“This here…”, he said pointing to my map sprawled across the table. “..This here is the sink hole, Devil’s Kitchen. We just came back from there. Even if you don’t do the trail, it’s worth checking out….only a hundred yards or so up from the trailhead.”
Devil’s Kitchen is the ominous name given to the only sink hole in the Sedona area. It sits right at the base of a small peak, known as The Sphinx, that marks the beginning of Soldier Pass Trail. I had stopped in to what has become my regular pre-hike stop to seek trail suggestions and get updates on road and trail conditions around Sedona. The Hike House has only been around about a year and half, but seems to have a very passionate, knowledgeable and helpful staff. I’ve stopped in here before every hike in this area since my first hike up Mund’s Wagon Trail. As I was reviewing trail suggestions, an older couple walked in who had just returned from hiking Soldier Pass that morning and were more than happy to offer their vote for the trail.
“It’s really something to see…”, the older gentleman went on about the sink hole. “…all the rock just lying there where it collapsed probably thousands of years ago. Worth a look.”
So, with multiple endorsements for Soldier Pass and an opportunity to make it a more substantial hike by combining the entirety of the Brin’s Mesa Trail, I folded up my trusty map and headed out. Easily enough, the parking lot and trailhead for Soldier Pass Trail (and several connected trails) is just up Soldier Pass Road off of the main drag heading west from Sedona. A short drive through a small subdivision delivers you to a modest, gated parking area that defines the trailhead to Soldier Pass. It’s a well maintained dirt parking area with defined parking stalls, signs and maps but I can see how it’s dozen or so vehicle capacity would be grossly inadequate during peak season. From what I’ve heard, this place is literally crawling with tourists hiking and biking the trails during the peak season.
There were a handful of cars in the parking lot when I arrived. Mid-morning, mid-week, off-season I didn’t expect to see a lot of people out but I knew I wasn’t going to be completely alone on the trail. The morning was a beautiful 67 degrees when I hopped out of the truck and packed a few essentials, and non-essentials, into my new Osprey Exos34 (yes, I am testing out a new pack and so far loving it). I slung the new pack over my shoulders and took a few minutes to adjust it properly for it’s maiden voyage then headed out. Just as you get started there is a plaque on a boulder stating the trail was dedicated in 1995. The trail’s construction, signage, and markers were apparently a cooperative effort between the Friends of the Forest and the Famous Red Rock Jeep Tours. A short walk down the well maintained trail quickly brings you face to face with the Devil’s Kitchen. I really wished I’d been properly equipped with a good wide-angle lens in order to capture the gaping hole properly. Aside from the hole itself, the most significant feature is a huge triangular-shaped slab of stone that collapsed in one massive chunk around 1970 and is often referred to as The Grand Piano. Contrary to the dramatic “…all the rock just lying there where it collapsed probably thousands of years ago” promise, reports are that the sink hole collapsed sometime in the 1880′s.
I spent a few short minutes trying desperately to capture the sink hole properly with my insufficient equipment before giving up and moving on to Soldier Pass Trail. In the 1860′s and 70′s, General Crook and his men would make camp along this trail down in the wash. They would use the area as a resting point to hunt and fish on their way up from Fort Verde (now Camp Verde) and called the area Camp Garden. General Crook used an existing Apache trail leading up over the pass to raid the Apache food stores in an effort to roost them out of the area and coax them into moving to the Reservation. In later years, Soldier’s Pass would be used by local ranchers to move their cattle out of the canyon and up to cooler elevations during the warmer months.
I plodded along the trail happily soaking up the late morning sun and enjoying being on the trail. I walked right past where the Seven Sacred Pools are supposed to be…mainly because I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for and partly because there is no water this time of year. So the Seven Sacred Pools are more like the Seven Sacred Dimples in the sandstone and were thus, missed. There is a point about a half mile or so in where the trail seems to split. One trail clearly heading in toward the canyon and the other trail heading up. As I walked along Soldier’s Pass, higher along the trail I remember looking east toward several significant natural arches in the cliff-side and thinking, “damn, I wish I could get over there and check those out.” Turns out, you can! The trail I saw that seemed to lead into the canyon is a short hike to the arches/caves in the side of the cliff below Brin’s Mesa. I WILL have to go back to check those out.
Soldier Pass is a relatively easy trail, the beginning of the trail is not much more than a pleasant walk in scenic country. But the trail does reach a point where you are climbing pretty steadily to traverse the pass. It’s at this point where the views become impressive. Looking back the way you came, the view opens into a wide panorama of the Sedona Valley. You get a full view down the valley into Oak Creek Canyon, across the airport plateau, and beyond. There are also a ton of great spots to stop and have lunch, rest, enjoy the view and snap off a few pictures. However, I imagine this area is uncomfortably crowded in the peak tourist season and I wouldn’t stop here.
