacular in all directions. Cathedral Rock is nearby, as are several other red-rock prominences.

Bell Rock Vortex, hiking in Sedona

Bell Rock is one of Sedona’s Five Vortices (plural for vortex is vortices). A vortex is an energy center on the earth — imagine a swirl of energy leaving the earth toward the sky, sort of like a tornado. The town of Sedona is quite married to this idea of energy and vortex and healing crystals and psychic voodoo chicanery, and these energy centers are a big reason why.

If you would like to experience the vortex (maybe, perhaps, you will “experience” it), head around the left side of the bell, between it and the dome-shaped neighbor. When the valley appears around the backside of the rocks, this is the approximate area of the Bell Rock vortex.

We like to think we are discriminating folks who aren’t easy duped into silly ideas. However, we are open-minded enough to give certain silly ideas a chance. Nobody saw Jesus around the backside of those rocks. No one took up their bed and walked, and we didn’t spy Alice in Wonderland amongst the shrubbery.

The most commonly reported sensation in the presence of a vortex is a heightened sense of well-being. We absolutely, without a doubt had a good time near the “vortex”. Even our younger autistic boy smiled for the camera (see above). He is a notorious serial killer in photos (see below, taken before we found the “vortex”), so we have digital proof.

We aren’t going crack-pot on you, I promise. However, we cannot deny that everyone felt amazing around the side of that rock. It could have been the funny visual of a fart riding high into the sky on the winds of a vortex tornado that had us laughing… fart jokes make everyone feel amazing. But maybe there is something to this “vortex” thing after all. Just saying.

Bell Rock hiking in Sedona

3. Cathedral Rock

Cathedral Rock is awesome hiking in Sedona

This is the most popular trail in the land, and if you’re hiking in Sedona you’ll probably end up here. The mile long trail is all uphill, and the view from the top is a worthy payoff. There is a posing bench along the right side of the cliff just for the Instagrammers — if you’re lucky hot-air-balloons will fill the sky behind you.

The narrow saddle at the top of the trail is an excellent place for hikers to sit and watch the sun rise, eat lunch, or relax to the sound of a drone in flight.

Children could navigate the path alright, but it might not be the best for those with balance concerns. There are some uncertain moments in the trail — which way to go? Is this safe? — but millions of boots have worn a visible path in the rock. When in doubt, follow the cagey rock pillars.

Below is the posing bench, which will usually draw a line of social media fiends (us included). Everyone was friendly and took pictures for each other.

Hiking in Sedona to Cathedral Rock

So, I guess it was spring break when we were hiking in Sedona. Note to future self: don’t go during spring break. The highways in and around Sedona were crowded with cars by 10:00 am. Everywhere we went was gridlocked. In every parking lot we waited for someone to leave to grab their spot.

Cathedral Rock, as immensely popular as it is, has a small parking lot at the trailhead (maybe 30 cars). We arrived at 05:50, 25 minutes before sunrise. By the time we had our hiking boots on the lot was basically full. When we headed out after the hike there was a line of cars waiting to park. As we drove out we noticed a city official had blocked off the road with his car. He stood there wearing an official green vest, informing hopeful hikers there was no room at the inn. It was eight-thirty-am.

The highlight of the trail for us was the couple we met at the top. Monica started talking to them while I was fooling around with the camera (captured above in the photo on the right). They were friendly and we had a surprising amount of things in common with them. In the early morning sunshine, looking over a spectacular vista, we chatted for a solid hour like we had nowhere else to be. We wish that happened more.

Cathedral Rock  friends go hiking in Sedona

4. Devil’s Bridge

The Devil's Bridge is fantastic hiking in Sedona

Devil’s Bridge is the other most popular hike in Sedona. If payoffs are your thing, this should be at the top of your list. Unfortunately, everyone else has it at the top of their list, too.

Devil's Bridge trail sign post for hiking in Sedona

When hiking in Sedona you get used to parking being an issue. This one has ample parking, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be packed out during spring break. From the trailhead you will see the above sign. The three photos below show what you can expect early in the hike. For the first fifteen minutes it looks like a trail, but the below right photo shows what you can expect for the next 1.5 miles.

Yes, that’s a dirt road. The Devil’s Bridge trail is basically a dirt road until the last half mile. This is precisely why we ranked it fourth. The upside is, if you stay until after sunset, it’s hard to get lost kicking down a dirt road like wayward livestock.

About 1.5 miles in, you’ll turn right and the trail gets much more interesting. You can sense the energy from the crowd at the bridge, but cannot see it until you’re there. This builds anticipation.

Kicking down a dirt road does not build anticipation.

Devil's Bridge viewpoint if you go hiking in Sedona

It was impossible to get a photo on the bridge without a crowd of people jacking up the milieu. And the drones. Oh, the friggin’ drones! They’re like the world’s biggest mosquito. While the drone pilot is an irksome disturber of the peace, everyone is simultaneously jealous of them. It looks like fun to operate that awful thing, and the photos they get are surely cool.

