Many times I have planned to run up Sterling Pass to Vultee Arch, arguably the toughest two miles in Sedona, and many times I have failed.
I originally attempted this 5-mile out-and-back slog that starts at Highway 89A and leads toward a really cool natural red-rock arch in late November, a few days after that first big snow storm. Sedona, at a lower elevation, was spared – or so I thought. I got about a tenth of a mile on the extreme uphill that begins the course, and the trail became a skating rink. On a route this steep and this technical, adding ice to the mix is asking for disaster. So, I turned around.
A month or so later, I tried again. This time, I never even got to the trailhead. It was flash floods in Oak Creek Canyon that nixed the effort. Then, in early March, when the weather cooperated and the trail was presumably dry, I wanted to give it another go. But the COVID-19 pandemic was just ramping up in the state, and it seemed every Sedona resident was sending me flaming emails for writing about other trails in town and “encouraging outsiders to come here and spread the virus.”
So, OK, I laid off Sedona for a few months.
I can’t say that I was too heartbroken not to have checked off Sterling Pass from my trails list. I’d heard great things about it, and scary things, too. Vultee Arch, the ultimate destination, is tres cool and extremely Instagram-worthy for those who partake in social-media narcissism. But the trail leading up and down and up again to get to that spot is boulder-strewn, hands-on-knees steep and occasionally traverses a knife-edge singletrack with steep drop-offs.
How steep, you ask? Is this wimp exaggerating again?
Try an elevation gain of 906 feet in the first mile alone. All told, you gain 2,259 feet in about five miles and, nearly as jarring on one’s joints, you lose about the same amount on the downhill. At times, it seems you do more rock climbing than running or hiking on this route — but, hey, it’s good cross-training, right?
Then, there’s the vegetation to deal with. Lush is one adjective to use. Another is overgrown. In other words, the foliage nearly envelops the trail at several points on the extreme downhill in miles two and three. You never lose sight of the trail, but you also never lose touch with the branches and leaves that scrape against your arms and legs. When not fending off rogue branches, you are scrambling over or ducking under felled ponderosa pines every half-mile or so.
Let me pause here a moment. I realize that, so far, I haven’t made this trail too attractive to the reader. Which is a shame, because I highly recommend taking on this challenge.
Really, I do.
First, the payoff of seeing, and walking the plank of, Vultee Arch is totally worth it. It just sort of appears on the horizon, this natural red-rock bridge does, after you turn a corner after needing a machete to see five feet in front of you. Magical, actually. And once you get closer and scramble up the scree and boulders to get to the four-foot wide ledge (plenty of room to walk without fear of falling), you are afforded a gorgeous view of the pines and junipers and carpet of manzanita below and, in the distance, those stark red-rock cliffs so icons in Sedona.
One thing you realize doing Sterling Pass to Vultee Arch is that not every trail in Sedona is arid, red-rock with some cacti scattered around. Sterling Pass is nothing if not lush (that word again) and shaded. If you don’t mind getting your arms and legs scraped, you sure get up-close to nature. If going on hikes is form of therapy, “forest bathing,” as the Japanese call it, then the foliage encountered here is like a loofah scrubbing you along the way.
Another reason to do Sterling Pass: No people. There’s a good chance you won’t encounter a soul, especially if you start from Highway 89A (there’s a pullout around Milepost 380 that maybe can fit two cars). On the mid-June morning I finally made it to Sterling Pass, I was a tad worried about finding solitude (aka, social distancing) because on the drive in you could see campgrounds packed and the entrances to the West Fork Trail and Slide Rock State Park already full and bustling with activity.
No such problem at Sterling Pass. Maybe the guidebooks’ designation of the trail as “difficult” or “strenuous” – the dreaded black diamond icon -- scares off the trail dilettantes. Maybe, for some, it’s just too much work to get to the payoff.
(Brief digression: Yes, I know there is another way to reach Vultee Arch. You can drive on Forest Road 152 west of Sedona and take the relatively easy Vultee Trail for 4.5 miles. There are two problems with that, though: FR 152 is rutty and suitable only for high-clearance vehicles; there’s more of a challenge setting off from Oak Creek Canyon and you’ll have a good tale to tell.)
Oh, and yet another reason to do it: history lurks here.
The arch is named for early aircraft designer and aviator Gerard Vultee. In 1938, he and his wife Sylvia were flying back to their California home from Winslow when they got caught in a blinding snowstorm. The plane crashed into the canyon about a mile north of the arch. Sterling Canyon, itself, is named for Charles Sterling, reputedly a counterfeiter and cattle rustler who hid out from the law in the lush canyon.
Today, Sterling Pass remains a good place to hide away from the world for a couple of hours. This trail definitely worth the wait.
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