Chimney Rock & Thunder Mountain Trails, Sedona


Spend even a small amount of time in Sedona, and you will inevitably, at some point, turn off 89A onto Dry Creek Road, heading up to the vast area of red rock canyons and hills along Forest Road 152C.  I have made this turn a few dozen times over the past few years.  And most of those times, My eyes have been drawn to a couple of hills nearby — including one with some rocky “fingers” sticking up on top of it.   On this day, I decided to investigate, and I ended up finding some fairly easy and versatile trails that are certainly underappreciated.


You can access Thunder Mountain and Chimney Rock Trails at a parking area on Thunder Mountain/Sanborn Roads (Thunder Mountain turns into Sanborn).  From Dry Creek Road, turn right on Thunder Mountain Road, then watch for the parking area on your left.

My Visit

There are actually four trails here: Thunder Mountain trail is a bike/hike path that sees a lot of use, while Upper and Lower Chimney Rock Trails make a figure-8.  The Lower trail circles around the small hill that’s just south of Chimney Rock, while the Upper trail is the one that actually circles around Chimney Rock itself.  Half of the Upper trail is also part of Thunder Mountain trail.  The fourth trail is a short spur, that takes you to the top of the small hill.  Don’t worry, it will all make sense when you look at the map at the trailhead.

I didn’t have a lot of time, so I decided my first goal would be to climb the short spur trail to the top of the small hill.  That trail breaks off Upper Chimney Rock Trail, at roughly the center of the figure-8.  The trail starts off with a nice view of Chimney Rock Hill, although you can’t see the chimney itself from here.

You will come upon quite a few junctions in the trail, all of which are well-signed, so you don’t have to do much guessing.

This is the small hill.  You can see, the north side has a more gentle slope than the rest of the hill, and thankfully, this is where the spur trail makes its climb.

Just beyond the point where the Upper and Lower trails split…

… there’s another sign, pointing the way to the summit.

The climb to the top of the hill was definitely the most challenging part of this entire hike.  The trail isn’t well defined, and several times, I had to choose between two ‘iffy’ paths that both looked somewhat dangerous.  A hiking stick is almost mandatory, because of all the loose gravel, but I didn’t have one with me.  So, I used extra caution, took it slow, and with a little luck…

… I made it to the top.  There’s a nice, rounded rock dome at the summit (you can see just a little bit of it in the lower left corner of the picture above), that would be perfect for a nap on a sunny day.  Of course, as you can see, this was a cool and cloudy day, not exactly ideal for sprawling out on a rock.  Grey skies aside, the view from the top of the hill was spectacular.  This is the perfect place to get a look at Chimney Rock and Capitol Butte, one of Sedona’s most dramatic mountains.

That’s the “chimney”, which, from certain angles, looks a lot like three fingers pointing skyward.  In this picture those fingers blend in with the mountain behind them, but in real-life it’s easy to tell them apart.

The view at the top of the hill is a 360-degree experience, allowing you to see almost all of West Sedona’s residential neighborhoods from here…

… as well as Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte.  They are both a good distance to the south, on the other side of Sedona’s airport (on top of that mesa).

Of course, I managed to get the traditional shot of my feet.  Then, I used those feet to carefully scramble back down the side of the hill.  Down may have been more difficult than up, as you try to hold back gravity. Again, the summit trail is treacherous!

Back at the middle of the figure-8. I decided I had enough time to complete the upper loop, which circles around Chimney Rock.

As you go around the upper loop, you will experience plenty of different perspectives on Chimney Rock…

… and the hill on which it sits.

Directly behind Chimney Rock is Lizard Head, an extension of the larger Capitol Butte mountain.  As you head towards Lizard Head, the upper loop trail needs to climb a bit here, since it will soon turn to the right, and slip through a pass in between Capitol Butte and Chimney Rock.

Near the pass, you’ll have another chance to do some climbing.  A outcropping of red rock rises up on the north side of the trail.  I didn’t try to climb it, so I don’t know if you can easily reach the top.

From the pass, you get one more good look back at Lizard Head…

… and one more view of the chimney, before dropping down.

As the trail drops, you have some more nice views of West Sedona.

Eventually the two trails meet up again, and you will once again have to watch out for mountain bike traffic.

I wouldn’t recommend the Lower Chimney Rock Trial, unless you have some extra energy and time to spare.  The only thing you’ll see along the lower trail is the small hill (the one with the spur trail), and it’s not nearly as scenic as the other hills and mountains in the area. 

Note: This page was first published in 2008.

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