Exploring Sedona’s beautiful red rock country on dirt roads is a time-honored tradition. Guided jeep tours are a popular means of exploring rugged canyons, visiting remote Indian ruins, and taking in fantastic scenery. You can also rent a jeep, or drive your own high-clearance or four-wheel drive vehicle.
Every road into Sedona qualifies as a scenic drive, but Schnebly Hill, a 13-mile, rutted, steep, twisted corkscrew journey, tops them all. One of the best known and scenic routes in the Sedona area, this former cow trail became the main route from Sedona to Flagstaff before being replaced by the Oak Creek Canyon Road (Route 89A) in 1914.
The road is named after pioneer, Carl Schnebly, who settled near Oak Creek in 1900, building a home and general store. He became the area’s first postmaster naming the postal station after his wife, Sedona, who later became the namesake for the town.
The road’s driving condition varies greatly, depending on weather and how recently the grader has been through. Most drivers in a high clearance two-wheel drive vehicle can negotiate the Schnebly Hill Road if they take it slow. A family sedan is not suitable as the road is rocky in places. The road becomes impassable when wet.
You can travel the road in an hour or spend a day on the journey, reveling amidst the variety of sandstone colors—scarlet, carmine, vermilion, cerise, ruby, claret, magenta, bittersweet—which have tested artists’ palettes, photographers’ lenses, and poets’ vocabularies for decades. The colors change constantly with the passage of the sun, making them, it seems, always just out of reach of the artists.
Starting at the top maximizes the drama. Take Exit 320 off I-17. You can also drive the other way—bottom to top—but starting at the top is more dramatic. Turn west onto Schnebly Hill Road (Forest Road 153).
The first stretch takes you through a lovely forest of tall ponderosa pines. Here the road is lined with historic ranches, grassy cienegas (marshes), and a mountain lake. Once you reach the rim, the vistas are breathtaking. Abruptly, the road tumbles off the edge of the world into a wonderland of sandstone.
Plunging 2,000 feet through red-rock panoramas, outstanding vistas stretch out before you.
Alternately, you may opt to begin at State Route 179 in Sedona. The first mile deceives the unwary. It’s paved! But it quickly changes into an undeceiving pock-marked, rutted dirt road which climbs Bear Wallow Canyon, then twists and turns up the hill. There are some drop-offs but by driving uphill you’re always on the inside.
Along the way, narrow turnouts provide an opportunity for visitors to marvel at the unfolding landscape.
After ascending six miles you reach the spectacular Schnebly Hill Vista, about 1,800 feet higher than Sedona.
At 6,000 feet, the vista overlooks Verde Valley and the town of Sedona, Steamboat Rock at the mouth of Oak Creek, Airport Mesa (formally Table Top Mountain) to the west-southwest, Chimney Rock and the Cockscomb farther west, and the mineral-rich Mingus Mountain to the southwestern horizon.
The route continues climbing, eventually reaching ponderosa pine forests. Four miles from the vista point, the road passes a meadow area at an old ranch called Foxboro. The road then ends at I-17 in three more miles.
You may then return to Sedona via I-17 and Oak Creek Canyon.
A third option worthy of consideration is to drive the Schnebly Hill Road from the bottom beginning at State Route 179 in Sedona for six miles to Schnebly Hill Vista and return to Sedona via the same route.
There are only two places in the world
I want to live—Sedona and Paris.
—Max Ernst, Surrealist painter (in the 1940s)