Last Thanksgiving, I took a week-long road trip to explore Arizona and discovered there’s much more variety than just the desert. They have canyons, red rocks, mountains, turquoise blue-green colored streams, milky blue colored rivers, arches, waterfalls, and so much more! Some days, we drove a lot and saw very little, but every day was totally worth it.
See my itinerary below (be warned – it’s very lengthy & detailed):
Day 1: Wave Cave, Flowing Springs Campground
Day 2: Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, Fossil Creek Wilderness
Day 3: Sedona – Cathedral Rock, Vultee Arch, Manzanita Campground
Day 4: Sedona – Devils Bridge, Soldiers Pass
Day 5: Sedona – West Fork of Oak Creek Trail
Day 6: Navajo Nation – Little Colorado River via Salt Trail Canyon
We left LA early in the morning around 5 am and made it to Phoenix just in time for lunch. My travel buddy had been wanting to take me to a famous pizza place, Pizzeria Bianco, which was expensive but delicious and worth it to try at least once. Afterward, we headed towards Superstition Wilderness and spent the afternoon at the Wave Cave. It took us an hour to get to the Peralta Trailhead to hike to the Wave Cave. It was really hot and the trail is very exposed, starts off flat, then climbs a lot at the end, so we didn’t do much else. The trail is only 3-3.5 miles round trip out and back and took us about an hour in the heat to hike in.
We camped at Flowing Springs Campground (first come, first serve, no fees) which is just off of hwy 260, a few miles north of Payson, AZ. You basically park and set up camp anywhere and there are the basic vault toilet restrooms here. The campground is right next to the East Verde River which I’m sure is nice for the summer, but we really only came to sleep and left early morning. In my opinion, it’s not the nicest campground, but it’s a good fix for a quick night’s rest when you’re on the road and free.
Tonto Natural Bridge is only 9.4 miles / 15 min away which made for a quick drive in the morning. We got to the state park just after 9 am and there is a fee of $7 per adult to enter. There are 4 very short trails here and the one that leads to the bottom of the natural bridge is Gowan Trail at half mile out and back. This trail is steep and has loose dirt and slippery rocks so hiking shoes are highly recommended, especially if you are going beyond the viewing deck and exploring underneath the bridge. There’s a lot of water down there and it feels like it’s sprinkling when you’re in the middle of it, so be extra careful. It can get cold in there too, although I went in late Fall.
We left around noon and headed to Fossil Creek. There are two trails you can take in this area, and we opt for the shorter, easier, and more common path – the one mile Waterfall Trail. From the 260 fwy West-bound, you’ll turn left on Fossil Creek Rd and drive on a dirt road for 16 miles to get to the Fossil Creek Waterfall Trailhead. There is a bridge 1.5 miles before the waterfall trail parking lot which is a nice spot for a quick detour. We arrived here at 1:30 pm and the waterfall trailhead is only a few minutes down the road. The road is very curvy and I’d recommend a 4wd; Google Maps will tell you the road is closed from April-Oct, but maybe it depends on the weather because I went late November and it was open. The weather for most of my trip was hot days and cold nights. Please note that you do need a permit for this area after the first 8 miles of the dirt road, between April – October.
You can walk down underneath the bridge and dip your feet in the water, or even go for a swim if it’s warm enough. The water here is really clear and has a beautiful green-turquoise color. The road after the bridge to get to the waterfall parking lot gets a lot rougher with bigger rocks on the ground. Just go very slow. After parking, the trail is very clearly labeled. It took us about 20 minutes to get to the falls and you’re hiking along the creek the entire way.
We left a bit late and didn’t want to drive out on the dirt road in the dark so we camped at the first campground (and the only one on the same route heading back out which I believe is dispersed camping), Homestead. It’s only 2 miles from the waterfall trail parking lot.
The morning started early and we arrived back on the 260 fwy shortly after 8 am and headed towards Sedona. The weather in Sedona was on average a high of 70s and low of mid 40s.
I started the Cathedral Rock Trail (0.7 miles one way) at 10:16 am and at a comfortable pace and plenty of breaks, I arrived at the top at 10:56 am. I’m sure you can hike it in under 40 minutes, but it’s a fun trail to explore so take your time and enjoy it! Wear shoes with a good grip – the trail climbs a lot on the red rocks and much of it has a scramble feel to it. When you get to the “end of trail” sign and take the popular photo at the end, make sure to go to the other side of the sign and scramble up the very short (& can be slippery) section to get more amazing views of the front of the trail. This part is very short and close and well worth the views.
