Hiking Sedona: Climbing Cathedral Rock Trail

Apple Picking in Oak Glen, California

In the long list of places to hike in Sedona, none is so popular as the Cathedral Rock Trail. This is easily one of the most iconic hikes in the area, a reputation that is well-deserved. Because of its reputation, Cathedral Rock was the first hike we conquered when arriving in Sedona.

Hiking Sedona: Climbing Cathedral Rock Trail

Before we dive in, a quick shout-out to the MVP on this hike: Our headlamps.

When our day hike unexpectedly turned into a night hike, they were the only way we could find our way back to our car. If you don’t carry a headlamp with you when you hike, now is a good time to add it to your list of essential items. We personally use one of the Petzl models.

Alright, onto the hike!

The Trailhead

There are two possible trailheads for this hike and, given the popularity of the trail, you may not have a choice about which to take. The closer of the two is the Cathedral Rock Trailhead, located along the adorably named Back o’ Beyond Road. It’s a small lot, and there is a parking fee, but it’s the way to go if you’re looking for a shorter hike – it’s only 0.3 miles from the lot to the summit.

The second trailhead, which also serves as an overflow lot, is at the start of the Yavapai Vista Trail. Parking here means a much longer hike, almost 4 miles one way. Again, there is a parking fee, and it’s smart to have both cash and a credit card on hand (The machines were being finicky when we went. Some accepted only cash, others only cards.).

In the end, we were glad that we ended up taking the longer trek.  It gave us the opportunity to take in some of the incredible views that only Sedona can provide. Of course, the longer trail is also what left us running behind schedule and hiking in the dark, so plan your time accordingly!Hiking Sedona: Climbing Cathedral Rock Trail

The Trail

The nearly eight miles took us a little over four hours to complete (counting the time spent resting and soaking in the beautiful views).

At first, the longer trail is a bit confusing. I took a snapshot of the trail map with my phone since there were no paper versions available and consulted it several times to make sure we weren’t getting off track. The route to Cathedral Rock involves going from Yavapai Vista Trail to Slim Shady Trail to Templeton Trail, which eventually hooks up with the Cathedral Rock trailhead.

Hiking Sedona: Climbing Cathedral Rock Trail

The bulk of the hike is along Templeton Trail, which is a shared trail with mountain bikers, so keep your eyes open. They move fast! Be ready to step out of the way if a group comes speeding around the corner.

There isn’t too much elevation change at the onset. A lot of little dips and rises, but nothing that is overwhelming or tiring.

Once you meet up with the Cathedral Rock Trail, all bets are off. That last 0.3 miles are the killer, requiring some pretty steep climbing. It’s nothing unmanageable (or technical), but frequent breaks and careful movements are necessary. The sandstone rock here is nicknamed “slickrock” for a reason.

Cathedral Rock Trailhead in Sedona, Arizona

The Vista

Tara and I share a strong belief about hikes that involve a lot of climbing: The view at the top better be worth it.

It was an exhausting trip, with a few moments of anxiety that almost had us turning back., but we made it — and yes, it was completely worth it.

As our reward for 0.3 miles of ascension, Tara and I were treated to sunset in the saddle. There weren’t too many other hikers up there, and we explored the area, taking in breathtaking views and even testing our courage to see how close to the edge we could get.

Hiking Sedona: Climbing Cathedral Rock Trail


I have to say, the pictures here really don’t do it justice. Don’t take my word for it – go and see for yourself. There are some things that just can’t translate into digital form.

Though you can watch our victory celebration:

The Return Trip

Hiking Sedona: Climbing Cathedral Rock Trail

What goes up must come down. The scramble back down Cathedral Rock was, of course, much faster than the trip up. Feeling rejuvenated, the sun setting at our backs, we began the long hike back to the car.

We spent dusk soaking in the last rays of sunlight, picking our way among dried creekbeds, and enjoying the beauty of the desert.

The trail, already sparsely populated before, was essentially empty this time around, and as the sun set we were forced to pull our headlamps out.

Being a desert, the nighttime brought with it much chillier conditions. While we had made the first half of our hike in t-shirts and tank tops, now our jackets came out. The trail was a little more difficult to follow on the way back, too, and several times we wondered if we had gotten turned around and stepped off the trail accidentally.

We did remember to pause and look up, taking in the fabulous blanket of stars that emerged in the sun’s departure. We paused on a rock face to rest, and to breathe in the clean air, pointing out constellations as they emerged.

When our parked car, the last in the lot, finally did emerge from the endless brush, we breathed a sigh of relief, making a beeline for its promised warmth.

The Quick n’ Dirty Version: Preparing to Hike Yavapai Vista and Climb Cathedral Rock

Hiking Sedona: Climbing Cathedral Rock Trail

• Since Cathedral Rock is so popular, odds are you will be near other hikers for the majority of the trip. In fact, in the summer it may be totally congested.

• Deserts still have seasons, and in the winter it gets cold fast in the evenings. On the other hand, the heat can be downright dangerous in the summer. Dress appropriately.

• As with any hike, hydration is key. Do not forget to bring ample water with you.

• Be prepared to be forced into the longer hike. We went during the slow season, and we still had to use the overflow lot. Make sure you have money to pay for parking ($5 as of January 2015).

• If you begin the longer version of the hike in the afternoon, be prepared for being caught in the dark. Bring your headlamp and a jacket.

• Bring a map or take a picture of the trail map so that you know you’re on the right path. On the trip there it isn’t hard – Cathedral Rock itself acts as a giant beacon. The return trip, though, is a bit trickier.

• The trails are well-defined, but not well-marked. Some of them cross dried creek beds. This wasn’t a problem for us, but I imagine it might make things a bit tricky during the rainy season.

• Throw a few snacks in your hiking bag. The uphill section is particularly exhausting, and you’ll want to refuel.

Gear We Recommend

You can’t hike without gear. We recommend a few products in particular, specifically for this Arizona hike. Links are referral links to products we use and love.

Petzl Tikka Headlamp (110 Lumens)
Petzl HeadlampIf you get stuck in the dark (like we did), this is a lifesaver. I don’t go hiking without a headlamp anymore, even if I think I’ll be home well before dark.

I particularly like the Petzl lamp because of how steady the light is. My old headlamp used to fade as the battery died, but this one doesn’t. Click here for more info.


Osprey Day Pack (24L)
Osprey DaypackThis might be a bigger pack than you need (you can fit a LOT into 24 liters), but I like to have the option of more space, even if I don’t use it. If nothing else, it can hold a lot of water, and in the desert water is essential. I also stow some snacks, safety gear, and a jacket in here.

This daypack in particular is my favorite, for two reasons.

1) The netting keeps the heaviest part of the pack off of my back, keeping me cool.

2) There are hip straps. Day packs without hip straps are pure evil.

Ready to try one on for size? Head here to learn more.


Merrell Hiking Boots
Merrell Hiking BootsI got these boots just before our trip to Sedona. I was specifically looking for boots that would do well on slickrock, the type of red, slippery rocks that make up the landscape in this area of Arizona. I was impressed with their performance and how stable I felt, even after hours of walking. Click here to check them out for yourself.


Apple Picking in Oak Glen, California
  • Whoooah, too much hiking for me, but I can totally see how this would be great for you adventure lovers. So glad I can enjoy it from my armchair with you 😀