Welcome to my travel article on hiking the spectacular Cathedral Rock Trail in Sedona, Arizona. I’m excited to share with you my experience on this trek as well as some pieces of advice I wish I had known beforehand.
My name is Darcy McSheffrey (@dmcsheffrey) and I was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada. I work as a registered nurse in a level 2 critical care setting with a background in travel nursing. In 2019, I left my full-time nursing job in Ottawa and moved to Australia to work as a travel nurse – enabling me to continue to work in my profession while fulfilling my passion to travel.
My parents were travelers and introduced my sister and I to backpacking at a young age. Vacations were spent hiking in the Andes, camping in the jungles of the Amazon Rainforest and riding camels in the Sahara Desert. Sounds like a dream come true but honestly I hated it growing up.
There isn’t one trip I can recall where I didn’t break down crying, telling my dad I was never going to travel with him again. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t go on “normal vacations” to the beach or to Walt Disney World.
It wasn’t until my mid-teens that I started to appreciate the experiences my parents were giving me: having the opportunity to experience different cultures, new languages and exotic countries. By my late teens I was fully bitten by the travel bug and I haven’t stopped exploring new places since.
Hiking the Cathedral Rock Trail in Sedona
The pandemic has made it difficult to continue traveling as I would have liked to. Recently, my boyfriend and I wanted to stay close to home but still have a great travel experience. We have always been interested in the US Southwest and thought that September would be the perfect time to explore some of the most stunning national parks that the US has to offer.
We flew to Las Vegas, picked up a campervan and ventured down the meandering highways of Utah and Arizona. Our last stop on this road trip was Cathedral Rock in Sedona. We definitely saved the best for last. I had seen many pictures of this unique rock formation through my research that made this hike one I looked forward to the most out of the whole trip.
I couldn’t get over how incredible it was to see and hike this trail in person. I think I stopped every two minutes to take a photo. Starting at the parking lot, we headed out on the trail at around 5pm – with plenty of water in our packs even though the trail was only two miles from start to finish. Our goal: to see sunset on the rock formations and to beat the daytime heat.
We understood this was a popular hike but we were not prepared for the number of hikers we encountered on the trail. We had been advised to start this hike at sunrise, to avoid the crowds, but I am grateful we didn’t act on that advice – this hike at sunset turned out to be breathtaking – with the sun igniting the spectacular fiery orange and red hues of the rocks.
When we arrived at the trailhead both parking lots were completely full. The nearby road is in a residential area and so it doesn’t allow for street parking. Luckily, we looped around the parking lots in time to see someone vacating their coveted spot. I recommend arriving early to secure a spot!
It took us approximately an hour to hike to the top of the trail – it would have taken less time but I couldn’t help taking many photos along the way. Plan for extra time to enjoy the view at the top and half an hour to go back. The trail itself is easy to find, located right at the end of the first parking lot.
How Hard is the Cathedral Rock Trail?
Cathedral Rock Trail is rated hard on most hiking apps. The terrain was fairly steep with a few spots where both hands were required to complete the climb. Having spent part of our summer hiking in British Columbia, my partner and I found it fairly straightforward with little technical challenge.
An inexperienced hiker may find this trail more physically demanding. That being said, there were a multitude of people from all age groups and fitness levels on the trail. Just ensure you bring a lot of water! The weather was hot and dry with temperatures reaching well into the 100’s.
The heat makes the hike more challenging and if you are not accustomed to such a climate, you may experience a bit of heat exhaustion (as I did). The final steps as you summit the rock are magical. Cathedral Rock has one of the most epic sunset views I have seen. I couldn’t help being awed!
Highlights of the Cathedral Rock Trail
Make sure to just sit at the top and take in the scenery – it’s nothing short of incredible. The best spot to take some great shots was to the far right (north part) where you can stand on the edge of the cliff and face the Cathedral Rock pillars. If you return to the trailhead and then venture off to the left you can find a hidden trail that not many people know about.
This trail brings you up in-between the pillars themselves. I would suggest bringing a wider lens if you want photos. We had a 24-70mm and ended up having to take photos with our phones in order to capture everything.
We started our descent at 7pm after sunset. It gets dark quickly, making the trail difficult to see. The lights on our phones proved helpful but weren’t ideal. I recommend bringing a headlight or flashlight. Once we were at the bottom, we were surprised by the glow around Cathedral Rock surrounded by stars. I instantly grabbed my tripod and snapped some shots!
Need to Know Before you Go
When hiking the Cathedral Rock Trail remember to do so in an eco-friendly fashion so we can protect the trail and all of its life. It’s crucial to stay on the marked path in order to prevent damage to the vegetation surrounding the trail. As well, please make sure to bring all of your garbage back down with you. This helps to ensure the hike is preserved in its most natural state.
We stayed at Rancho Sedona RV Park and loved our stay there. It’s a great location if you have an RV or campervan. The facilities were clean, the Wi-Fi free and we had a laundry mat to boot. Rancho Park is approximately a 5-minute drive from town and is close to all of the best hiking trails.
Other great nearby hikes are Devils Bridge and Bell Rock. We hiked Devils Bridge to the summit before sunrise and had the whole place to ourselves. We descended at 7am and were met with hordes of hikers starting the trail. Bell Rock can be done any time, also it would be a great sunset hike.
All in all, the Cathedral Rock Trail was an incredible end to our trip and it’s definitely a top recommendation. Just remember to stay hydrated and keep your camera in easy reach to take some amazing photos.