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.
DRIVE TIME: Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness is minutes from Sedona, 110 miles north of Phoenix, and 25 miles south of Flagstaff.
THE WAY: From AZ 89A at the southern border of Sedona, turn right (north) onto Dry Creek Road (Forest Service Road 152C). Continue for 2 miles and then turn right onto Forest Service Road 152 and drive 3.2 miles to the Secret Canyon trailhead (on the left). The unpaved Forest Service Road 152 usually is passable with low-clearance vehicles.
TRAILS: Most trails in the wilderness dead-end in canyons, so hikers who want more miles should combine several trails. From junctions along the 5-mile Secret Canyon Trail, you can access another 8 miles of trail. H.S. Canyon Trail diverges south into another dead-end canyon, while the new Dave Miller Trail (not shown on most maps) connects to Bear Sign Canyon Trail. For the 16-mile-round-trip Loy Canyon-Secret Mountain route, start at the Loy Canyon trailhead on Forest Service Road 525.
ELEVATION: The canyon floor is 4,700 feet, while Secret Mountain tops out at 6,600 feet.
CAN'T MISS: Sunset on the red rocks.
CROWD CONTROL: Spring is the most popular backpacking season in Red
Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness. Go before March for the best chance of solitude.
WALK SOFTLY: The desert environment is more fragile than it looks. Cactus, yucca, and agave are damaged easily, so stay on the trails.
CONTACT: Coconino National Forest, Sedona Ranger District, (520) 282-4119; www.fs.fed.us/r3/coconino