With stunning views of the gorgeous Arizona landscape stretching out in all directions, Cathedral Rock is one of the most iconic rock formations in the Coconino National Forest — and one of its most popular hiking destinations.
With an expansive view of the surrounding landscape of red rock canyons and mesas, Cathedral Rock offers the intrepid hiker a rewarding vista for their efforts.
And there is definitely effort to this hike, so take note.
This is a very strenuous hike in areas, so read ahead carefully for tips on how manage the trail for best results.
The Coconino Forest
Before you get to Cathedral Rock, you’ll want to know a bit about the national park in which is resides.
Coconino Forest is a nearly 2 million-acre United States National Forest in northern Arizona, near the charming town of Flagstaff and the resort-oriented city of Sedona. It comprises a variety of landscapes that draw hikers, campers, and outdoor enthusiasts from all over, such as:
- Ponderosa pine forests
- Alpine tundra
- Volcanic peaks
Coconino is close to four other national forests, making it a great place from which to start a hiking or camping tour through the surrounding area. The other forests bordering Coconino are:
- Kaibab National Forest to the west
- Tonto National Forest to the south
- Prescott National Forest to the southwest
- Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest to the southeast
With so much to do nearby, it’s no wonder that Coconino has become a year-round destination for so many outdoor enthusiasts.
Cathedral Rock Area of Coconino
Cathedral Rock is located in the Coconino Forest’s Red Rock ranger district, which is closest to Sedona. This area is famous for its landscape of red rock canyons, mesas, and buttes that have helped the town of Sedona flourish as a resort attraction.
In fact, Arizona prizes Sedona one of its most popular tourist destinations, second only to the Grand Canyon. If you visit Cathedral Rock in the fall, you can head over to nearby Oak Creek Canyon, one of the few places in Coconino where deciduous trees abound. Since these trees change color in the fall, an unusual site in desert-heavy Arizona, many visitors flock to the area to view the stunning fall foliage. Because Sedona is at a significantly lower elevation than most parts of the forest, there are higher temperatures in this area — an important consideration when considering a hike like Cathedra Rock.
Hiking Cathedral Rock
There are two trailheads you can take to hike Cathedral Rock, but because the spot is so popular with tourists, you may not get a choice of which to use. The first, and closest, is the Cathedral Rock Trailhead. This small lot is on Back O’ Beyond Road. There’s a fee to park there, but it’s worth it if you want the fastest way to the summit. This trail will get you to the top in just 0.3 miles.
If that lot is full, and it often is, you can use the overflow lot that’s located at the second trailhead. The Yavapai Vista Trail will also get you to the summit, but it’s a much longer hike — nearly eight miles out and back. There is a parking fee at this trailhead as well, and, although they have machines that take credit cards, it’s wise to bring cash in case the machines aren’t working.
Yavapai Vista Trail
If you choose the Yavapai Vista Trail, you’ll need about four hours from start to finish, so plan your time wisely so you don’t end up hiking in the dark.
Some visitors find the Yavapai trail confusing, so it’s smart to take a picture of the trail map with your smartphone if you don’t have a paper version with you.
To get to Cathedral Rock via Yavapai, you have to change trails at Slim Shady Trail and then further down the line at Templeton Trail. Templeton will intersect the Cathedral Rock Trailhead, at which point you’ll know where to go. Since you’ll be on Templeton Trail for most of this hike, you should know that Templeton is a mixed-use trail, meaning mountain bikers can often be found speeding along the trail.
You’ll want to keep your eyes and ears peeled so you don’t get unintentionally knocked off the trail — or run over — by an enthusiastic biker. While this course to Cathedral Rock is the longest, there’s not much change in elevation until you reach the Cathedral Rock Trail itself.
Cathedral Rock Trail
Even though it’s a short 0.3 miles to the summit at this point, there’s a lot of steep climbing necessary.
The local sandstone rock, of which Cathedral Rock is made, is nicknamed “slickrock.” This is because of how smooth and hard to climb it can be. While the climb to the top of Cathedral Rock is difficult, you don’t have to have any technical climbing skills or extra equipment to manage it.
The trail is easily divided into several sections, each with its own level of difficulty.
Section 1 – Easy walk to Cathedral Rock base area.
Section 2 – Moderate hike from base to mid-section. Follow the marked cairns.
Section 3 – Strenuous portion of the hike through the mid-section, including:
Five-foot climb to a ledge
Quick walk and easy climb to the next ledg.
Difficult climb through a crevice to another, smaller, ledge
Strenuous climb to a large, flat area
Section 4 – Moderate level hike to the scenic outlook area between the two Cathedral Rock towers.
Most hikers find the only anxiety-producing part of the climb is navigating through the crevice, which does take a bit of finesse.
Things to Know Before You Go
Cathedral Rock is popular, so you’ll be with other hikers, perhaps even a crowd, for much of the hike. The summer season finds the area completely congested on most days, so be sure to get there early for the greatest chance of experiencing the hike — and the view — in peace.
Other things to note include:
Even though Cathedral Rock is in the desert, there are still seasons. Summer brings with it dangerous temperatures and winter nights can send temperatures plummeting.
Dress accordingly and be sure you take appropriate measures to protect yourself from sun or cold exposure. Extra clothes in the winter and plenty of hydration and sun protection in the summer are essential. Bring plenty of water and, in the summer, an electrolyte drink to replenish lost salt and minerals.
Even if you’re hoping to take the short hike, be prepared for the longer one. Even during the slow season, the Cathedral Rock Trailhead is crowded, and you could be forced to use Yavapai. The Yavapai Trail will take you several hours to navigate. If you begin after noon, you might find yourself hiking back in the dark. Be prepared with headlamps or flashlights, a jacket, and extra food and water.
Even though Cathedral Rock is so large it would seem like you wouldn’t need a map, bring one anyway. The way back doesn’t have as many landmarks, and if you’re hiking at twilight or night, it can be easy to get lost. Trails are well-maintained, but they aren’t that well-defined. Marking is ambiguous in places, like where the trails cross dry creek-beds. Make sure you have a good map with you at all times.
Take extra food and water to have after the climb to the summit — you’ll need it to refuel for the return trip.
Why the Climb’s Worth the Time — View from Cathedral Rock
Whether you take the long way through Yavapai or the short, difficult Cathedral Rock Trail, you’ll be amply rewarded for your efforts. The area has absolutely spectacular views of the surrounding red rock canyons and mesas, and, if you time it right, you can watch the sun go down over this breathtaking vista.
The stunning landscape is what makes Cathedral Rock one of the most popular hikes in the Red Rocks area. And after your day of hiking is done, you can escape to the vibrant town of Sedona, where there’s always something fun to do. The town has a thriving arts community, that offers everything from one-of-a-kind finds in chic boutiques to lovingly crafted wares from local, native artisans.
Stop by one of the spiritual sites nearby and refresh your soul, or head to uptown Sedona for refreshment of a more earthly nature. Or, if you’re feeling weary from your day of hiking, simply sit back and enjoy the stars set in the pristine black of the Sedona night sky. No matter how you choose to end your hike on Cathedral Rock, you’ll leave the area knowing you’ve experienced one of the greatest hikes — and vistas — in the state.