Sedona, AZ: The hike around Courthouse Butte puts the spotlight on several of Sedona’s celebrated formations, including Bell Rock, the Rabbit Ears, Spaceship Rock, and the Baby Bell, with sweeping vistas that encompass Cathedral Rock, Munds Mountain Wilderness, the Chapel Area, and Thunder Mountain.
One of the better known formations in red rock country, Courthouse Butte looms large on the horizon, driving north on SR 179 toward Sedona. Located adjacent to Bell Rock, a similarly famous formation and vortex site, the Courthouse Butte Loop, approximately four miles in length, is a moderate hike that requires an hour or two to complete.
Above: Southside of Courthouse Butte, a short distance from the Bell Rock Vista.
The picturesque Butte towers over Bell Rock, sloping upward into sheer walls and rocky crevices where desert gardens cling, its colors and contours ever changing as you progress around the Loop. Gambel's quail skitter beneath the junipers, or explode in a clamor of flight that can be quite startling to the unprepared.
Plump agave (left), a staple food of the prehistoric Sinagua (pronounced sin-ah-wa) people who lived in the region, is abundant, as are yucca, sotol and manzanita. A pleasant hike at almost any time of the year, the Loop is especially beautiful during spring with a bountiful eruption of regional wildflowers and desert plant blossoms - one of the many reasons Courthouse Butte is so frequently featured in photographs of the area.
There are two approaches to the trail: from the north side starting at the Courthouse Butte Vista parking lot, or from the south starting out at the Bell Rock Vista parking lot.
Taking off from the north side of the Butte, the Loop trail intersects with several other trails, making it confusing to follow, and the ascent is narrow, rocky and steep. For this reason, I find it easier to start out from the Bell Rock Pathway, and coming out at this end, dropping down rather than climbing up.
From the south, the Loop trail follows the Bell Rock Pathway for a short distance then branches off to the right on a more narrow track that follows the contours of the land around the Butte. Although there isn’t a big jump in elevation from this direction, there are a few ups and downs as the trail crosses washes and patches of rocky terrain.
The Loop essentially circles the southeastern side of Courthouse Butte, coming to a streambed. The trail rises up out of the drainage and, if there’s no problem with water, you can walk the bedrock to where it meets up with the dirt trail again (marked by large rock cairns). From here, the trail makes a gradual climb, topping out at the eastern-most point of the Loop, with magnificent views of the Munds Mountain Wilderness area, including the Rabbit Ears formation.
Above: Spaceship Rock, site of a lesser-known Sedona Vortex.
Circling around to the north, the trail drops across an open space and swings around Spaceship Rock, a red-rock mound that is included on the list of Sedona’s vortex sites, although lesser known than the others and not as frequently visited. It’s possible to climb to the top of Spaceship Rock from the western gently sloping side; once over, you're likely to see other hikers meandering at the top. (So, no — those voices you were hearing are not aliens!)
Above: Trail around Courthouse Butte.
Once past Spaceship Rock, it’s approximately a mile to where the Loop trail reconnects with the Bell Rock Pathway. However, the trail takes a few steep drops and climbs, becoming much narrower in patches, and at times quite rocky. The Baby Bell formation and Cathedral Rock can be seen directly ahead on the trail, and at this juncture the spectacular vista of Sedona’s red rock country comes into view. The Loop reconnects with the Bell Rock Pathway, circling the northwest side of the formation back to the Bell Rock Vista parking lot.
Fast Facts about Courthouse Butte Loop
Location: Village of Oak Creek
Elevation: 4000 feet
Red Rock Pass: Required. Day and weekly passes available on site.
Bell Rock Vista: Small paved parking lot, including spots for RV parking (that can fill up quickly during seasonal months). Concrete picnic tables. Accessible (vault type) toilets. Covered gazebo with a regional hiking map and information, and benches.
Courthouse Butte Vista: Small paved parking lot (fills up quickly during seasonal months). Accessible (vault type) toilets. Regional hiking map and information.
The Village of Oak Creek is close by with gas, restaurants, market, and lodging.
From I-17: Take Exit 298 to Sedona; eight miles to the Bell Rock Vista parking lot.
From SR 89A/179 (double roundabout formerly known as “The Y”): South on SR 179; seven miles to the Bell Rock Vista parking lot.
Article and photos by Terree L. Duncan, Editor.