Disclaimer: what follows is about 3,000 words of me prattling on about my day hiking in Sedona. If you’d like to just see the pretty pictures, click this link and you can skip all the stuff between here and there. There are no big life lessons to be learned or buddha-like wisdom to be gained (except, perhaps, that one should occasionally trust their navigational gut instinct rather than their GPS) — only my story, sometimes funny, occasionally merely eye-roll inducing. You won’t hurt my feelings by going right to the end. Promise.
For those who decided to stick with this, here we go:
I was heading to Phoenix for the on-a-whim trip to the International Women’s Summit, a 4-day extravaganza of talks by some of the most brilliant women of our time. Of course, in true Laura from, I opted to go a little early to get some hiking in. Originally I had intended to stay in the city, but when I realized that I had most of the day, and that Sedona was a mere 2-hour car ride, my plans changed.
My alarm clock went off at 2:45am — the punishment for choosing a 5:15am flight that would get me into Phoenix at 7am. I was surprisingly semi-awake (probably because I kept waking up every 30 minutes, afraid that I would sleep through my alarm) and was out of the house by 3:20am, just as I had planned. And everything flight-wise was even better than anticipated — I had an empty seat next to me AND we landed about 30 minutes ahead of schedule! In my head, I started re-working my timeline for Sedona a little, figuring that I’d get there earlier than my anticipated 10am arrival.
No bag to pick up (I somehow fit what seemed like 12 weeks worth of clothing into a carry-on … it was magic, I swear) and the rental car was waiting for me, so off I went! I had decided to stop on the road at a Subway sandwich shop to pick up something to eat while hiking. This effort gave me the first sense of foreshadowing that my good travel luck might be ending.
Now, Arizona does a great job of putting signs for every exit saying what food and gasoline establishments are at that particular exit. Makes it easy for an out-of-towner, right? So, I’m looking for a Subway, but am not finding anything. The commercial outlets are starting to thin as I drive away from the city, and so I decide that a Panera would work just as well. I exit and look around — nothing. I drive in the direction of the arrow. Nothing. I go another mile? No Panera in sight. I finally turn around, figuring I missed it, somehow. And? No, I didn’t (or, I missed it twice). Frustrated, I get back on the highway.
In another 5 miles, I understand that not finding Panera was just providence looking out for me — here’s an exit with a Subway. I get off and drive the 3 miles to the west as the helpful sign told me. It’s out of my way a bit, but it’s right where it said it was going to be. I walk up to it, pull on the door and almost dislocate my shoulder — the door is locked and it’s closed. What the what? Wait – doesn’t Subway serve breakfast these days? How late of a breakfast do people eat around here?
Turns out, it didn’t open until 8am and it was 7:45am. I started googling to find out if there was something else close by. Nope. So, I waited. Serves me right for being picky, I thought.
But – finally – the girl working there unlocks the door and I get inside (I’ll say this – she did look surprised to see me – I’m guessing a Subway breakfast isn’t a popular thing around here). I get my sandwich for the road and finally feel like things are falling into place.
“On the road again…” Willie Nelson croons in my head as I continue north towards Sedona. Seeing the brown and cactus turn to red rocks made my heart happy. Let’s just say that Phoenix isn’t my most favorite city and getting out of there was a good thing. Time speeds by and soon I’m heading into Sedona on Rt. 89, noticing all the new construction from when I visited last time, almost 20 years ago. But still absolutely breathtaking. I couldn’t wait to get on the trails! And I was excited to be getting there a good half hour earlier than planned, so plenty of time to soak it all in.
The day before, I had plugged my destination — the Yavapai Vista Trailhead — into Waze and had it calculate my path there. I got into the city and made a left and started getting into some promising territory, except that I was pretty sure that the trailhead was supposed to be right off the main road. Trusting technology, I continued onward — eventually, I ended up at a very out-of-the-way resort. Very decidedly NOT what I was looking for, but, as it turns out, if you don’t carefully type things into Waze, it picks a destination that kind of sorta sounds like where you want to go. Not cool, Waze, not cool.
I turned around and retraced my steps back to the main strip, decided that I had simply passed the trailhead since I hadn’t really been looking for it. I had little doubt that it had to be there.
I stopped at a McDonald’s in town for a little sustenance and then headed back south out of town to look for the trailhead. The internet had told me that it was a little south of the Little Horse trailhead, so I had a marker to look for. I drove and looked and looked and drove … and … nothing. Like the Panera that was supposed to be there but wasn’t, the Yavapai Vista Trailhead wasn’t anywhere in sight. I couldn’t imagine how I had missed it, so I did the up and back route a few times, to no avail. Finally, I turned off 89 to follow the signs to Red Rock recreation area, thinking that maybe it was in there.
