Beautiful. Mysterious. Seductive. These words describe Sedona, a town located 110 miles north of Phoenix, Arizona, which offers four seasons of incredible scenery, adventure and something more — something inexplicable.
Before the time of the dinosaur this high desert region was a coastal plain located between two vast seas that rose and fell over the millennia. The massive red-orange spires and buttes surrounding Sedona were then enormous coastal sand dunes. Now they carry imaginative names reflecting their curious shapes — names like Cathedral Rock, Courthouse Butte, Bell Rock, Coffeepot and even Snoopy. Towering along the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, these monoliths lend an aura of mystery as well as incredible beauty to this ancient landscape.
As many as 19 percent of Sedona’s 3 million annual visitors come for something more than the beauty and the adventure. They come for a spiritual experience connected to the vortex phenomenon — a belief that powerful earth energies emanate from the red rock canyons and spires, energies that bring physical as well as spiritual healing. Don’t discount this belief before visiting Sedona and its adjoining Oak Creek Canyon. You might just find yourself touched by something magical.
During the winter Sedona sees a bit of snow and fog but daytime temperatures seldom drop lower than 40?F, making hiking a year-round activity. Spring can come as early as February with beautiful displays of wildflowers filling the canyons and spreading across the high desert floor. Summer arrives in May, offering a cool getaway for people living in the warmer desert regions, and then by mid-July the monsoon season brings rainstorms filled with dramatic lightening flashes. Brilliant rainbows follow the storms, filling the sky with dazzling color. By the end of October autumn splashes the canyons with blazing shades of red and yellow. Concerts and festivals entertain visitors all year long and New Age healing centers offer spiritual renewal.
Early hunter-gatherers roamed these lands 10,000 years ago and later, early Native American tribes left traces of rock dwellings in rocky alcoves. Ancient petroglyphs and pictographs on red rock walls still puzzle modern-day archaeologists. The late 19th century brought pioneers who grew fruit or raised cattle or sheep. Then, in 1923, Zane Grey’s famous Call of the Canyon brought Hollywood to Sedona and over the years at least 80 other movies have been filmed there. Today tourism is Sedona’s lifeblood.
Autumn is our favorite time in Sedona. Bring your camera, hiking boots, fishing pole and maybe your bathing suit and come along with us. Our first adventure comes with a drive through the 16-mile gorge of Oak Creek Canyon. This narrow two-lane road can be very crowded and is not for your big rig. We make the drive during the week when early mornings may find us to be one of very few vehicles on the road.
Traveling north on State Highway 89A you enter a shimmering wonderland of color as sunlight streams through a canopy of autumn leaves. With its musical sounds of water flowing through quiet forest glades, willowy sycamores in brilliant yellow and the oak and vine maple in vivid shades of red, this stretch of road was Arizona’s first officially designated scenic byway.
You will want to stop at every overlook and hike some of the trails along the way. The creek is regularly stocked with trout so check with the visitor center or the Forest Service if you’d like to fish. You should also obtain a Red Rock Pass, an inexpensive pass that allows parking in many of the scenic areas around Sedona. If you encounter Native American artisans selling jewelry and other hand-crafted items along the road, stop and take a look — their prices are usually good.
Slide Rock State Park, about 7 miles up the canyon from Sedona on Highway 89A, is famous for its natural water slide with cool water and warm rocks creating great swimming holes. This is a good spot for a picnic lunch and a chance to cool off in the water or beneath large shade trees. If you find the area crowded just hike a short way upstream to find solitude. Get out your binoculars and look closely at the many species of birds that fill the canyon with their song. Gambel’s quail scurry through the underbrush with their constant chatter and, if you are lucky, you may see a great blue heron fishing along the edge of the creek.
