Rock Climbing Around Sedona in Arizona

Sedona Climbing Area Description and Trip Planning Info

The Cathedral Spires group, including The Mace, tower above Red Rock Crossing near Sedona. Photograph copyright Stephanie Sawyer/Getty Images

Sedona is Red Rock Country

Sedona, a trendy resort town and arts colony, sits amidst spectacular sandstone country in lower Oak Creek Canyon. The canyon begins at the Mogollon Rim to the north and plunges southward through an abrupt chasm lined with magnificent sandstone walls before it widens at Sedona. The Sedona area forms an ecological transition zone between the Colorado Plateau to the north and the arid Sonoran Desert to the south, with plants and animals from both areas mingling together.

Towering sandstone cliffs, sculpted by weathering and erosion into spires, buttes, buttresses, and soaring walls, surround the town of Sedona and form a geologic and scenic marvel that attracts tourists, hikers, and rock climbers.

New Age Sedona

The Sedona area also attracts crystal hunters, spiritual seekers, and other New Agers who search for enlightenment in this cosmic red rock country. The psychic author Page Bryant wrote in 1981 that Sedona was our planet’s “heart chakra,” a place filled with more vortices or Earth-energy emanation sites than anywhere else on the planet. A vortex is a natural energy spot that discharges three kinds of energy—an electric or positive charge, a magnetic or negative charge, and an electromagnetic or balanced charge. These charges are measurable with electronic instruments. Some of the area’s largest vortices are at Cathedral Rock, Boynton Canyon, Bell Rock, and the man-made Medicine Wheel vortex on Schnebly Hill Road.

Rock climbers will undoubtedly find vortices on their chosen pinnacles, and perhaps even find some inner peace after their vertical adventures.

Geology of Sedona Cliffs

Geologists call Sedona’s red sandstone, deposited in a desert about 275 million years ago, the Schnebly Hill Formation. This thick sandstone layer ranges in quality from very good to very bad.

Some sections are compact, hard, and reliable for climbing, while other areas are composed of soft and brittle rock more akin to dried brown sugar. Tim Toula, who wrote an area guidebook, calls the rock “sandy, friable, hollow, unprotectable, choked with loose blocks.”

The climbing here is similar to that found at other sandstone areas like Colorado’s Garden of the Gods and in the red-rock desert around Moab in Utah. Climbers used to granite or limestone cliffs will find excitement when climbing fragile dinner plate–sized flakes, sandy friction footholds, crumbling edges, and rubble-filled chimneys. But they will also find wild, exciting routes that finish atop airy sky summits that offer stunning views. Many of the area’s newer routes in Oak Creek Canyon are on excellent sandstone.

Sedona Climbing Seasons

Climbing is possible year-round in Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon. The best climbing time is during the spring months of April and May and from October until the middle of December. Expect moderate temperatures and usually dry conditions. Summer days can be too hot for comfortable climbing. If you do climb in the warm months, get an early start and climb in the shade.

Isolated, heavy thunderstorms regularly occur on July and August afternoons during the Arizona monsoon season.

Watch out for bad weather and large thunderstorms moving across the area.  Be alert to the dangers of lightning by retreating from high summits and cliffs before the storm. Winter days are often too cold for comfortable climbing, but you can also find sunshine and warmth.

Sedona's average daily high temperatures in winter are 58 in January and 57 in December. Spring temperatures are great, with daily highs averaging 66 in March and 74 in April. Summer temperatures can be hot, especially in the sun, with daily highs averaging 93 in June, 96 in July, and 94 in August. Autumn is also a great time to climb at Sedona. Expect average daily highs of 78 in October and 66 in November.

Sedona Climbing Dangers

Many objective climbing dangers are found on the Sedona spires and cliffs. These hazards include loose rock, including blocks and boulders; handholds that break; old bolts; hard-to-find protection; questionable and unsafe belay and rappel anchors; and heinous hiking approaches through gullies and canyons filled with cat claw acacia, Spanish bayonet, and cacti.