The drive was slow but beautiful, with twisty roads and great views at every turn. I finally made it to the entrance of the park and decided to ask the ranger before entering whether I was at the right place. He smiled and politely told me “Nope.” and then handed me printed directions to something else. Apparently I wasn’t the first to end up in the wrong place.
So, I headed to where the slip of paper told me — Crescent Moon Ranch, as it turned out. There was no ranger around when I drove in, so I paid the fee and figured on finding a map. Um, no map. Okay – I lied – there was a map, but it only showed that particular area and where the picnic tables were. Helpful for someone, I’m sure, but not for me. With no one around to help (and a non-existent cell signal), I left there and headed back into Sedona to do more research.
At this point, I had wasted so much time! Instead of being on the trail by no later than 10am, it was already 11:30am and I was still driving around in my rental car. Sure, listening to my podcasts was fun and stuff, but that’s not what I was there to do. I was altogether frustrated and almost — but not quite — ready to just go back to Phoenix. Instead, I hiked up my big girl panties, got to a place where there was a cell signal and gave myself one last shot to get this right.
I pulled up Google maps and REALLY took a look at the area. Funny enough, there are essentially TWO main strips into Sedona (who knew?) and I was on the wrong one. Finally feeling like I knew where I was going, I started out again, and, after about 15 minutes, I saw the trailhead! It existed!! I pulled in, but knew I had to buy a Red Rock pass to park there. I was going to buy one from the vending machine, but then remembered my friend telling me that there was a visitor center not too far down the road where they had better maps, and, after my poor navigational showing so far, thought that might be a good idea. One of my smarter moves, that much I’ll say.
Another 10 minutes down the road, there it was. I pulled off and went inside to chat with the park ranger. She asked where I was planning to hike — I told her and another ranger dude standing off to the side exclaimed, “You’re going to do Templeton?! Wow! That’s like a 9 mile hike!” at which point I started panicking. It was already noon and I didn’t have time (or inclination) for a 9 mile hike. I asked the ranger who was helping me if it really was that far — because I didn’t think so — and instead of answering me directly, she mentioned that there was another trailhead that would get me to Cathedral Rock (which was the destination I was looking to get to) but would be shorter and went along the creek. Personally, I think she looked at my frazzled self and was gently trying to say, “Girl, we don’t want to have to rescue you from the trail like a lost puppy, so why don’t you be smart, listen to me and do this easier hike?” without actually saying those words.
Being the intelligent (and frazzled) person I was, I saw the wisdom in her suggestion and jumped at it. Something more like 4 miles round trip seemed imminently more doable in the amount of time I had. I gathered up my maps and headed out. I was going to hike! Finally!
I drove out to the trailhead — a little more out of the way than the one I had planned on — but it was perfect. I got myself together — water, food, sunscreen, hiking shoes and all sorts of necessary gear — and set out.
Immediately I noticed all the wildflowers that were out in force — every time I turned my head, I found a different wildflower that needed to have its picture taken. The oranges and yellows and reds and purples were brilliant and I couldn’t believe my luck that I seemed to have arrived at exactly the perfect time! And to think, I almost opted to just head back to Phoenix.
So, have I mentioned my navigational prowess? Yea, even on marked trails I can’t seem to do things right. I came to a T in the road, read the sign, took a picture of the sign and then proceeded to go in the absolutely opposite direction of where I was supposed to go. Luckily, not far down the trail I encountered a couple who were trying to figure out their way to their car. Between their GPS and my maps, we figured it out. And, lucky for me, also figured out that while they were headed in exactly the right direction, I wasn’t. Crap.
Going back from whence I came, I was finally headed in the right direction. Of course, there were a few more false turns, but I figured those out (all on my own!) rather quickly. Before I knew it, the trail was sidling up to Oak Creek, gorgeous with burbling water and big trees providing shade from the sun.
Oh yea, did I mention that it was a little over 90 degrees out (much cooler than Phoenix, but still!) and the sun felt like an oven roasting my skin? So, the shade really did feel awfully nice.
It didn’t take long before I started hitting switchbacks. My nemesis. I know I can do them, just slowly with lots of “photo stops”. These were hitting me pretty hard, though and it struck me that getting up in the middle of the night might not have been the best start for an afternoon of hiking, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. Well, I wasn’t going to let it stop me for more than 5 minutes at a time, at least.
