The trail signs lied and I learned my lesson

I spent the weekend in Sedona with my family and some friends this weekend. Ryan, who has a daughter the same age as my son, is one of my hiking buddies and we wanted to do a long hike to continue the preparation for our upcoming Havasu Falls trip.

We will tackle 30 miles in less than 54 hours with a group of other hikers that includes stops at Havasu Falls, Mooney Falls, and Beaver Falls. This 3 day trip is on the Supai Indian Nation lands near the Grand Canyon.

So this Sedona hike was going to be another step in our conditioning for that trip. We planned to do about 10 miles, starting early, so we could finish late morning and have the rest of the day to hang with the family.

Our hike began at the Secret Canyon Trailhead where we parked. We walked the road up to the Dry Creek Trailhead and began our loop there. We decided it would be better to get the .9 mile road section out of the way first so we could end at the vehicle. From Dry Creek, we picked up Bear Sign Trail and followed it past the David Miller Trail for about another mile or so. We retraced our tracks back to the David Miller Trail and followed it up the canyon wall to the saddle for an amazing view of Secret Canyon below.

The views were amazing!  It’s always a good feeling to put in a strong effort and then be rewarded with fantastic views.  The uphill portion of the David Miller Trail is steep and you have to work for it.  But once on the top, it’s easy to catch your breath while you fire off a few dozen photos!

From the saddle, the trail winds down into Secret Canyon, along patches of Manzanita, and turns to the right as you approach the wash.  Then you reach this trail crossing:

This is where our problems began.  We reached this trail crossing without any problems and had even gone off-trail for about 2 miles while on Bear Sign Trail in the other canyon.  As we descended the David Miller Trail, we approached this junction, noticed the direction of the Secret Canyon Trail (which was effectively a right hand turn), and continued on our way.  Our choices were to take the trail that headed off to the left which was unmarked or off to the right which was marked as Secret Canyon Trail.

The correct choice was to go left.  In hindsight, I think I assumed that the left fork was a continuation of the David Miller Trail.  We didn’t want that, we wanted the Secret Canyon Trail.  So right was the way to go…at least we though so.

We followed the trail for about 2 miles when I finally decided to take a peek at the Garmin Oregon 450t that I paid so handsomely for just a few weeks earlier.  I hadn’t looked at it any earlier because we thought we were on the right path.  Besides, I’m not one of those people that wants to watch every digital step on my GPS.  I was more than happy to be enveloped by the beauty of the canyon and my surroundings.

But the hard lessoned learned was that it became very apparent that we were on the wrong trail when our distance to the trailhead, the car with our cold drinks and AC, had nearly doubled!  I showed Ryan our position on the GPS and we began to discuss where we might have gone off trail.  Ryan opened the trail guide book I bought for the trip which showed only one trail shooting off from the Secret Canyon Trail and we weren’t even close to that section of trail yet.  We began retracing our steps and encountered two other hikers heading up canyon for an overnight.  They agreed that we were on Secret Canyon Trail and that the trailhead was just a few miles back, in the direction we were headed.

We discussed the situation all the way back to the intersection of the David Miller Trail and the Secret Canyon Trail.  It only took about 30 seconds for us to realize that the unmarked trail was our way out.

Now this wouldn’t be that big of an issue for anyone that knew that the Secret Canyon Trail broke off in a completely different direction or even that it continued on after it intersected the David Miller Trail.  And it wouldn’t be a problem if you started from the Secret Canyon Trailhead and made your way up canyon from there.  But our guide book didn’t show that section.  And we navigated from the Secret Canyon Trailhead to the Dry Creek Trailhead to get the road work out of the way.

When we arrived at the junction in question, we should have looked at the GPS to confirm our location.  That would likely have resulted in us choosing the right trail at that point.  But we didn’t.  The signs made it clear, or so we thought!


  1. Don’t assume that the trails you are traveling are marked correctly.
  2. Verify your track at major trail crossings
  3. Never rely on hand-drawn maps in your trail guides
  4. Always reference more than one map
  5. Develop your trail finding skills as much as you can


  1. US Forest Service: Add a sign for the Secret Canyon Trailhead at the intersection of the David Miller Trail

I am certain that other hikers coming down the David Miller Trail to this trail crossing would make similar assumptions.  Sure, some would already know the trail, others would double check against another map source.  But some, like we did, would just follow along, caught up in conversation and the beauty of the area.  It’s not hard to do that!  A hiker with no other map source and low on water could face real trouble with such a mistake.  This could all be avoided with an additional sign marking the unmarked trail.

Have you ever gone off-trail without knowing it?  What’s your story?  What did you learn from it?

Get Trail Sherpa posts and insights by email.

Connect with Trail Sherpa
Subscribe via RSS:

I'm the founder of Vestor Logic, the digital strategy and web design firm that created Trail Sherpa, ParksFolio, and Modern Steader. I'm a day hiker, top chef in camp, doting husband, and father to two headlamp wearing boys. My work in digital media brings those experiences to life.