I am forcing myself to get outdoors.
This summer’s heat in Phoenix has been miserable for me. I don’t know why it feels so much more oppressive and suffocating than summers past, but it does. More than I have in a long time, I find myself hiding inside and making excuses. I don’t like excuses.
After a great week in Pennsylvania, where the weather was significantly better, I felt energized…recharged. I also returned to Phoenix to find the weather was a little more reasonable and a storm system was providing some much needed cloud cover in the mornings. So, for the first time this summer, I had a solid week of outdoors activity and I didn’t want it to stop. So as the heat rose, I planned to head up north and get some trail time in around my new favorite stomping grounds…Sedona.
Originally, I was looking for a nice long canyon hike that would allow me to amble along in the shade of the high red-rock walls. I day-dreamed of running along a dusty canyon trail through Cottonwoods, Junipers and Pine trees. This, unfortunately, would continue to be a dream as I did my pre-trip research and found that afternoon thunderstorms were forecast for the weekend in Sedona. Monsoon season thunderstorms in Arizona mean flash floods and a secluded canyon is not where you want to be. So, as often happens…change of plan.
I browsed my Sedona Trail Map and found a few interesting options that seemed far enough off the beaten path to offer some solitude. Early Sunday morning, I got myself packed and headed north out of town. Sunday was also National Hammock Day, so part of my goal for the day was to find a good place to hang my ENO and soak in some classic Sedona views.
In Sedona, I made my requisite stop at The Hike House to review trail options and take a look at their gear selection. Deb met me at the door and ushered me in to show off some of the new gear and chat. Then we looked over the map and she agreed that it would be a bad time to do any canyon hiking. In lieu of a canyon hike I wanted to summit something. Wilson Mountain was out of the question because it would get hit the hardest by any lightning and monsoon rains. I asked about a small, strenuous hike on the west end of town that climbed up into the southwestern corner of the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness.
Bear Mountain summit trail is only a 5 mile hike round-trip. That would make it a much shorter distance than I wanted to hike but with nearly 2,000 ft of elevation gain in the 2.5 miles to the summit, it is strenuous. Knowing it was a summit hike and storms were due to make their way in, I grabbed a cookie (thanks, Deb!) and headed toward the trailhead.
There were a few cars parked at the lot that serves as the trailhead for both Bear Mountain and the much shorter Doe Mountain hike. There is a decent sized parking lot and restrooms here. There is also an automated pay-station for the Red Rock Day passes (I don’t think the passes are required anymore, but for $5 it was better to have it and not need it).
This mountain looks much different on paper than it does in person. On paper, there are a couple of obvious climbs but I was not expecting the exciting geological adventure this mountain offers. The trail starts across the road from the parking lot in a relatively flat, cactus laden stretch of iconic red soil split by ribbons of deeply eroded washes. It climbs slowly straight to the base of the mountain comprised of heavily eroded cliffs of Schnebly Hill Sandstone. A steep 400 ft climb brings me to a distinct ledge of Apache Limestone that has resisted erosion enough to create a relatively level path along the wall of the cliffs above.
It’s Sedona, so I’m already impressed by the views and stopping to take pictures. The rocky trail is more narrow and overgrown through this section and I am careful to watch for the cairns as I find myself nearly following false trails here and there. This shelf ends at a narrow cut in the mountain side where the trail begins another steep climb. I’m excited to see a trail becoming more technical and interesting. As I hoist myself up out of the ravine and on to the first plateau, I’ve left the cactus behind. Though there are still Agave, the low-land cactus has been replaced with Manzanita…and lots of it.
