Bear Mountain – Sedona, Arizona…

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.

driving up 179

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.

Bear Mountain as seen from 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).

Cactus at the start of the trailThis 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.The first dramatic views from Bear Mountain

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.

rocky trail to scramble to the main deckThe 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.

CLOUDS!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.

Love the flag in the wind and the clouds gathering above...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.

watching the storm come in from my hammock

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.

View Bear Mountain by wildernessdave on Breadcrumbs

 

Soldier Pass and Brin’s Mesa Trails- Sedona, Arizona

Soldier Pass Sedona

“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.

Soldier Pass - Sedona, ArizonaThere 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.

coffee pot from Soldier Pass - Sedona, Arizona

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.

coffee pot from Soldier Pass - Sedona, Arizona

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.

Sedona Brins Mesa Trail - Sedona, Arizona

Brin’s Mesa Trail…

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
Open:
Year-round but very crowded during peak season.