Which Way Do I Go, Doc? Understanding Trail Markers
If you have ever visited Sedona, you know it’s fairly challenging to get lost on Bell Rock Pathway. The trail is nearly as wide as a country road and teems with visitors during daylight hours any time of year.
However, once you get off the beaten path, it can be challenging to find your way. Modern conveniences like GPS help, but accidents happen.
Plus, that vortex magic occasionally messes with electronic devices. It may seem kooky, but both my partner and I have had it happen.
It pays to understand the trail markers forest volunteers use to point you in the right direction — it might just spare you aching feet or a need for rescue.
You’ll find these bad boys on the most frequently visited trailheads all over the region. They look like this:
It’s kind of hard to miss these trail markers. If you get nervous when wandering in the wilderness, sticking to these marked trails can quell your anxiety.
What if you come to a crossroads where the trail goes either way? That’s where an old-fashioned compass comes in handy if you decided to unplug from your phone on your Sedona getaway. Locals familiar with the lay of the land can often tell their general course based on which rock formation they face.
On the most frequently used trails, you’ll often see trail sign/cairn combos that look like this:
You’ll see these trail markers in rocky areas where you can’t dig through the desert hardpans. Not every one of these structures comes with a directional stick attached, though. Some have a partial one, like this:
You’ll see various cairns serving as trail markers. Please note: you should never build new ones. Doing so confuses fellow hikers. Remember, most folks aren’t from around these parts, so please leave trail maintenance to the professionals and the dedicated volunteers who partner with them.
You’ll know the official versions from the chicken wire they use to bind these together. Occasionally, you may come across an unbound one. In general, avoid following smaller cairns that may have been left by careless visitors — but you’re probably okay if you come across an impressive number like this bad boy:
If you find yourself wandering around what seems like an endless flat Martian rock field, spying a white blaze can set you back on course more quickly than anything. In some areas of the country, you’ll find these in various colors. Some regions make them akin to ski slopes, with blue and black diamonds denoting difficulty.
Around here, you’ll generally find white blazes that look like the one below. They will help guide you on your way when it seems as if there are no landmarks anywhere.
Trail signs and cairns are trail markers that tell you which way to go. However, logs warn you to go the other way. When you see a fallen tree stretched across what looks like a trail, it means don’t go there, much like the creepy deadfall in “Pet Sematary.”
There are multiple reasons to steer clear, none of which involve ancient burial grounds (although that could make a fun legend). Sometimes, the area may be undergoing rehabilitation, and the flora and fauna within need peace and quiet, not noisy, trampling feet, to recover.
Other times, such trails can lead you somewhere you don’t want to be — such as a residential street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Many area homeowners, particularly the equine lovers, create private shortcuts to their favorite trails, but if you aren’t from around these parts, you can get hopelessly lost, only to emerge from the forest even more confused.
In any case, a fallen log crossing a trail tells you where not to go. Given the relative scarcity of trees in the high desert, it’s safe to assume that it didn’t get there by accident. Check out these examples:
Speaking of tree scarcity, rocks are also trail markers that can sometimes direct you from the wrong path. If you see a series of them stretched across what looks like a trail, it means you need to alter course. These formations often help out when forming new trails. For example, as of this writing in May of 2021, folks traversing the Rector Connector will come across this string of stones:
It sure looks like you should follow this newer trail right across the flatrock, but the humanmade formation tells you to steer slightly to the right, following the real trail downhill.
How to Keep From Getting Lost at Trail Forks
If you are a Sedona visitor, please consider staying on the clearly marked trails. Of course, we want you to enjoy nature’s playground — that’s probably why you came. However, if GPS fails, you can get turned around quickly. Every year, personnel need to rescue countless visitors, and there are better ways of making vacation memories.
However, if you do come to a fork, don’t have a GPS-ready device, and need to remember which way to go when you return, consider the following tips. Your objective when temporarily marking your trail is threefold: getting home safely, leaving no trace and not leading others astray.
1. A Stick Against a Rock or Tree
Therefore, you want something that exists in the natural environment — if you come to a crossroad marked by a large tree or colorful bush, you may need no additional trail marker at all. Forming sticks into an arrow shape can work. However, this method risks confusing other hikers who may follow in your footsteps.
Instead, lean a stick against a tree or large boulder. Use the angle as the arrow to point the direction you need to turn on your way back to your vehicle. Other hikers won’t know whether nature put it there or you did, but you’ll recall the significance. Plus, you aren’t adding anything to the environment that wasn’t already there.
2. An Unusual Rock Hides a Map
It’s sometimes hard to find a stick in the desert. However, the soil is stony in the most barren locations. While you don’t want to make a rock arrow for the same reason to avoid creating the stick version, you can identify a particularly large, unusually-shaped or colorful stone. Scratch a small map deeply enough in the dirt and place this object atop of it. Try to remember to erase your trace when you return — but you haven’t hurt anything if you forget.
The bottom line: If you do find yourself on some of Sedona’s many unmarked trails, it’s wise to indicate which way you came when you reach a fork. However, you don’t want to leave confusing signs for other hikers or damage the environment — stick with one of the two above methods.
Which Way Do I Go, Doc? Learn How to Read Trail Markers
Most Sedona visitors find our well-marked trails a snap to navigate. However, any wilderness adventure deserves preparation — including learning how to read trail markers.