The views on this first plateau are impressive, but I know I’ve barely started my climb. I was anxious to see more. This is the first place I run in to fellow hikers on their way back down. A hundred yards or so later I run in to another couple resting further up the trail. The deck at this section of Bear Mountain is a transition from the Schnebly Hill Sandstone to the very orange Coconino Sandstone. The scrubby Manzanita is thick across this deck, but still relatively treeless. Following the cairns carefully, the trail climbs another 500ft or so through a maze of rock and brush across a steeply inclined deck. The rock gets lighter as you climb eventually revealing a twisted section of sandstone, bleached almost white, turned on it’s side and eroded to reveal etched swirls and striations unlike anything else I’ve seen in Sedona.
This section of the mountain becomes very narrow with sheer cliffs falling into twisted red canyons below on either side. You gotta follow the trail on the 3D map below to get a good feel for this narrow bridge of rock. It really was amazing to walk a few feet in either direction and be staring down into steep canyons, each with very unique character.
This is also where the trees start to occur. I found myself scouting for a place to hang the hammock on the return hike. It was a meager selection at first, with solitary trees perched here and there. After more climbing, however, the trees became a little thicker and stronger and options were starting to present themselves.
There is a plateau that sort of presents itself as a false-peak. In fact, when I got the plateau there were a couple of guys there resting and they announced “you made it!” as if this was the summit and end of the trail. Clearly, with mountain still above me and my GPS reading that I still had a quarter mile left to go, they were mistaken. I spent a few minutes taking pictures and soaking in the view from the false-summit but I wanted the top and time was running short.
This entire time I’d been hiking and watching the clouds far up to the north. An innocent line of clouds that morning had slowly grown to a picturesque desert sky and then transformed into a black, shadowy mass pulsing with flashes of light and emitting a menacing growl from time to time just to remind me it was coming. I picked up the pace and made for the summit. The last push to the top is very different than the rest of the trail. As I’ve seen in a lot of summit hikes, part of the trail is less traveled, rougher and the cairns are more important to keep on the right path. The rock here is more broken and loose and the vegetation changes again becoming more scrubby with grasses and Yucca.
The top is marked with a small pile of rock and a small American Flag. I paused at the top looking down across the flat, open valley to the southwest. I stood on a fractured and pitted ledge of stark white Kaibab Limestone at the precipice of a great canyon and watched two hawks chase each other and grapple in the sky below me. Then as the thunder reminded me of my time frame, I grabbed a few shots of the lone flag at the summit and moved on.
One the way down I found a great spot to hang the hammock overlooking Fay Canyon where I could watch the storm roll in over Wilson Mountain toward Sedona. I was strapped between two pine trees at a ledge just 20ft or so off the trail and watched a couple of hikers pass below me. I had a little snack and some water while I rested and watched the clouds move across the horizon, grumbling deeply as it moved, white lightning splitting the sky.
Before too long, I packed up my stuff and returned to my march down the mountain. I picked up the pace, jogging through the flat parts and scrambling through the more technical sections. Before I knew it was back to the narrow climb to the main deck, quickly working my way down I was back to the foot of the mountain in no time and headed to the truck just as the first drops of rain were starting to fall.
I drove back into Sedona through intermittent rain. I stopped in to the Hike House again to say goodbye and grabbed a smoothie for the ride home since I wasn’t really feeling up to a full dinner.
Bear Mountain really is a great summit hike for Sedona. It is a very unique experience in place where unique experiences abound. I think next time I will want to hike Fey Canyon and Boynton Canyon, the two dramatic canyons on the north side of Bear Mountain that offered such amazing views.
Bear Mountain – Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness.
Plenty of trailhead parking. From Sedona take Highway 89A west to Dry Creek Road. Follow until it dead-ends and make a left on to Boynton Pass Road toward Boynton Canyon. Another left at the next intersection will take you to the trailheads for Boynton Canyon, Fey Canyon then Bear Mountain and Doe Mountain. There is a small parking area, bathrooms and a Red Rock Pass purchase booth at the trailhead.
Trail Length: 5 mile round-trip (as described here)
Elevation Gain: 1,800 feet
Difficulty: moderate to strenuous
Open: Year-round but not suggested during winter when snow is expected.