Sedona’s Sterling Pass Trail

Dwarf-canyon maple trees add color to the trail in the fall.

Changing leaves and a decidedly supernatural vibe make this the ideal autumn hike.



Perhaps we’ve watched too many episodes of Finding Bigfoot, but if sasquatch was going to winter in Sedona, there’s no doubt he’d feel at home in the unnamed drainage surrounding Sterling Pass Trail. The area has a haunted vibe, putting your senses on high alert as soon as the sounds of SR 89A fade into the background. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

And here’s another warning: You will be huffing and puffing your way up Sterling Pass Trail from the moment you step off the highway and onto the dirt trail. The trail climbs relentlessly until it reaches Sterling Pass, 1.17 miles from the trailhead. But if you’re up for some exercise (and perhaps a bigfoot sighting), this is one of the best places to spot colorful fall foliage. You won’t have to fight hoards of people to see it, either.

The trail begins on the side of the road, about 6 miles north of Uptown in Oak Creek Canyon. It leads hikers through a conifer forest of towering ponderosa pines and dwarf-canyon maples. It’s the latter that provide glorious shades of orange and red in the fall. We’ve hiked this trail as late as Thanksgiving and have still been surrounded by abundant color, especially at Sterling Pass, which sits at an elevation of approximately 6,000 feet. At the beginning of the hike, you will cross a dry streambed twice before the sounds of the highway disappear. Sandstone monoliths rise up around you, and the area is littered with giant boulders, felled trees and tall grasses.

After hiking 0.96 mile, you’ll reach an area we call the “false pass.” A notch in the rocks resembles a mountain pass and provides a great spot for sitting down and catching your breath. The views of Oak Creek Canyon from this location are tremendous. The actual pass is another 0.2 mile ahead, and the climb gets even steeper. Watch out for tarantulas, even in the cooler months. The pass offers several rocks for taking another break or enjoying a picnic, but trees obscure the views here. From the pass, the trail descends into Sterling Canyon and meets up with the Vultee Arch Trail. Our lungs and legs had enough climbing, so we chose to end our hike at the pass, which is named for a local settler. Watch your footing on the way down – and keep an eye out for sasquatch.

MORE SEDONA HIKES: Hike of the Month archive, 10 favorite hikes, Sedona day hikes, Mt. Humphreys


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