Here are some suggestions for a safe climbing day: Wear a helmet on all climbs. Climb softly and gently on fragile sandstone. Do not climb on wet rock; sandstone is fragile and easily breaks when it is wet after rain or snow. Place lots of gear in the soft rock. Back up all fixed anchors. Replace rappel slings. And as local guidebook author Tim Toula once wrote, “Don’t fall! To fall on a route here is sheer stupidity.”

Keep in mind that many of Sedona’s classic routes are rated conservatively, especially if you are unaccustomed to sandstone climbing.

Sandstone Climbing Tips

Use soft rock-climbing techniques to guarantee that you’ll come back for another sandstone adventure. Pull down, not out, on flakes and handholds, use stemming moves and mantles, blow sand off dicey footholds before weighting your foot, watch for loose blocks and boulders, and don’t fall. Protection is often hard to judge. When in doubt, sew it up. That way at least one piece might hold a fall. Tri-Cams and Hexentric nuts often work better in cracks than camming devices. Never trust a single bolt for an anchor. Always back it up for safety and a long life. Belay and rappel anchors are being replaced with modern bolts and rappel chains on many of Sedona’s well-traveled routes.

Climbing Equipment

A standard rack for climbing towers at Sedona includes two sets of Friends, Camalots, or similar camming devices, a set of wired Stoppers or other nuts, a selection of Hexentric nuts and Tri-Cams, a few off-width pieces like a #5 Camalot and a Big Bro, and two ropes.

Bring extra webbing to replace worn or dried slings on rappel anchors. The desert climate and bright sun quickly weakens fixed webbing. On most of the routes, climbers do not need to bring a bolt kit to replace or add bolts or fixed pitons.

Location

Central Arizona. Sedona lies west of Interstate 17 between Flagstaff and Phoenix. The town is 29 miles south of Flagstaff and Interstate 80 on Arizona Highway 89A.

Distances to Sedona from Major Cities

  • Phoenix AZ: 115 miles.
  • Flagstaff AZ: 29 miles.
  • Tucson AZ: 233 miles.
  • Albuquerque NM: 353 miles.
  • Denver CO: 706 miles.
  • Salt Lake City UT: 547 miles.
  • Las Vegas NV: 275 miles.
  • Los Angeles CA: 480 miles.
  • San Diego CA: 462 miles.
  • San Francisco CA: 790 miles.
  • Dallas TX: 996 miles.

Management Agency

Coconino National Forest, 1824 S. Thompson Street, Flagstaff, AZ 86001. (928) 527-3600.  

Restrictions and Access Issues

None currently. While all the towers are on national forest land, some of the approaches cross private property. Use discretion and keep a low profile. Many of the popular climbs are in designated wilderness areas. Also, pick up after yourself—your mother is not here to do that for you.

Guidebooks

  • Rock Climbing Arizona by Stewart M. Green, Falcon Guides, 1999. A guide to all the best towers near Sedona.
  • Sedona Rocks: A Climber’s Guide by David Bloom, K. Daniels Associates, 2012.
  • Castles in the Sand: A climber's guide to Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon by David Bloom, Sharpend, 2002.
  • A Better Way to Die: Rock Climber’s Guide to Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon by Tim Toula, Falcon Publishing/Chockstone Press, 1995, is a no-frills guide to the Sedona spires and Oak Creek Canyon.

    Camping

    Best campgrounds are the Coconino National Forest ones in Oak Creek Canyon. These  campgrounds—Pine Flats, Cave Springs, Bootlegger, Banjo Bill, and Manzanita—are open from mid-May through mid-September. Good primitive campsites are found along the Schnebly Hill Road east of Sedona.

    Services

    All services are found in Sedona including lots of lodging choices and excellent restaurants. In case of emergency, call 911. For rescues, call 911 for the Sedona Fire Department.

    For More Information

    Coconino National Forest, 1824 S. Thompson Street, Flagstaff, AZ 86001. (928) 527-3600.  

    Climbing Shops and Guide Services