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Exploring the Red Rock Country of Sedona, Arizona

Posted in Events on November 10, 2017
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The city of Sedona lies near the center of the Grand Canyon State where it offers its own breathtaking scenery and diverse high-desert habitat. The city got its first post office in 1902, but there were settlers homesteading in the area since the 1860s. The area continued to grow because it offered a healthy climate, expanses of available land, and nearby perennial Oak Creek as a reliable water source.

Evidence shows that primitive peoples inhabited this area over 10,000 years ago. Farming Native Americans known as the Sinagua made this their home for some time. Nearby are the Palatki (Hopi language meaning Red House) and Honanki (Badger House) cliff dwelling ruins, which are believed to have been constructed as early as A.D. 1125. Though these people migrated from here several centuries later, they left behind substantial evidence of their existence with their stone buildings and rock art pictographs and petroglyphs.

In addition to Native Americans considering this locale as special, Sedona is known as a spiritual vortex site where electrical and magnetic energies are said to be entering the earth or projecting from it. Whatever the case may be, our group of backcountry explorers headed to the Coconino National Forest in the Red Rock Ranger District that surrounds Sedona to seek out some 4WD trails over a two-day weekend.

The amazing red rock formations surrounding Sedona are estimated to have been formed some 350 million years ago and get their red color from the presence of hematite within the sandstone. They also provide some great terrain to play in. On Saturday, we covered the Broken Arrow, Van Deren Cabin, and Greasy Spoon trails before finding a nice spot to throw down tents for the night. We worked our way over slickrock expanses, rock domes, and loose and rocky hills.

Sunday dawned clear and just slightly cool, with an odd whooshing sound in the distance. Climbing from our sleeping bags, we found a half dozen hot-air balloons in the distance rising from the ground; their passengers taking advantage of the cool morning temperature to get aerial views of the red rocks. We packed up and hit the Outlaw trail, headed north, and passed near Honanki, but kept going until we reached Palatki. Here we got to see the cliff-dwelling remains and imagine what it was like to live in these small, stone rooms tucked under a strategic cliff overhang.

Oak Creek Homestead was our final trail destination for the day. We followed the trail southeast through some rocky stretches and then took a spur trail south winding towards Oak Creek. There’s one good hill nicknamed Cliffhanger that you descend, and then climb upon return, but it’s easily negotiated. We found the old cabin stone ruins and cool Oak Creek after a final hike when we were stopped at a locked gate.

None of the trails in this area are particularly difficult for mildly modified rigs, but offer astounding geologic beauty and the ability to see views from many angles and elevations. Sedona has been a prized location for centuries, and millions of tourists come each year to see it. While the city traffic was bustling that weekend, we were able to get further out on trails where we saw far fewer people and enjoyed some great backcountry exploring.

Fuel, lodging, basic auto parts, and supplies can be found in the city of Sedona. Land use maps are available in print at several locations and online digitally on the Coconino National Forest website (www.fs.usda.gov/coconino). These maps show the trails that are currently open for 4WD access and where dispersed camping is allowed nearby.

Our dirt journey started on the Broken Arrow trail. It’s a short in-and-out route, but is saturated with scenery. The trail runs near the Munds Mountain Wilderness area. Here, the Two Nuns rock formations tower in the background.
This image was taken from atop Submarine Rock, a long, domed chunk of sandstone jutting up from the surrounding terrain. Elephant Butte can be seen in the far distance. Most of these trails sit at an elevation of roughly 4,000-5,000 feet above sea level.
We followed the Broken Arrow trail, climbing short hills and sandstone domes until we arrived at Chicken Point. From there you can look far out over a large valley and then behind at tall red rock spires that eons of erosion have left behind.
The Broken Arrow trail sees a lot of traffic from tour companies, but despite the narrowness of much of the trail, there are plenty of pullouts for vehicle passing. Jack Adams walks his ’65 Toyota FJ45LV down a portion of the rocky trail.
Returning from Chicken Point there are a number of solid slickrock stretches and a few optional lines to play on. Mark Hild had recently finished the mechanical build on his ’87 Toyota 4Runner sitting on Land Cruiser axles, and was getting in a good shakedown weekend.
Devil’s Staircase is a rock descent that has been carved into a tall hill, and it is probably the toughest obstacle on the Broken Arrow trail. Greg Boetel’s ’16 Ram 1500 with a 4-inch lift and 35-inch tires had little trouble with any of the trails.
We traversed some more open slabs near the trail exit, then headed north through Sedona to our next trail. Mark and Joyce Mason's ’97 Ford Expedition is mildly built for backcountry exploring, but Mark puts it through its paces in remote locations.
Just northwest of Sedona is a trail that leads to the Van Deren cabin with a side hiking trail to Devil's Bridge, a large sandstone arch. We followed the trail all the way north until we crossed Dry Creek, and then climbed a rocky canyon bank towards the old cabin site.
Earl Van Deren purchased 43 acres here in 1924. He moved one cabin onto the property a short time later and then built a second one next to it in 1930. A breezeway connects the two cabins that are constructed from Arizona Cypress. The Ponderosa Pine shingles are now protected with a tin roof placed above.
We were exploring the area shortly after the summer monsoon season had ended. There were still signs of fresh, colored runoff in Dry Creek from the bright red rock and soil in this area.
Greasy Spoon is a fairly short loop trail at about 6 miles long, similar to most of the trails in the area. One of seven of our rigs was Eric Cattey's ’97 Tacoma. The 33-inch tires felt just about right on the trail.
About half of Greasy Spoon consists of a hilly pipeline trail that traverses from east to west.
Tom Sanio brought out his super-clean ’78 Toyota FJ40 to run the Sedona trails.
We found a good camp spot a short time before dusk, and enjoyed the light and color as the sun disappeared. There is little remote camping in the immediate area around the city, but there is dispersed camping allowed east and west of the city in the Coconino National Forest.
On Sunday morning we followed the Outlaw Trail, which crossed high-desert grasslands covered with fruit-laden prickly pear plants, then dropped down a rocky trail into Lincoln Canyon headed towards the Honanki Indian ruins.
This cliff dwelling site at Palatki was once comprised of 14 rooms. There were seven rooms on the first level, seven more above, and a community area with parapet wall above that. It has managed to survive in this condition under a cliff overhang for about 900 years. Sister site Honanki was once as large as 70 rooms.
This is the Grotto at Palatki, a spiritually significant site for many centuries. It was used by the Sinagua, Yavapai, Apache, and Archaic people to communicate and record history. There's also a large agave roasting pit here.
Pictographs (and some petroglyphs) are plentiful in this area and tell stories of the lives and survival of these people. There are also clan symbols scattered amongst the markings as well.
A narrow, rocky ledge road descends downward on the way to the Oak Creek homestead site. The shelf named Cliffhanger seems a bit overstated, but we can see where those trying the climb in stock vehicles would be well alert.
The Oak Creek Homestead trail ended about a 3/4-mile short of the creek with a Forest Service closure, so we hiked the rest of the way in. We saw some stone ruins from the old home near the bottom of the final hill approaching the creek.
We took a break nearby for a quick walk in the cool water of Oak Creek.
Oak Creek Homestead was our last trail of the weekend, and we took in more grand views as we wound our way back towards Sedona and ultimately returned home.
Another noteworthy trail in the area is Soldier Pass. It’s a short 2.5-mile loop that takes you back to the Devil’s Kitchen Sinkhole that has periodically collapsed inward over the past 100 years. The trail is currently only open to Jeep tour companies, but will hopefully reopen to the public with a permitting process by early 2018.

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