They say you can’t go home again. And that’s never more true than in tourist destinations like Sedona, where the landscape shifts with each new promotion by the Visitors Bureau.
Here’s what I wrote nine years ago about a hike in the red rocks:
“It's always a treat coming across chapels in out-of-the-way places. Whether beneath the towering cliffs of Molokai, alongside the Appalachian Trail in the Maine wilderness or looking up at Humphreys Peak north of Flagstaff, they are usually hand-built, cozy affairs designed to nestle into their natural surroundings. Invariably, they are deserted but unlocked, as if beckoning me for a moment of contemplation.
“Then there is the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona. From a distance, it is a stunning architectural achievement, seemingly wedged into a cleft in the red rocks. But close up, it is aswarm with tourists and their cars, betraying the meditative, cliffside setting.
“Unbenownst to most chapel visitors, however, is a side trail from the parking lot that, in less than a minute of hiking, restores natural quiet without losing the views. It's also nearly level for its entire length — about three-quarters of a mile. Chapel visitors who don't take a side hike on the Chapel Trail are missing one of the most delightful walks in all of the Sedona.”
This past Sunday we were back on the Chapel Trail, our first Sedona hike of the winter.
If anything, the chapel is even more crowded than I remembered, although the parking lot attendant did offer us a ride in his golf cart up from the bottom of the hill. (Newly gray hair has its rewards.)
Now, however, the chapel looks down on a gaudy Italianate mansion just across the road – so much for architectural simplicity amid natural grandeur.
The trail itself is still there, but it takes much longer for a hiker to escape the din of the chapel parking lot and the tourists milling about on the ramparts. Contemplative silence apparently begins only inside the chapel doors.
And just as we were escaping into the quiet zone beneath the Twin Spires and their lesser red rock cousins, Madonna and the Praying Nuns, voices starting drifting down from above. Was Madonna trying to tell us something?
A look through the binoculars offered a more prosaic explanation. Some climbers had strung a slackline from one of the Nuns’ noses to the cliff face, and their adrenaline was flowing freely as they lurched across the chasm. Falls were frequent, but their safety harnesses bailed them out, eliciting shouts of encouragement from their companions at either end.
I actually didn’t mind the show or the noise – for about 10 minutes. But since the Chapel Trail is only about three-quarters of a mile long, there was no longer much peace and quiet along its entire length.
In the past, the trail was mainly for chapel visitors getting some fresh air or hikers looking to cut off some elevation gain on the way to Chicken Point instead of taking Little Horse Trail up from the highway about two miles below. But now that the Highway 179 parking lots fill up by 10 a.m. on a weekend, bicyclists were parking along Chapel Road and using it to access the Chapel Trail – one more distraction for those of us with a less mechanized take on wilderness.
And there was more. As we neared the junction with Little Horse, a tourist helicopter swooped low between the crags. And at the top, of course, were the fleets of Pink Jeeps, having arrived at Chicken Point the back way from Morgan Road.
For our part, stopping about 250 yards below Chicken Point was far enough. The views were nearly as good, the Jeeps were out of earshot and the slickrock ravine offered some shelter from the stiff breezes above.
But as we looked out to the west, I remembered the equally stunning views from the Hiline Trail across the highway. No helicopters, slackliners or Pink Jeeps – at least not yet. And it’s so new that it’s not even on the official Forest Service trail map handed out at the visitor center.
I can’t predict what the HiLine will become in nine years. But unless it adds a chapel and an Italian villa, I’m likely to come back a lot more often than I’ll be visiting the Chapel Trail.