Trail to the Cow Pies & Mitten Ridge, Sedona


Long before arriving in Sedona, I had read about the trail to Mitten Ridge.  It sounded awesome, and I put it on my list of hike-if-at-all-possible trails.  But, I worried one thing would stand in my way, the miserably rough Schnebly Hill Road.  I knew the trailhead was about 3.5 miles up the road, making it more than 2.5 miles from the end of the pavement.  I wasn’t sure if my low clearance rental car could handle it.

On my first night in Sedona, I tried to drive Schnebly Hill Road’s rough surface, just to see if I cold.  My poor car crawled along at, perhaps, 3 miles per hour, as 4×4’s rumbled past me.  Within a half mile, I had given up.  “If-at-all-possible” started to look impossible.

Fast-forward to Day 4.  Once again I was itching to tackle Mitten Ridge.  I had just hiked/climbed up Bell Rock, surrounded by dozens of people.  I wanted to go somewhere less popular, a place where I could see something most casual tourists avoid.  Again, my thoughts landed on Mitten Ridge.

I had grown to hate my rental car.  Although it was brand new (it had 2 miles on it when I left the rental complex at McCarran), it was a piece of junk.  It rattled.  It squeaked.  It went “tink” instead of “thud” when you closed the door.  It deserved Schnebly Hill Road.

So off I bounced, up Schnebly’s rocky grade, at a brisk speed that made getting out and walking more appealing.  There was no “good part”… no place to speed up.  Left side, right side, it was all the same.  Sharp rocks threatened my tires and my alignment (only one of which I particularly cared about).  I counted the tenths of a mile as they ticked off.  After a short drive that lasted well over a half hour, I spotted it:

The parking area for Mitten Ridge.  After all that effort, would I even be able to crawl up there?  With a deep breath and a short prayer, I eased my way over the drainage pipe, and past the deep ruts on either side.  Could the trail itself be any bigger adventure than the drive?

The trail to Mitten Ridge is certainly not as well-polished as many of the other popular hikes in Sedona.  The trailhead, across the street from the slickrock slab parking area, is marked by a modest wood sign, that mentions the Cow Pies, but forgets to acknowledge Mitten Ridge.

After just a couple of minutes of hiking, there’s a clearing, and suddenly you’re standing in the middle of one of Sedona’s energy vortexes.  Those blessed with the gift of detecting these energies (of which I am not one) have taken the seemingly out-of-place black volcanic rock that’s scattered around this area, and arranged it into a few large medicine wheels.  In the distance is Mitten Ridge (that “saddle” between the two hills).

The rings overlap, perhaps inspired by a MasterCard commercial.  A Red Rock Hike: Priceless.

If you don’t feel like making the long hike out to Mitten Ridge, you can spend some time exploring the Cow Pies.  These large, mostly barren expanses of slickrock stretch out into the middle of the valley…

… and if you walk out to the end, you get a great view of the Mitten Ridge saddle.  (You’ll get a better idea of what the Cow Pies look like on the next page, with the view from the Merry Go Round.)

There are a few cairns arranged on the Cow Pies, which provide some guidance, but you can roam whichever way you like, without any harm.

Making your way from the Cow Pies back onto the Mitten Ridge Trail can be a little tricky.  There’s not a wrong way; whichever way you make is the right one.  It’s fairly obvious where you need to go, so head in that general direction, and you’ll end up on the trail.

After the Cow Pies, the trail isn’t well defined.  There are a few cairns, and in other places, the trail appears “swept”–in other words, it’s the area free from rocks, gravel, and dirt.

In some places, it’s narrow, squeezing in between cactus and trees…

… and at other times, it takes you out to the edge.  (By the way, those are the Cow Pies in the distance.)

Okay, there’s a cairn.  Quite a nice one, too.

Getting closer to Mitten Ridge, you pass through a field of rocks, strewn about the sloping hillside. 

When you reach the saddle, one last climb remains.  You can’t just climb up the middle of the saddle (unless you want to scale a vertical wall), but there is a path to the right of the ridge that takes you…

… here.  Mitten Ridge is remarkably smooth and flat, and much wider than the saddle at Cathedral Rock.  Anyone who feels afraid of heights can comfortably stay in the middle, at least ten feet from either edge.

Above, you see the view looking west.  It’s not great, because the sun was already sinking in the sky.

The view back to the east, however, was spectacular.

Look to the north, and you can see Rte. 89a as it emerges from Oak Creek Canyon…

… and crosses the landmark Midgely Bridge.

Be careful on the slanted slopes of Mitten Ridge.  After hiking for a while on an incline, I noticed that I was underestimating the degree of the slant, and ended up slipping a few times.  It’s kinda like walking on a roof–once you get used to it, you forget that it’s a long way down, and there isn’t anything that will stop you.

I stayed for at least a half hour on the saddle.  After a long hike, it would be wrong to turn around any sooner.

On the way back, the trail was less obvious than it was before.  There are several ledges on the side of the mountain, but only one allows for a hike back to the Cow Pies.  The other ledges look promising at first, but eventually end at an impassable slope or cliff edge.

Is there a trail here?  I don’t think so.

I ended up climbing putting my camera away, and focusing all my efforts on rediscovering the path.  I climbed up washes like this one, and down over bare-faced rock, and in the process, I probably crossed directly over the poorly-marked trail a couple of times.  There was never a risk of getting lost — I knew which direction I needed to go, it was just a struggle to find the route that would take me there.  Eventually, I lucked upon a better-marked section, and the rest of the trip was easy.

I made it back to the car, about 2 1/2 hours after starting on the trail.  As I once again rolled over that bottom-scraping drainage pipe, I had a choice: bump back down the rocky dirt road, back to the safety of pavement, or push my luck even farther, headed on up Schnebly Hill Road.  Well, that first choice wouldn’t have been very interesting at all, would it?

Note: This trip was first published in 2007.

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