Cathedral Rock Trail: exactly what to expect

Cathedral Rock is one of the most popular Sedona hikes offering incredible views from the top. However, before taking on the hike we were utterly confused as to what we were up against. With several google searches, we found information about the Cathedral Rock Trail that ranged from “completely easy, no problem” to “precarious, scrambling, horror”!

Even when you ask people in Sedona, you get very different stories. We met someone who said they had to turn around because it got so hard, then we met a retiree who said if they could do it, then we could. Only when we saw it for ourselves did we truly know what was in store - so here’s our take.

The top of Cathedral Rock


Cathedral Rock Trail

So first things first: the Cathedral Rock Trail is short, but steep, climbing nearly 300 metres across 0.75 miles. You’ll probably lose your breath at stages, but it isn’t like climbing a mountain.

What can be difficult is some of the terrain. A lot of the trail is uphill along rock that has been worn smooth because of the volume of people hiking Cathedral Rock. Whilst the gully in the middle of the trail is by far the hardest part, it isn’t the only challenging section. Having said that I managed when I don’t really like scrambling so that should give you confidence. It is definitely manageable for the majority of people who attempt it.

Caution - We don’t recommend taking on the Cathedral Rock Trail if it is raining, snowing or has ice. Some sections of the walk are tricky enough in dry conditions!

The start of the Cathedral Rock Trail

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The start of the trail

The trail starts from the Cathedral Rock Car Park and crosses a dry wash. For the first 100-200m, the trail is very easy and well-formed and then you come to the climb shown in the photo below.

The smooth rock at the start

You can follow the cairns or find your own path (we chose to swing to the right as there was more grip). The path at this stage isn’t bad as there is enough texture in the sandstone to stop you slipping. It looks a lot worse than it actually is and we didn’t see anyone have problems on this part of the trail.

The next section is the part which we saw people turn around at.

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The worst section

After a few steps up, any semblance of a footpath disappears and you suddenly see a cairn at the top of a hill. The only way up is to scale up this gully.

The gully section is by far the worst part of the trail

We won’t sugarcoat it, this section is tricky for your average hiker. There are a few footholes, but a lot of the scale up this section requires jamming your foot into the crevis and doing a semi-form of rock climbing. There are a couple of flat sections for a breather, but the scramble up is about 20-30 metres long in total.

This is a lot easier if you are in a group and have someone who is confident with scrambling up these kinds of places and can offer a hand. With a bit of help, we think most people should be able to make it up this section. However, we totally understand if the idea of scrambling up a gully like this freaks you out! After all, you need to get down this as well (which is surprisingly easier than going up). It did freak me out at first but then I did make it so persevere.

What it looks like climbing up!

What it looks like climbing down!



The trail to the top

From here things get easier, but you’re not completely done. There are a few sections which require scrambling up smooth rock that was steeper than the first section (the one before the gully), but most have either footholes or a slightly less steep alternative to the side. After about 0.5 miles, the trail turns into a normal track and it is stairs all the way to the top.

The smooth rocks after the gully

The views at the top

The views at the top of Cathedral Rock are some of the best in the area and are the perfect place to be at sunset. The most popular spot is pretty much at the end of the trailhead, where a ledge drops down and faces the horizon.

One of the views at the top

One of the views at the top

There is also a path and a natural platform that juts out to the right which is pretty popular for a photograph with almost everyone who visits. The top of Cathedral Rock is one of the most instagrammed places in the Southwest.

The platform at the top of Cathedral Rock

A different angle at the top of Cathedral Rock

There is another section which sees a lot less people. At the end of trail sign turn left and keep going. The track becomes rocky and requires a bit of scrambling again, but it is pretty short. Then you’ll get to this view.

The side section of Cathedral Rock

At sunset this whole area is pretty dark, but in the morning or middle of the day it is illuminated really nicely.

Getting back down the Cathedral Rock Trail

Initially we thought getting down the track would be tricky and we actually left a bit before the sun had fully set to make sure we didn’t have to do it in the dark. The reality is that we found it much easier than expected. At any point where I felt it was a little dubious I went down on my bum and felt quite safe - note that if you adopt this method you will definitely come off the track with an orange sand coating but it brushes off easily enough!

Overall I’d say the trail wasn’t exactly easy if you aren’t confident scrambling but it also wasn’t really hard, especially if you walk with someone who can give you a hand on any bits that seem a bit tricky.

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Getting to Cathedral Rock

Cathedral Rock Parking

Parking at Cathedral Rock can be tricky as there is a very small car park. There is an overflow car park as well, but many people choose to park beside the road!

The car park by trail head is not far from Bell Rock and about 10 minutes from the centre of Sedona. You can find the car park for the trail on the map below.

 

Fees

If you have an Annual National Parks or Red Rock pass you won’t need to pay any fees. Otherwise it will cost $5 to park.

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Where to stay in Sedona

Sedona Summit Diamond Resorts

We’re not sure why but every time we came to Sedona the Diamond Resorts were offering the best deals! There are a few Diamond Resorts to choose from in Sedona (we also stayed in The Ridge on Sedona Golf Resort which was good but not quite as good as the Summit), all of which offer large rooms, a brilliant kitchenette (with cooking tops, fully stocked pots & pans etc and amenities like a coffee maker).

However, our favourite was the Sedona Summit due to its location (its pretty close to the main town) and the stunning hot tub views it offers. After a long day’s hiking, it was heaven.

The rooms were really good value and spacious which made them perfect to retreat to. We’ve visited Sedona three times and always booked a Diamond Resort. One bugbear though is that the properties are time share and therefore expect to receive a sales pitch!

Booking.com
Booking.com

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