Each year, scores of windshield tourists flock to Sedona to marvel at the soaring red-rock spires, sweeping sandstone cliffs, and postcard-perfect vistas. But don’t worry: With 58 miles of trail in Coconino National Forest’s Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness, solitude-seeking backpackers won’t be seeing red-except for the rocks, that is.
This time out, I head to Secret Canyon, the longest and most remote of the technicolor gorges that feed into the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness Dry Creek drainage. I arrive at the trailhead—just 15 minutes from downtown Sedona—on a sunny day in late winter. It feels like I’ve come by teleporter, so abrupt is the switch from concrete to sandstone.
The first 2 miles of trail, along which I encounter a few dayhikers, lead through the desert’s surprisingly verdant garden of blue-green agave, yucca, manzanita, and cactus, and in the background are canyons the color of hot embers. The desert air is crisp, and the trail in the dry creekbed is an easy one. (On the rare occasions when the creek floods, the trail becomes inaccessible. Contact a ranger for conditions before you go.)
Neck-craning pinnacles mark the gateway of Secret Canyon proper, where sandstone walls close in and the rocky creekbed holds sparkling pools. The permanent water sources in Upper Secret Canyon are a rare treasure, making it an ideal basecamp. Pines and oaks appear more frequently
as the ravine wraps around the northeast side of Secret Mountain. The maintained trail ends in the upper canyon, close to creekside, pine-shaded campsites.
From here, an unofficial trail climbs 3 miles to a junction with the Secret Mountain and Loy Canyon Trails. The USDA Forest Service discourages use of this steep, unsafe route, however, so hikers who want to summit Secret Mountain should start at the Loy Canyon trailhead. From there, it’s 16 miles round-trip.
When I finally head back down the canyon, I learn that the wilderness has one more secret up its sleeve: the red-rock views are even more mesmerizing on the way back.