A Breathtaking Sunrise Hike Up Sedona’s Cathedral Rock
There are experiences that, for some reason, I try to talk myself out of until the last possible moment. And hiking Sedona’s Cathedral Rock at sunrise was one of those things.
I’m almost always happy when I push through and convince myself to do the thing, though, and this was no exception. This sunrise hike is absolutely breathtaking, in more ways than one…in the heart-pounding challenge of its steep climb, nervous trembling in the sheer drop-offs, and silent, aching beauty of the sunrise views.
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So why was I hesitant to tackle Cathedral Rock at sunrise? I mean, it’s an iconic hike, beautiful scenery, steep but short (only 1.5 miles round trip). What’s not to love?? Honestly, my biggest worry was actually getting back DOWN the smooth stone due to some more limited mobility issues I have.
I’m in reasonably good shape, run every day, enjoy (some) hiking, and love a good sunrise photo op, but have old ankle and hip injuries plus a super painful bunion that had been abused all week with my Sedona hiking. I was especially worried about the nimble scrambling needed to get down steep smooth rock without hurting myself.
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It was still almost full-dark when I pulled into the trailhead parking lot, zipped up my fleece, and started up the trail behind a few other folks. The sky was just barely starting to lighten to a dark inky blue, so I had to use my flashlight at first to see the trail, but my eyes adjusted fairly quickly.
I tried to keep a decent pace at first so that I didn’t miss the actual sunrise from the top, but gave myself permission to stop and rest whenever needed.
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I was happy to be able to follow those first few hikers, so I didn’t have to worry about seeing the scant trail markers in the dark and could focus solely on not spraining an ankle.
Since most of the trail is rock, there are rock cairns placed at strategic points to guide you (there might be some painted white diamonds but you can’t see those in the dark). Even with the cairns, though, it’s tough to tell where to go at times. At a couple key trail junctures you’ll get a sign as well, but they’re few and far between.
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And then I hit an almost-vertical seam in the rock that required me to kind of shimmy-climb up. I tried to brace myself on either side but my foot was killing me and I was like…”there is NO way I’ll be able to get down this again.” I decided that I’d gone far enough (I thought I was near the top, which is…laughable now).
I truly almost gave up and decided to watch the sunrise from there. But then a couple came up behind me with headlamps on and saw that there were little footholds carved into the rock all the way up. Not easy, but totally doable. The pics below show it from the top looking down.
So I took a deep breath and hauled myself up that rock crevice and kept going. And wow, I’m glad I did!
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After passing that test, I thought for sure that I was close to the top. I kept climbing, and MAN, it was steep! And I later discovered I had been *maybe* halfway at that point.
The early sunrise colors were really starting to develop at this point, so I kept stopping to take pictures—the need to get to the top for sunrise was warring with the need to get hundreds of photos of the gorgeous vistas partway up.
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And I finally made it to the end of the trail…behold, Cathedral Rock at sunrise! The timing was perfect, with the pinks, purples, and oranges sweeping across the sky against the rusty red rocks.
Tiny person in this first pic for perspective…
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I basked in the pearly pink and soft purple glow as they started to shift to fierier peaches and yellows, and took tons of pictures.
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My uncle had given me instructions for finding the hidden pillar where the vortex is…I tried really hard to follow them exactly but I didn’t succeed. Apparently if you get to the end of the trail and hang a left, follow a rocky hill you’ll find it. Good luck!
Instead, I took more pictures 🙂
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Finally I undertook the hike down with some trepidation. I slowly but surely made my way back down the mountain…often sliding on my butt for safety reasons.
Seriously, so much butt sliding. Tried not to ruin my brand-new yoga pants.
The hordes were *just* starting to ascend Cathedral Rock by the time I got near the bottom, a steady trickle that was growing by the minute. Parking was getting tight (around 7:30am), and people were thrilled to get the spot I backed out of. It definitely looks different (and easier) in the daylight!
If you’re planning to hike Cathedral Rock in Sedona, make sure you bring plenty of water no matter what time it is, and sunscreen if you’re hiking during the day. I hear it’s gorgeous at sunset too, but in my mind I’d be more nervous trying to hike back DOWN in the twilight and dark.
From a timing standpoint, I arrived about 30 minutes before the sunrise and that timing worked out nicely, but I did keep a pretty steady pace up the trail. By the time the sun actually rose, the parking lot was completely full.
So should you hike Cathedral Rock at sunrise??
The short answer is, it depends. The views from the top at sunrise (or any time of day, I’m sure) are stunning, and for me were totally worth the challenging hike. In fact I enjoyed much of it—it’s like I EARNED those views! But here are a few things to consider:
- This hike is short but rated difficult, as most of it is vertical and parts require hand/foot scrambling. It is a pretty challenging hike, and not for the faint of heart due to the steep, sheer trail. If you have a fear of heights, this is not the hike for you. I enjoy heights, and still my heart was pounding in a few places as I pondered the consequences of falling.
- The trail is almost entirely rock and you definitely need to have good shoes, either hiking shoes or at least tennis shoes with a good grip. You are basically rock climbing in a few places. I saw a few people without appropriate shoes really struggling, as well as some people who needed walking sticks to steady them even on the flat parts and I was honestly terrified for them.
- Even if you’re not super fit, I think hiking Cathedral Rock is doable for many people, even if you need to take your time. The challenge with this can be that you’ll be holding other hikers up at some points. There are far fewer hikers at sunrise (nice, less crowded), but they also have a goal and timing in mind, so just be considerate and stay to the side so they can pass.
- Not sunrise-specific, but the trailhead parking lot of Cathedral Rock as well as the parking lot at the top of Chapel of the Holy Cross are supposed to be amazing for stargazing.
Where to stay in Sedona: I stayed at Enchantment Resort which is a major splurge and while the location is amazing, I didn’t feel like the property quite lived up to the price (see deeper review). On the more luxury end, next time I would still splurge a bit but try Amara instead.
I also stayed a couple nights at Arabella and would recommend it as a great mid-range option. It has a nice courtyard and pool, and they plan lots of activities that guests can join in on (happy hours, stargazing, hikes, etc.). It’s also a pet friendly option.
Other breathtaking active sunrises & sunsets you’ll love:
- Sunrise at Bryce Canyon National Park
- Santorini At Sunrise: Solo Hiking From Imerovigli To Oia
- Why a Sunrise Hike Up Masada Should Be On your Bucket List
- Hiking Yant Flat & “Candy Cliffs” At Sunset: A Must In St. George, Utah
- Sailing In Turkey: 2 Days On The Stunning Turquoise Coast
- Sleeping in a Norwegian Sami Tent & Other Arctic Adventures at Camp Tamok
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