This is easily my new favorite hike in Sedona excluding West Fork of course. The first mile or less of trail is the worst for elevation gain but the view of Wilson Mountain's unique northern face add to this unnamed(?) canyon's already inherent beauty which successfully paying off the brutalizing deficit taxing your body with high dividends of spectacular beauty. This first leg as painful as it is, is itself worth the drive from Phoenix to Sedona. Keep an eye out for a cave on the on the southern wall which may be more noticeable this season than in later seasons. I didn't take the time to explore it this trip but perhaps somebody else might.
Sans the beautiful textures of the immediate rock formations the views from Sterling Pass, obscured even in winter by leafless oak, were a little underwhelming to the west. I would recommend, if the Pass is your final destination, going just a little further down the west face. At the second switchback you'll be graced with some unobstructed views of Sterling Canyon and the mountains beyond. You'll have the opportunity to walk through a grove of "Curvy" oak. This strange sensory input provoked me into a left leaning walk, my body was somehow trying to orient to the trees. Suffice it to say, I would probably go easy on the peyote before adventuring into this steeply sloped forest.
For those who decide to press on to the Vultee Arch, the decent into Sterling Canyon offers more secrets. Hidden amidst the trees are giant rock monoliths that rise from the steeply slopped terra. The trail wraps around them as it switchbacks, allowing a proper inspection. Meanwhile the the canyon walls of Wilson Mountains western face loom high above like city sky scrapers, the light bouncing off the sandstone walls come orange, come red, come yellow and ever more warm and beautiful.
Gradually the steep slope lessens as another canyon begins to break on the right. Shortly the Vultee Arch appears but only if you're looking for it. Otherwise, your eye will eventually be drawn to it. Shortly after that this trail intersects with the approach to the Vultee, hang a right and that should be obvious. It is definitely something to see but for me the true rewards were the views of the opposing mountains as seen from the Vultee itself.
We had the Vultee to ourselves for the first twenty minutes or so. I risked most of it, however, trying to get to a perch that promised the "Perfect" photo-op of Wendi's first "Wendy". If ever there was the spot to entice her, standing on top of this impressive arch was gonna be it. I tried and succeeded reaching it from above and behind the perch, but don't do that. I tried and succeeded returning from behind and below the perch, but don't do that. There is a third approach which is pretty much a straight shot but with some exposure, I didn't try it but I guess at least you can see the exposure. The sandy ground along my routes just fell away and the efforts just to make each step was hardened by all the sharp, pointy fauna. By the time I returned with my hard won photo we were starving. Though we had imagined eating our lunch on top of the arch, we noticed a guy setting up his tripod on the sandstone benches below and another couple approaching from the DCTH. We relinquished our hold and exited stage left.
We managed to find a spot just off trail that still allowed views of the opposing mountains. I was able to make out Wilson Mountain sitting there, but the closest one and smaller turned out to be Lost Wilson Mountain and it's foothills. From this vantage it was drawing all the attention. In it's shadows a few tops of the pine trees managed to find sunlight reminding me of one Tibber's Saguaro photos. Others were bare of nettles and looked to Wendi like tooth picks. The pattern created accented the stained lines on the rock face. It is my new absolute favorite lunch spot!
After lunch we made our way back down through the tightly cropped manzanita forest we earlier had to come through. It is pretty tight coming through here. A few were just beginning to bloom. Once we made back to the sandstone steps we noticed a plaque affixed to the upper level but there was a couple up there so we didn't get to read it.
From here the plan was supposed to be to hike west to the Dry Creek Trail Head (DCTH) and then a couple miles up the Dry Creek Trail but we got so bogged down with all the photographing all the many beautiful sights that we had already shortened it to just DCTH.
I do have to say that, and this despite the flatter easier approach, folks with High-Clearance accessing from this Th are truly missing out if they skip Sterling Pass. This one case where "Low-C" owners can stand proud! Unless I am hiking up Dry Creek Trail I will probably skip this side trip. It is noteworthy to say that this a winter hike, perhaps Fall is a completely different thing. I will be sure to to correct that in the fall because you can be sure I will be back this coming season.
The return of course means ascending the western slope of Sterling Pass, which was thankfully much easier than coming up the other side, but it is still a huffer. It was a pleasure revisiting all the wonderful sights. Wendi, wasn't keen on the fact that I was re-photographing the same stuff on the way out, but the lighting had changed! I started explaining what I could do with a real camera. "If I could just adjust my shutter speed here...", "If we catch this spot with the sun rising just there...". I think I planted the seed.
The only fauna we saw were two paired Steller Jays. I think they were checking us out for snacks. They got a little snippy when we didn't offer them any and made a bee-line to that camping area across the 89. We saw Painted Lady, or Checkered Spot perhaps, hard to tell because it was chasing another unknown type butterfly, mostly black with a deckled white trim along it's wing's lower edge. It was at least 1-1/4 times bigger than the Checker Spot. They seemed to be in a disagreement, who knew!
After the hike we drove through town. Wendi directed me to a restaurant we had seen high-lighted on "Check Please! Arizona". "Cafe Jose" and thankfully it was back on the 179 in the Village of Oak Creek, far away from all the tourist traffic in Sedona proper. On the trail I had the sudden urge for a hot dog so I was excited to see something called "Devil Dogs". Two premium hotdogs wrapped in bacon and a heaping helping of chili on top. Seriously the best "Sonoran Style" dog I have had to date! Man was it good. Of course I was obliged to help Wendi with her Beef Quesadilla. It was stuffed with juicy shredded beef, lots of it. With it's large menu and an absolutely huge mural of Bell Rock I can officially recommend this as one of my facorite "Best After Hike Dines" for this area.