We got back to the car around noon and headed back to the only campsite in the area that was open this time of year – Manzanita Campground, about 10 miles north. They offer reserved sites on recreation.gov as well as walk up reservations ($22/ night).
After making lunch and relaxing at the campground, we wanted to check out Slide Rock State Park which was just 0.9 miles down the street, but it requires a daily fee and the ranger said the only part of the park that’s open at this time of the year is the water slide rock part and the water is cold… so we drove back to our campsite and walked to the closest trailhead from our campsite – Sterling Pass Trail to Vultee Arch, 0.1 miles across the street.
We started the Sterling Pass Trail #46 at 3 pm and finished at 6:16 pm. This trail starts with a slow incline but picks up quickly and you will soon find yourself on switchbacks all the way up to Sterling Pass. Once you make it up the pass, you hike back down the mountain on the other side to the flat trail. At 4:23 pm, we reached the sign junction for Vultee Arch. From here, you turn right and a few minutes later, you will arrive in an opening which is a great spot to get a view of Vultee Arch. We got here at 4:37 pm and with daylight savings and the sun setting down faster, we decided to stop here and enjoy the arch from a distance while watching the sunset so we can head back before dark.
I have waited a really long time to see the Devil’s Bridge… and it was worth every second! Many of the trials in Sedona are very close to each other, this one included. There are a few routes you can take to Devil’s Bridge (Trail 120). We opt for route 1 which is the easiest and shortest. If you have a 4×4 / high clearance vehicle, you’ll be able to drive all the way up to the trailhead for a 0.6 mile one-way hike. There is a rather large row of rocks our Subaru couldn’t make it up (about a foot high) so we turned left into the parking lot and hiked the 3.6 miles round trip instead. You end up walking on the dirt road for about a mile before reaching the actual trailhead, but this part is all flat. The Devil’s Bridge Trail has 400 ft elevation gain which is gradual at the beginning and inclines a lot more maybe halfway through. We started from the parking lot at 8:48 am, got to the Devils Bridge Trailhead at 9:16 am, and to the top of the bridge at 9:40 am. Coming down took us 14 minutes, but I spend a lot of time taking photos going up a trail that I don’t stop much for photo ops heading down.
Next on our list was Soldier Pass, Trail 66, less than 30 minutes away from Devils Bridge. The parking lot for this trailhead is buried in a residential neighborhood and has space for maybe 15-ish cars. If I recall correctly, there are “no parking” signs for the residential areas so be sure to go early and get a spot in the lot! We got lucky that someone was leaving and there was an empty spot and started our hike at 11:50 am.
Soldier Pass Trail is 2 mile one way but I sought this trail out for something else. The trail is not clearly marked after the Devils Kitchen/ sinkhole, but enough that you can find your way. I completely missed the Seven Sacred Pool on my way in because it was so dry, but be on the look out for it when you come to the sign for the Soldiers Pass / Brins Mesa and Jeep Road junction.
To get to the Soldier’s Arch/ cave, there is an unmarked trail that you’ll see after the pools. I passed it the first time, not making anything of it, so I don’t have any way to track it for you. But there was a row of rocks blocking it off on the right side od the trail and it looks like the photo below with rocks at the bottom (the pic after the seven sacred pools). I dropped a pin on google maps so here are the rough GPS coordinates (34.897686, -111.787846). If you go and use my coordinates, please let me know if it takes you to the right spot! From here, the trail will be the detour on the right. It’s narrow at first but widens up completely and you just continue in one straight direction. If you do head up to the “cave”, be very careful as the rocks and gravel are loose. Remember, nothing is worth getting hurt outdoors.
Both of these trails are short and rated as moderate-difficult, but you’ll have a good half day left to explore more. I spent my afternoon catching up on work and exploring the strip of the city. There’s a self-guided walking tour on the side of the road (I think it was the 89) which was actually really neat. It tells you about the history of Sedona.
We stayed at Manzanita Campground again this evening.
