North Wilson Trail

Photo: Although it’s a strenuous climb, the views from the summit of Wilson Mountain are some of the best in Red Rock Country. | Shane McDermott
Coconino National Forest, Sedona
By Robert Stieve

‘‘There’s more than one way up a mountain.” Those eight words are often used figuratively in religious debates. They’re also used literally when describing Wilson Mountain. There are two routes to the top: Wilson Mountain and North Wilson. The first, which begins at Midgley Bridge near Sedona, gets most of the foot traffic. It’s a great hike — it’s one of only a handful of National Recreation Trails in Arizona — but this time of year, North Wilson is the better option. More hardwoods. More color.

The trailhead is located at the Encinoso Picnic Area, about 3 miles beyond Midgley Bridge. Once you’ve laced up your boots, head north across the parking lot and look for a narrow path in the tall grass. Within a few steps, you’ll hear the perennial sounds of Oak Creek in the distance. The track is red dirt and rock, and the surrounding trees are mostly ponderosa pines and alligator junipers. You might see wildflowers, too, especially on the north-facing slopes of the little-known side canyon through which you’ll be hiking. 

As you begin to climb, the trail follows a steep ravine to the right. Then, after about 10 minutes, you’ll cross into the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness. Most of the old-growth sentries that used to welcome hikers to this protected area were lost in the Brins Fire of 2006. However, over the past 10 years, a large crop of young oaks, some as high as 20 feet, has sprouted up. This sprawling grove of trees is the reason North Wilson is the better route in the fall. Deer like it, too.

Continuing up, the climb is gradual, and the only real challenge is navigating a small wash cluttered with thickets of new growth. Beyond that, it’s into the woods, where spruce, more oaks and the start of the switchbacks steal the show. The first few switches are benign, but they’re quickly followed by a gantlet of back and forth — it’s Mother Nature’s way of culling the herd. The route is steep, and in some places, the trail is washed out. Watch your step, especially on the way back down. 

Although the switchbacks are brutal, there are places along the way where the canopy opens up, offering a good excuse to stop, catch your breath and get glimpses of the surrounding landscape. Back on the trail, you’ll eventually come to an ancient juniper. It’s dead, and it signals the beginning of the end of the switchbacks. From there, the trail levels off a little before arriving atop a landform known as First Bench of Wilson Mountain.

What you’ll see up top is cattle country. High chaparral. You’ll also get a 360-degree look at why Red Rock Country is the subject of so many books, calendars and postcards. Enjoy the views and continue for about 20 minutes to an intersection with the Wilson Mountain Trail. 

Technically, this is the end of North Wilson, but most hikers turn right and keep on truckin’ along the Wilson Mountain Trail. Initially, the surrounding terrain is prairie grass and yuccas. However, after a few easy switchbacks, the trail arrives at another area of new growth, one that’s dotted with blackened snags (dead trees). Five minutes later, the trail levels off and the snags give way to ponderosas. Somehow, the Brins Fire missed this mini forest (not a technical term). It’s a small area, though, and before you know it, you’ll be back among the detritus. 

Although fire zones can be depressing, and make hiking unappealing, that’s not at all the case on Wilson Mountain, which is named for Richard Wilson, an old bear hunter who lived nearby. Ironically, he was killed in 1885 by a grizzly in a canyon that now bears his name.

The rest of the route to Wilson Mountain Peak (elevation 6,933 feet) is quick and easy. There’s an established overlook to the left, from which you can see Oak Creek Canyon, Coffeepot Rock, Capitol Butte, Jerome and the Verde Valley. It’s an obvious turnaround point, but if you have the time, a level trail continues for about a mile to the edge of Sterling Canyon. On a mountain with so many remarkable views, this last look is the best. It’s worth the extra effort. Regardless of which trail you take to the top.

Trail Guide

Length: 10.8 miles round-trip (to Sterling Canyon overlook)
Difficulty: Strenuous
Elevation: 4,682 to 6,933 feet
Trailhead GPS: N 34˚55.505', W 111˚44.134'
Directions: From the roundabout intersection of State Route 179 and State Route 89A in Sedona, go north on SR 89A for 5.2 miles to the Encinoso Picnic Area on the left.
Special Consideration: A $5 day pass is required.
Vehicle Requirements: None
Dogs Allowed: Yes
Horses Allowed: Yes
USGS Maps: Munds Mountain, Sedona
Information: Red Rock Ranger District, 928-203-2900 or