I hauled my butt up the switchbacks and then things leveled out, allowing me to catch my breath and take in the views. And the views were spectacular! Aside from there not being any shade up there, I couldn’t have asked for anything better. I wound my way around the rocks, following the trail until it ended at the bottom of the scramble up to Cathedral Rock.
I had to admit: I was tired. No, more than that — I was exhausted. But I had come that far! How could I not summit Cathedral Rock? So, I gamely went upward. It started out a trail, but soon was more bouldering and finding a way up the slickrock (it’s also possible that there was a trail but that I — once again — lost it). I got about halfway up, sat down to catch my breath, and had a heart-to-heart with myself. I didn’t want to give up, but I knew that I was getting dangerously close to my breaking point. I had enough water, I was covered from the sun, but the cumulative effect of the day’s travels had done a number on me.
Stick a fork in me. I was done.
I reluctantly (but also, I confess, thankfully) headed back down, making sure to be careful of my footing because I really didn’t want to need to be rescued. I made a promise to myself when I got back to the bottom of the Cathedral Rock trail: I’ll be back (said in my best Arnold Schwarzenegger voice).
After that, it was just the 2 miles back to my car, mostly level or downhill. I still kept stopping to take flower pictures — I just couldn’t get enough! — but felt myself getting more and more tired. It finally occurred to me what was happening — like a ghost back from my triathlon days — I was bonking. And bonking HARD.
[note to non-endurance athletes: bonking aka “hitting the wall” is the situation where you go from doing just fine to sudden fatigue that makes you want to do nothing more than lay down on the ground and nap for a few dozen hours. It’s usually caused by a nutritional deficit of some sort.]
Stumbling down the switchbacks, I finally made it back to the creek, where the shade made it cooler and the water made it peaceful. I found a spot to sit down on the roots of an old tree by the water and I relaxed and ate some food. It helped a little bit — I knew I needed calories more than anything else. I would have done anything for some cold Gatorade in that moment, but apparently the Red Rock park people didn’t think to put vending machines out there. Such a shame — I would bet they’d be a big money maker.
After sitting for awhile, I decided to get back to it — the sooner I started moving, the sooner I’d get back to my car and my air-conditioning and a comfortable place to sit.
I saw a lot of people going up while I was coming down and I think every single one of them asked either if they were on the right path or how much longer they had to climb upward before it leveled out. At least I wasn’t the only one who spent a lot of the hike being unsure if I was headed in the right direction. Vindication!
I death-marched back to my car, reminding myself not to stop and take more flower pictures (they were so gorgeous!), and while I absolutely knew I would make it, I’ve never been in that kind of condition on a trail. I remember feeling that way during the back half of the run in my last half Ironman, but that’s about it. It’s a scary feeling because you mentally know that you’re just walking, that’s all, nothing too it, but your body doesn’t agree. Or maybe it’s the opposite? Maybe it’s the mind that’s in the midst of giving up?
I knew that I wasn’t far. I knew that I had enough water. I knew I had more food. I knew, without a doubt, that the worst case scenario would be that I would need to sit down and rest for an hour or so and I’d be okay. Even still, there’s nothing quite like being out in the wilderness and having your body rebel in a way that it’s never done before.
Spoiler alert: I made it back to the car, safe and sound, without even needing to lay down and sleep for a few hours first. Go, me! And once back in the car? Oh yea, I didn’t have anything to drink. And I had already finished my water (the water lasted as long as my hike).
I finally found myself in the parking lot and after some too-long moments of not being able to find my car keys, I was comfortably in the car, A/C on and wondering if I had enough time for another short hike (just kidding! I had already peeled out of the parking lot, headed towards the nearest place to buy something cold to drink!).
[side note: I believe I saw a roadrunner running (obviously) across the road in front of me as I was driving out from the trailhead! He (or she) was gone before I could stop and grab my camera. Weirdly, I didn’t see Wile E. Coyote or anything built by Acme. There dies another childhood fantasy.]
I drove out of Oak Creek (where I actually was instead of Sedona, as it turns out), looking for a place to stop. Fast food joint, gas station, anything. And…? Nothing. Finally – finally! – a rest stop. With vending machines. And Gatorade! Perfect!
I put my $2.60 in (actually, I fed it my credit card – gotta love technology) and stooped down to pick up my drink from the machine. Before taking a step, I twisted the top off and took a sip, and it was like a miracle elixir — not only was it nice and sweet and thirst-quenching, but it was slushy from being partially frozen. Even in my dreams I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
And with that, I drove on back to Phoenix, headed to what would end up being a life-changing conference, just satisfied with life and loving that these gorgeous sanctuaries that still exist.
The sign I totally ignored