Down the street from the campground the next morning, roughly 10 minutes or so, is Call of the Canyon (Red Rock Secret Canyon Wilderness) where you can find the popular West Fork of Oak Creek Trail. You have to pay $10 per car to park in the lot and there is no other area or street to park at, but it’s worth it. The trail is 2 miles one way and that does not include the walk to the trail (roughly 20 minutes, maybe 1 mile). Once you start on the actual marked trail after the abandoned house to your right, the trail will head straight for the creek which you will need to cross… 13 times. The trail is gradual fairly flat along the stream the whole time and the crossings are obvious enough that you’ll know if you missed it. I started at 9:20 am and the trail was very shaded since there’s a lot of trees and you’re next to the canyon walls the whole time. Must have been around 60 degrees or so, but as with any hike, you warm up quickly. The end of the 2-mile hike is very narrow and the walls are lower and concave. The trail goes on for another 11 miles, I believe, but you have to walk in the water to keep going and I don’t know if it’s a well-maintained trail or not.
We spent our entire morning exploring this area and headed towards the next stop of our road trip at 1:30 pm. We headed 18 miles north to Flagstaff for lunch, then another hour north to the Navajo Nation Parks & Recreation center in Cameron.
Our last adventure was one that I was looking forward to most, and I contemplated not writing about it to not contribute to the congestion of the area in an effort to protect the land, but it was an amazing little gem that I want to share with you so please try to keep it clean and pristine. Leave no trace. Take nothing but pictures.
Little Colorado River Gorge in Navajo Tribal Park: this trail takes effort to get there – it’s about 1 hr 15 mins away from where you pick up your permits (I think permits were $12/person per night) at the Navajo Nation Parks & Rec but only the first 30 mins is on a paved road. A high clearance vehicle is highly recommended as well as a 4×4 / AWD! We had a Subaru Impreza that barely made it – we had to drive ridiculously slow and heard the tall branch/grass/weed stuff scratching the bottom of the car nearly the whole way. There is a set of cairns to let you know where to turn, but if you download the offline maps for the area on Google Maps, you’ll be fine – seriously, do this! It took us an hour to drive on this unpaved road but we finally arrived at the trailhead at 6:15 pm and camped out at the open parking area with no other soul in sight. It’s very open and windy here though so position your car to help you get some coverage.
The next morning, we started our last adventure on the Salt Trail to the Little Colorado River (LCR) at 8 am. The trail is about 3 miles one way, out and back, to get to the beautiful milky blue waters of the LCR. This is one of the most challenging but fun hikes I’ve ever done. You basically hike straight down a canyon to get to the pretty blue river. The first half of the trail is bouldering/ scrambling, and the second half is scrambling with a clearer path. It’s unmaintained after the first five minutes of a normal flat trail, the trail drops roughly 1400 ft during the first half and 2700+ ft total. Cairns are your best friend on this trail. If you’ve been walking for more than a couple minutes and don’t see any, it may be good to check your surroundings and reevaluate. You’ll see a bit of the milk blue LCR from the top, so always have a general idea of which direction you’re headed.
I have a strong fear of heights and the idea of going down at first made me nervous, but it wasn’t bad once I started moving. Just take your time and please be careful! I would not recommend trekking poles for this as you’ll need more hands most of the time. I also wouldn’t recommend backpacking this trail unless you’re experienced. IMO, a heavy pack could throw off your balance a lot here. I would recommend gloves though if you have sensitive hands like me as the boulders can be rough.
This is the guide I followed for this trail: https://hikearizona.com/decoder.php?ZTN=803 but there are a few out there that may provide more details to driving and trail info. Feel free to comment below with any questions though and I’ll answer as best as I remember. Most other write-ups will say it takes about 5 hours to get to the bottom (LCR)… and 4-6 hours to get up. It took me 3 hours to get down and 2.5 hours up as a day hike. Also, note – the water is not always going to be pretty and blue. We went at the end of the good season; I hear the water turns brown from rain starting December – April.
We were back to our cars by 3:45 pm and started the 9 hr drive home at 4 pm (we originally planned to stay an extra night, but this was a memorable highlight to end our trip). This one is a long day and you may want to find somewhere to spend the night before driving home, or you can even camp at the trailhead again before driving out the next day.
Thanks for reading and feel free to ask any questions you may have below =)