PHOENIX — Visitors and locals wanting to hike two of Sedona’s most popular trails might not be able to park near trailheads come spring 2022.
The idea is to help reduce a problem that has plagued the area for years -- ongoing complaints about congestion, traffic, and overflow parking frustrations.
Under a proposal by the Red Rock Ranger District of the Coconino National Forest, parking lots at Cathedral Rock and Soldier Pass trailheads could close to the public at peak times year-round to accommodate a new shuttle service that would run every 15 to 45 minutes. The hope is to make the experience better for visitors and locals as popular trailheads often surge past parking capacity.
Mark Goshorn of the Red Rock Ranger District is overseeing the shuttle proposal. He says the project is about more than convenience and public safety concerns. It’s also about preservation.
Pictures taken along the road to access the Cathedral Rock Trailhead show visitors risk parking in ditches and illegally parking along the side of the road, making it tricky for other cars to pass. Parts of the road to get to the Cathedral Rock parking lots are lined with wire to discourage people from doing that.
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“We are still on the northern Sonoran Desert, so it’s a very fragile environment as far as rehabilitation from damage and car tracks and things like that,” Goshorn said. “And for people who are parking within neighborhoods, it’s disrupting the quality of life for the citizens that live there.”
Video from the parking area by the popular Devil’s Bridge Trail shows hundreds of cars parked illegally on the side of Dry Creek Road, making conditions dangerous for pedestrians.
Goshorn said while visitors are trying to find a parking spot, they’re usually distracted by the scenery and might not see somebody on foot until it’s too late.
There are only 40 spots available at Dry Creek, not including spaces for oversized vehicles, and Goshorn said the lot is constantly full. Devil’s Bridge is another popular trailhead that the shuttle would service, but the parking lot would not close.
Sedona’s explosion in popularity and visitors over the last decade has brought quite a few growing pains.
According to the Sedona Chamber of Commerce, the city saw a 5% increase in visitors in 2020. That adds up to a total of 3.4 million visitors.
While overnight visitation decreased, daytime trip volume is estimated to have increased by 10% due to COVID-19 and Arizona residents wanting to take short getaway trips to Sedona.
Goshorn says Cathedral Rock is extremely popular for a variety of reasons. A juncture for other trails and a flat spot for people to meditate or do yoga, it’s the second most-photographed spot in Arizona besides the Grand Canyon.
There are a total of 41 parking spaces between two parking lots. The City of Sedona manages a free lot while the Coconino National Forest handles the pay lot.
The parking closure for Cathedral Rock is supposed to be in effect only during peak times and while the shuttle is in operation. That would be Thursday through Sunday, 8 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
The shuttle is a hybrid bus that can hold about 20 passengers. The design has been selected and there are renderings, but the logistics are still under discussion.
There is nothing like the proposed shuttle service in operation right now, which means options to get to the trailheads are limited.
“For whatever reason, Sedona doesn’t really have a presence for rideshare, for Uber or Lyft,” Goshorn said while talking about alternatives for fixing the parking issues.
Some Sedona locals are skeptical that visitors will use the shuttle.
“I think it would be a good idea if people will use it because that would take a lot of traffic away from the parking lots,” Sedona resident John Baker said. “People like to drive their cars and stay in their cars, and I think there might be an issue with them wanting to use (other) transportation to get to their trailheads.”
Baker has seen parking issues first-hand. He lives near a trailhead that’s not in the shuttle proposal and said people park in his neighborhood all the time.
“A lot of times, the trailhead parking lots get full. People park on the street, and it’s just been a disaster the last couple of years,” he said. “That’s why I’m here in the morning because traffic is horrendous any time after noon here.”
Some visitors like the idea of a hybrid shuttle service, too.
Conchita Taitano, who was visiting from Guam, was out and about early enough to find a parking spot with her friends at Cathedral Rock Trail.
“Absolutely, I would take the shuttle service primarily for conservation reasons and convenience,” Titano said. “As a tourist, you cut the amount of time, No. 1 trying to find the place, and No. 2, trying to find a parking stall.”
By 7 a.m. on a recent Friday, there was only one parking spot left at the City of Sedona’s parking lot at Cathedral Rock.
Many cars pulling in after 7 a.m. had to make U-turns or sat idling for several minutes while waiting patiently for another hiker to get in their car and leave.
Where the shuttle will pick people up, the amount of time it’ll take to travel to the trailhead, and how much passengers might have to pay to use the City of Sedona shuttle service are details that are still being worked out.
The total operational costs remain a question mark, too.
The shuttle proposal also includes three other trails: Dry Creek (Devil’s Bridge), Little Horse, and Mescal. The parking lots near those three trailheads won’t close, though. Instead, visitor parking will be allowed while the shuttle is in service.
Goshorn said the shuttle idea was proposed in 2016, but failed for a variety of reasons.