Autumn in Arizona with its bright sunny days and near perfect day time temperatures is unquestionably the best time of the year to get out, enjoy nature and the outdoors and also experience the state’s own beautiful fall foliage season. Located up in the higher elevations of the state of Arizona just a few hours from Phoenix, you will find that Arizona too has much to offer when it comes to fall color and there is no place more world renown for all its mystical beauty and breathtaking red rock mountain scenery than Sedona. So if you’re looking to get out into nature and the outdoors, and would like a beautiful fall foliage hike, that’s moderately strenuous, off the beaten path and you’re up to experiencing a spectacular adventure climbing to the top of a colossal natural arch, then I highly recommend checking out the Sterling Pass to the Vultee Arch Hike, in the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness, Sedona, Arizona.
It was early on a clear, crisp, mid-October Saturday morning that I met up with the Arizona Desert Hikers, a local Phoenix hiking group led by Jim Bernardi, and after all members had arrived, we left the north Phoenix meet up location, heading north on Highway I-17, then exited the freeway on State Route 179A and arrived in Sedona by 8 am. Then as we continued to head north into Sedona on State Route 179A, we arrived at the intersection for State Route 89A and made a right and heading north towards Oak Creek Canyon.
It was roughly about 6.9 miles later on the left had side and just 500 feet south of the Red Rock Lodge that we finally arrived at the Sterling Pass Trailhead adjacent to the Manzanita Campground and parked in the parking area located down along the side of the road. We were aware that the Sterling Pass Trailhead was not easy to locate from the road and we found that to be quite accurate. It’s very easy to miss, and we did too, as the actual sign itself is small and not easily visible while driving, so you need to take it slow. We also discovered that the parking area located several hundred yards down and off to the right side of the road was very limited. (Note that a $5 Red Rock Day Use Pass is required) However, on this morning there was just enough space to accommodate all of our vehicles and by 8:30 am we had all arrived, got packed up and were ready to begin our day’s hiking adventure on the Sterling Pass Trail.
Starting out from the trailhead across the road, at an approximate elevation of 4863 feet, the well maintained, and easy to follow, out and back, Sterling Pass Trail, immediately begins steadily switch backing and steeply ascending in elevation. Professional travel writer, Robert Stieve, from Arizona Highways Magazine, describes the hike quite accurately in his quote, “you’re either going up or you’re going down on the Sterling Pass Trail. There is no in-between. No middle ground, plateaus, no real respites.” However, as the journey continued heading steeply up in elevation, through thick, dense forest and trees, filled with bright and very colorful foliage, the expansive scenery and mountain views along the way of the vermilion and buff colored rock formations of the remote Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness were absolutely gorgeous and breathtaking!
After reaching the Sterling Pass saddle about an hour later, and taking a much needed short break, the beautiful journey continued on the Sterling Pass Trail which now opened up to even more gorgeous and breathtaking scenery as we immediately began to switchback and steeply descend back down in elevation through more thick, dense, brightly colored forest and trees, down into Sterling Canyon. Wow, what an incredible hike it had been so far and an excellent fitness workout to on this surprisingly quiet, remote, much less traveled, yet very scenic Sedona hiking adventure!
Approximately about two hours later, after a very exhilarating and zig zagging journey back down again in elevation that we finally came to the Vultee Arch Trail where we swung a right. It was here at the junction of the Sterling Pass Trail and the Vultee Arch Trail that we caught our first glimpse of the infamous Vultee Arch! How amazing it was, even from this way far out distance too. The Vultee Arch, was historically named for very early aviation pioneer whose aircraft crashed nearby. You can view the commemorative bronze plaque that was laid in honor of Gerard Vultee and his wife, Sylvia Vultee who both courageously lost their lives in January 29th, 1938.
After trekking just a short ways further on the Vultee Arch Trail, approximately 3.5 miles from where we started, it was by 10:30am that we had finally arrived at the Vultee Arch and came upon an open plateau area with expansive views not only of the arch but also of the entire surrounding canyon area that were beautiful! It was here from this wide open plateau located much closer up, that the view of this gigantic, very colossal, natural arch, was simply incredible and magnificent! We stopped there for just a few short minutes to get some really great shots. However, this amazing adventure wasn’t over just yet. From here, we located a small use trail and bush wacked and climbed our way straight up to the top of the Vultee Arch and what an exciting thrill it was too! Absolutely incredible and amazing! Once at the top, one by one, we each took our turn walking out to the middle of the arch where our friends waiting back down at the plateau area captured our pictures. My knees were literally shaking and I was terrified as I was out there shooting video of the gorgeous, breathtaking views from the top of the arch. What a great hike and a thrilling, spectacular adventure!
It was by 11:30am and about an hour later that we regrettably decided it was time to start heading back. So we gathered up our gear and our packs and returning the same we had originally came, we made it back to the Sterling Pass Trailhead again by 1:30pm which according to our GPS was a total round trip hiking distance of 7.68 miles with an elevation gain of 1041 feet, and a total hiking time of 5.0 hours.
In all, it was a great hike and thrilling, spectacular adventure and a really enjoyable day with the wonderful people and friends of the Arizona Desert Hikers. So if you’re up for an excellent, breathtaking fall foliage hike, and an exciting, unforgettable adventure to the top of a colossal natural arch, then be sure you check out the Sterling Pass to the Vultee Arch Hike, in the Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness, Sedona, Arizona.