Note to self: Buy drone, embrace being a loathsome human.

We could have spent all day at the Devil’s Bridge. Once the busy scene grows old, just walk off a few hundred feet, plant yourself on the precipice and have a taco. If you’re going hiking in Sedona, Devil’s Bridge is a must-do.

The dude in the peach-colored shirt who looks like he’s playing his Nintendo 3DS (pictured above right), that’s the guy with the drone. He’s here to piss you off. Refrain from shoving him to his death.

Devil's Bridge is famous hiking in Sedona

5. Fay Canyon

Fay Canyon lends awesome hiking in Sedona

Fay Canyon is a one mile, out-and-back, level path. If you want to take your children hiking in Sedona, Fay Canyon is one of your best bets. The trail is a pretty stroll through an amiable canyon amongst the trees. We really enjoyed the manner in which the path lazily winded along the river bed. Our two youngest never even set foot on the trail — they used the river bed the entire way. At times they disappeared from sight and we got a little nervous, but they were never far.

There is an unprecedented amount of parking across the street from the trailhead, which was shocking to us. Suddenly all this parking like you want us here? Do we even know you, Sedona?

Because you are winding along the canyon floor, there aren’t any big views along the way. This is part of the charm. It was easy to get lost in conversation amongst the trees. The vibe was chill and there were fewer travelers.

The trail ends abruptly at a cliff (according to the sign). It is clear people have continued up the rocky detritus immediately behind the sign (above right), and the trail also appeared to turn right, into the trees. We climbed up the rocks and enjoyed the view looking back over the canyon. I believe we could have pressed further around the cliff to the left, but the sun was setting we wanted to enjoy a little personal space in the parking lot before heading back to the rat maze.

Fay Canyon is incredible hiking in Sedona

6. Boyton Canyon

Boyton Canyon provides beautiful hiking in Sedona

Boyton Canyon is one of the five vortices (plural for vortex) in Sedona. It’s just down the road from Fay Canyon; both are out of the way and less trafficked than other hikes in Sedona. Hiking them back-to-back makes a lot of sense.

The hike to the vortex is only .4 miles and provides 360 degree views of the area. This trail branches off from the main Boyton Canyon Trail 0.2 miles from the trailhead. We would recommend sticking to the shorter route. We met someone that continued up the canyon for several miles and they said there wasn’t much of a payoff. To get to the vortex, turn right at the Y and head toward the above pictured rock tower.

Boyton Canyon is some of the best hiking in Sedona

This is one of the views from the payoff. The Enchantment Resort is nestled in the canyon nearby. The sun hit it perfectly in the late evening.

Hiking in Sedona to Boyton Canyon

Ryan’s parents joined us for this hike. Ryan’s dad was pretty nervous watching our children scale the rock tower. Let’s see if I can conjure the gist of it… “What would you do if one of your kids fell and died?” Yeah, that’s pretty much the essence of the lecture.

No one died. What they did do was have a great time! The vibe was high energy at the vortex. Are our children a vortex? I’m sure the other hikers thought so. When informed that vortexes are known for feelings of well-being, Ryan’s mom said with confidence, “Well I definitely feel good, so maybe it’s true!” This is the same person who cannot watch sci-fi because suspension of disbelief is difficult for her, so I think it might mean something.

Hiking in Sedona to Boyton Canyon.

7. Airport Mesa Loop

Airport Mesa Viewpoint hiking in Sedona

Not to be confused with the Airport Mesa Viewpoint, which is a large parking lot (sigh) with a terrific view of the town, the Airport Mesa hike is just down the hill toward town. If you are driving up the mesa you will pass a tiny trailhead parking lot on your left. That’s the spot.

Pictured below is the parking lot view. You don’t even have to go hiking in Sedona to catch a whopper view!

Sedona backdrop near hiking in Sedona

A brief incline leads to expansive views on the backside of the mesa. You can take the trail to the left to scale a rocky hill — we saw some people at the top and it looked like they had a great view up there. If you take the trail to the right (which we did) you will head toward the vortex in the area.

Hiking in Sedona Airport Mesa

The view out back is pretty spectacular. From back here you can see Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, and plenty of other rocks. You will also see many twisted trees. The hike isn’t anything special by itself, but the usual good vibes accompany the stroll.

Backside of Airport Mesa Vortex.

Airport Vortex Hike is a great choice if you want some big views close to town and don’t want to work for them. This would be an excellent place to take small children.

I mentioned three paragraphs up that you could take a left and head up the hill to what looked like good views. In the photo below you will see two people standing atop the red rock mound on the right-hand side. Those aren’t trees up there. I imagine they are enjoying themselves (but maybe they’re burying someone’s ashes). You never can tell.

Airport Mesa hiking in Sedona

Conclusion:

Go hiking in Sedona! Here is a MAP of the area.

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