Once up and over the pass it’s a short slightly downhill walk to the intersection with the Brin’s Mesa Trail. This trail climbs from FR152 on the west end up the mesa and around the ridge the that dominates the east side of Soldier Wash. Soldier Pass Trail hits Brin’s Mesa Trail just about in the middle. Heading right, takes you up across the mesa and down Mormon Canyon to Jordan/Cibola Trails where you can cut back to the Soldier Pass trailhead and parking area. Heading left will take you out to FR152 and deeper into the Wilderness area. I chose to add the miles and explore Brin’s Mesa Trail both directions, taking it out toward FR152 first and then returning back the same way past Soldier Pass and up the mesa. Brin’s Mesa trail has a different character to the west, down the hill. It repeatedly crosses a small tributary of Dry Creek and during the wet season would probably be a lot of fun. As it is, the trail is very nice. You spend most of your time in the trees, a rarity for most of Arizona, and the ground ranges from slightly rocky to soft sand. This was an easy, quiet, pleasant hike and I found myself lost in my own thoughts, ambling freely down the trail simply enjoying the solitude. Before I knew it I had reached FR152 and the end of the trail. I unstrapped the pack, dug out a few snacks and plopped down on a slab of red sandstone for a quick break. After helping a few lost hikers and bikers who weren’t quite sure where they were, I pulled my pack back on and headed up the trail.
In no time at all, it seemed, I was back at the intersection of Brin’s Mesa and Soldier Pass. Someone had scrawled arrows in the loose dirt of the trail pointing in the direction of Soldier Pass. Apparently, it easy to miss your turn if you are planning on heading the opposite way I went and down Soldier’s Pass. The sign at this connection does show arrows for following both trails, so just pay attention to the signs and it shouldn’t be a problem. I did run in to a few folks all the way at the far end of Brin’s Mesa Trail who were wondering how they missed Soldier Pass.
Getting higher up on to the Mesa you can see the remnants of trees burned out in the fire on Wilson Mountain in 2006. Much of the undergrowth and many of the trees have started to come back, but there is still a great deal of dead sticks standing along the foothills of the mountain. The dead trees I encountered along Brin’s Mesa are presumably casualties of the same 2006 fire. The views from the mesa are fantastic and I found a perfect little knoll to the west of the trail that overlooks Soldier Wash Canyon to stop for a little mid-hike yoga practice. This is the first time I have actually stopped mid-hike for yoga practice but the location was perfect and I had brought along my new light-weight Manduka travel mat just for this purpose. The setting was perfect for it, I couldn’t pass it up. I also found it to be incredibly effective for renewing my energy for the hike. After my short break, I continued my hike across the mesa. As the trail reaches the edge of the mesa, before plunging into Mormon Canyon, the view down the valley opens up again. As before at Soldier Pass, this is the photographer’s vantage point. Take time here to snap off a few impressive shots.
The climb descending down into Mormon Canyon was similar to Soldier Pass, it was a quick descent that mellowed out and turned into an easy path. It quickly crawled through the trees offering glimpses of Cibola Rock and Steamboat Rock, the two dominant rock formations above this the trail. It connects to Cibola Trail just before the Jordan Trail Parking lot. This parking lot is paved and much larger than the Soldier Pass parking lot with bathrooms. If the Soldier Pass lot is full, one could easily park here and traverse Cibola trail before heading up Soldier Pass.
Cibola trail is a nice short connector trail that cuts across a low pass to join Jordan Trail which I took back to the trailhead at Soldier Pass. It starts off easy enough but has a bit of a climb in the middle to get over the pass. It’s not difficult, nor long but it was described by an older lady I encountered on the trail as “a strenuous hike”, so I guess it’s all relative. I ended the hike in great spirits, happy to have spent the afternoon on the trail and looking forward to a beautiful Nut Brown Ale from Oak Creek Brewery. The perfect way to end a day of hiking in Sedona.
Soldier Pass to Brin’s Mesa – Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness.
Some trailhead parking. From Sedona take Highway 89A west to Soldier Pass Road. There is a small, gated parking area and a Red Rock Pass purchase booth at the trailhead. The parking area closes at 6PM.
Trail Length: 8.8 mile round-trip (as described here)
Elevation Gain: 700 feet
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Year-round but very crowded during peak season.