Rating: 3.7 out of 5 stars
Recommended supplies and information:
- Bring at least 100 ounces (3 liters) of water
- Small First Aid Kit
- Trekking Pole for Steep Ascents
Approximate Trekking information:
Distance One Way: 2.5 miles (4.02 km)
Total Hiking Time: 4 hours
Elevation at base 5,009 ft to 5,908 ft: 899 ft Ascension Climb
Elevation at base Metrics: 1,527 meters to 1,801 meters: 274 meters Ascension Climb
Temperature for January 25, 2015: 48 F to 71.1 F / 8.8 C to 21.7 C
Strenuous But Not Extreme
Sterling Pass Trail was hit and miss for me. As for most Sedona trails, beauty is in the eye of the beholder: Some hikers are out on the trail for the workout, while some other trekkers are taking in nature at every step of the way. The latter is probably the category that I fall into while examining the plusses and minuses of the surroundings. Spectacular views can be seen on most trails in the region, but Sterling Pass seemed to lack that “Wow effect” I was anticipating. After all, I spent several hours preparing for the trek, let alone driving 2 hours to get to the trailhead, plus effort in picking up a park pass. I was hoping for a little bit more than what I bargained for on this trail. Don’t stop reading now because there are several plusses to mention about Sterling Pass that you may still consider checking out this trail.
The Trail: A Glute Buster To Say The Least
Entering the trailhead directly from Route 89A, Sterling Pass Trail ascends sharply all the way to the highest point without out ever leveling out. About 900 ft (274 m) of sharply steep terrain can be a good thing if you are there for the workout. The views are spotty about a third of the way up, then open views begin to emerge.
Since the trail was very steep, my concentration was mainly focused on my stride and footing around haphazardly loose rocks. Every so often I would stop for a quick breather and to snap a few GPS photographs for the blog. But the higher I climbed, the better the views presented themselves for a decent photograph. There are several opportunities to see wonderful rock formations on both sides of the trail. The cliffs are soaring at around 6,500 ft (1,981.2 m) on both sides, and there are several great views of colorful sedimentary rock layer formations.
Along with the very interesting rock formations, the early morning sun brought very interesting displays of light throughout the ascension. Since the cliffs surrounding the trail are so high, portions of the sun peek through the highest tops of the trees and give a spectacular light show for the viewer. I enjoyed this part of the hike to keep my mind off the unforgiving vertical climb… it wasn’t that bad now that I’m sitting in my comfortable chair writing this blog while sipping a hot cup of cocoa.
Once finally reaching the very top of the pass, I was expecting to see an amazingly expansive canyon view to the other side. Unfortunately, my bubble burst when the trail headed sharply and directly back down into a sparse, partly burned wooded area. The wonderful view I was looking forward to see was deflated into obstacles of fallen trees along the path and lack of really anything interesting. There were a few rock formations and tall trees to take note of but on a positive side, the trail surface smoothed out nicely and gradually descended into longer zigzagging twists and turns. The descent went quick and only dropped 600 ft (182 m) until it reached Vultee Arch Trail.
Vultee Arch Trail
Briefly speaking with a trail hiker, Bob Moore (training for a Grand Canyon trek), he mentioned Vultee Arch Trail, coming from the Vultee Arch road trailhead, is a very easy and gradual trek to the actual arch.
The final mile of the trek was along Vultee Arch Trail heading directly up to the arch. Fairly easy to get to but with sometimes confusing narrow paths going into multiple directions, but ultimately leading to the same destination… the arch!
The above photo reads, “This plaque is dedicated to the memory of Gerard “Jerry” Vultee pioneer aviation developer, and his wife Sylvia, who lost their lives in the crash of their airplane near this site on 29 JAN. 1938. Erected by the Sedona Westerners and the Vultee Club of Calif. 27 SEPT, 1969
The arch is not as breathtaking as Devil’s Bridge, but I do like that this one is much more exclusive and rarely does anyone make it to this point. To start from the main trailhead requires a 4X4 high clearance vehicle. It is also near the Secret Canyon Trailhead and others.
The arch width is approximately the length of a trekking pole. As you can see by the photo above there is a vertical drop on both side of the arch about 100 ft (30 m) and walking across the bridge is about the same. I would not advise trekking across the top of the arch since the surface is very smooth and rounded. Not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights.
Population of Hikers and Dialogue
During my trek, I ran into only 10 hikers. Out of the 10 hikers, only 4, including myself, finished the entire hike to Vultee Arch. One trekker I met down near the Arch, Chuck, was disturbed that some blogs were stating, “Sterling Pass Trail is an extreme vertical hike,” and it discouraged his wife from attempting it. So he was doing the hike alone then later to inform his wife that it was easier than what had been written.
I met a fun couple taking a break from their young kids to get out into the fresh air and go on two treks in one day. Carrying very little, the steep incline on both sides of the pass did not discourage them one bit, while all the other hikers along the trail gave up half way. One couple made it only a third of the way up before turning around and heading back to the Manzanita Campgrounds across Rt. 89A. The way it seemed, the husband was much more enthusiastic to continue up than his spouse.
Final Thoughts: Challenge Yourself
Sterling Pass is challenging, but not as hard as is written on other blogs. Sure it is steep going up and coming back down, but the distance is fairly short. This trail is a good workout that you really should consider, especially if you’re training for more extreme treks like the Grand Canyon.
The only reason I did not rate Sterling Pass Trail above a 3.7 star rating was for the lack of amazing scenery. There are a couple very nice canyon views, but not eye-popping as some of the other trails in the area. I am not the only one who felt disappointed with Sterling Pass Trail, other hikers were hoping for a more enjoyable experience as well.
View all images of the trail:
View Complete Trekking Analysis
View GPS Map and photo locations:
From Sedona, go on Route 89A to Manzanita Camping Ground. Trailhead is 100 yards (100 meters) on the left. There is very little parking along the main road where the trailhead begins. Arrive earlier as possible.
Map to Sterling Pass Trailhead to Vultee Arch Trail, Sedona, Arizona