When you reach the West Fork Trail about 91?2 miles from Sedona on Highway 89A, put on those hiking boots and make a 3-mile trek along this beautiful tributary of Oak Creek with its sculptured sandstone and graceful hanging gardens. The trail winds along the foot of steep red rock cliffs and past ruins of buildings used long ago. We wondered if this had been the setting for Glenn Kibourne’s Oak Creek Canyon farm in Call of the Canyon? After exploring Oak Creek you may want to read this hauntingly beautiful story of a young soldier’s return from the trenches of World War I. Broken in body and spirit, he found healing and a new life beneath the red rock cliffs of the canyon.
Another great drive is the Red Rock Loop Road, which takes you through the heart of the red rock formations. Traveling west through Sedona the loop begins and ends on Highway 89A. Spend all day and take either guided or self-guided trails among the soap tree yucca, ocotillo, prickly pear and juniper. Along the lower loop, stop at the education center and learn about the local riparian ecosystem. Visit the historic House of Apache Fire, built as a vacation retreat in the 1940s. The upper loop has gorgeous views of Cathedral Rock and late afternoon brings a flood of photographers as the sunlight turns the rock to a glowing red.
With more than 100 trails in the area you are sure to find several that meet your interest and ability. Mountain biking is also a good way to see Red Rock Country and trail guides are available at the local bike shops. If you enjoy golf there is a small selection of challenging high desert courses to choose from.
Of course gallery hopping is what the downtown area is all about and with more than 80 galleries and shops, you’ll find some outstanding sculpture, paintings,
Native American jewelry, pottery and rugs. Many upscale restaurants offer meals that are works of art in themselves. To find maps and brochures for Sedona’s attractions stop at the Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center, located in Uptown Sedona about two blocks south of the town center, at the corner of Highway 89A and Forest Road. Walking tours and trolley rides introduce you to the many historical buildings.
And then there is Tlaquepaque (pronounced Tla-keh-pah-keh). We’ve been known to spend all day, with our cameras, prowling around this beautiful artist colony. Set among stately sycamores and lush gardens it was built in the Spanish colonial style in the 1970s as a place for artists to live and work. It has a lovely old-world feel with charming courtyards, fountains, balconies and hidden niches. More than 40 shops, galleries and restaurants offer some truly outstanding works of art.
For further glimpses into Sedona’s history visit Jordan Historical Park where you can wander through the old orchard and see farm implements used by pioneer families. The Sedona Heritage Museum, located there, is filled with memorabilia that provides a wonderful and nostalgic snapshot into the lives of those early day families.
As you drive through town you can’t help but notice one of the more famous Sedona landmarks. High on a hill overlooking the city is the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Designed by heiress Marguerite Brunswig Staude, a pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright, this dramatic church with its enormous cross is built right into a towering red rock cliff. Open daily, it offers a gift shop featuring unique religious items.
One of the most popular activities in Sedona is to take a Jeep tour out into the more remote parts of the Red Rock Country. Our favorite of these trips is up and over the primitive Schnebly Hill Road (FS 153) which zigzags east from State Route 179 in Sedona, 13 miles to Interstate 17. Named for pioneer Sedona Schnebly, who sheltered travelers in her home during the early 20th century, the road twists and winds along massive cliffs as it travels through the Mund’s Mountain Wilderness area. Each bend in the road offers incredible views of sandstone mountains in vivid shades of scarlet and cream. If you have a high clearance vehicle you can make this drive yourself. As on any of your treks through this wilderness country you should come prepared with plenty of water, proper footwear, wide brimmed hat, sunscreen and your food for the day.
Fifteen miles northwest of Sedona lies the long-abandoned Sinaguan village of Palatki where cliff dwellings from around A.D. 1150 still hide beneath deep overhangs in the red cliffs and thousands of ancient images are carved or painted on the stone walls. Managed by the Forest Service, reservations are required to visit this site. You will also need to check road conditions as, though generally passable with a passenger car when dry, the road is sometimes closed or may require 4WD if it has rained.
We always leave this part of Arizona reluctantly and know that whether you come for spectacular scenery, luxurious dining, outdoor adventure, beautiful desert golf courses, or spiritual or physical healing you, too, are sure to experience the magic that is Sedona.