Once a year and sometimes twice for the past seven years, any month between April and October (we haven’t tried winter yet, but November through March are usually mild too), my significant other and I visit Sedona, Arizona for a week or more of relaxing and exploring. Flying to Phoenix from the East Coast and renting a car, we often arrive late, making our way past southern Arizona’s saguaro cacti up to the edge of the Colorado Plateau via I-17 for an hour and a half, then turning west onto Route 179 for our final thirty minutes.
I always feel a combination of relief and excitement to be there again, especially once we pass the Village of Oak Creek and spot those familiar, welcoming silhouettes of Bell, Courthouse, and Cathedral Rocks just off the road. It’s become a home away from home, a place where I know I’ll find quiet, novel adventures, raw beauty, and intellectual stimulation; not to mention, whenever I feel the need, exceptional food and comfortable accommodations.
Yes, the stereotypes are based in truth: in Sedona, you can have your palm or your aura read; be guided to many a recognized vortex; enjoy “healing” treatments with crystals or minerals, or buy what you need to do all that yourself. There are also art, jewelry, boutique clothing, and specialty shops, down the main drag or in the chic Tlaquepaque, for any taste or price range, often with an emphasis on Southwestern design elements.
If you’re done with the fashion and finery, sample the locally smoked beef or elk jerky at Buck Thornton’s World of Jerky, where the owners use their own recipe but also offer other vendors’ blends with ostrich, alligator, and more. Then head up to Sedona Air Tours, where pilot Josh and groundcrew Mike or any of their other excellent staff will ensure that even a brief helicopter ride through the area’s geological features will be rich with discovery, taking your breath away. When you finish shopping or flying, at least once during your stay you must join the sun and vortex lovers up at the airport vista to view the sun set over town (there’s a small charge for parking now).
Travel north on 89-A through Oak Creek Canyon and up a couple of thousand feet of switchbacks to a grander vista just a few miles south of Flagstaff. Back in town on 179, find the Chapel of the Holy Cross, designed by artist Marguerite Brunswig Staude in the middle of the last century to nestle organically among the rocks, where it provides sacred space for inspiration or reflection.
I, however, usually find my spiritual and physical revitalization via walking in the Red Rocks from one of dozens of trailheads right in town. Get a map and a pass from the Ranger station on 179 before you reach Oak Creek, from a visitors’ center, or from one of many trailheads with a handy vending machine—or, see Grand Canyon below, just use your inter-agency park pass.
If it’s summer when you visit Sedona, set your expectations accordingly: you may just walk twenty minutes in each direction until you’ve determined your limits, but with water, sunscreen, and a hat or sunglasses, you’ll find yourself going further than you thought you could. Injuries from cactus spines are far more common than snake bites, and I’ve never been troubled by either, but their existence is good reason for wearing long pants and close-toed shoes.
You can go a mile or ten, staying close by the highways or heading where there’s hardly a soul around, with hikes easy or strenuous right up onto those spectacular rocks or along dusty, meandering trails with little elevation change. Three of my current favorites are Brin’s Mesa, Soldier’s Pass, and Broken Arrow, but while Bell and Cathedral can be more populated at times, they are well worth a visit too. Most are just five or ten minutes’ drive from the center of town, and from the trailheads it’s just a few steps into the splendor.
Remember that metaphor about giving a hundred monkeys a hundred typewriters for a hundred years? Give those monkeys cameras instead, set them loose in the Red Rocks, and their success rate will soar in no time, as mine has. Every natural structure amazes, and the dry terrain means it’s easy to discern the geological bones of the area, its layers and folds from millions of years of oceanic deposits, tectonic uplift, and erosion.
But if this is a desert, it’s also a desert garden. Natural grottos look as though a Divine Landscaper has carefully placed each stone, shrub, and cactus. The yucca flower is like giant asparagi with whimsical ornaments on top; cliffrose shrubs boast subtler white and yellow posies; prickly pear cacti, some deep maroon, decorate themselves with plump fruits. Crush between your fingers the blue-gray berries from a low juniper and smell the genesis of gin, or sample the rich butteriness of a pinyon nut. Be astonished by my favorite, the ocotillo, which look like bundled, thorn-dense implements of torture when dry, but after a rain they leaf out base to tip and even sport red blossoms.
If you’re used to driving in a city, you’ll be delighted at how comparably stress-free these state and Federal highways are. Two-lane roads call for occasional patience, but hey, you’re on vacation! What’s the rush? Day trips are a pleasure when you visit Sedona and its surrounding area, with views that change around every bend and a sense of peering through the modern world deep into the past. For anyone with an interest in our country’s original inhabitants, Native American sites and ruins are everywhere.
First on my list would be Montezuma’s Castle National Monument, an easy 40 minutes out of town, compact but intriguing cliffside ruins just right for a first day exploring after you arrive in town. North and east at a little less than an hour away, see Walnut Canyon National Monument, where you can walk right next to or even into ruins above a streambed, or head further north to Wupatki and Sunset Crater and develop an understanding of how a changing environment affected earlier inhabitants. I’ve been fascinated by the petroglyphs and petrographs at the V Bar V Ranch, Palatki, and Honanki sites close to town: once you’ve found their parking lots, stroll a fraction of a mile down dusty trails to examine and photograph ancient artists’ observations of their physical and spiritual worlds, often interpreted by enthusiastic present-day volunteers.
For more polished displays and context, head up to Flagstaff’s Museum of Northern Arizona, experiencing some of iconic Route 66 as you do, or down to Phoenix’s exemplary collection at the Heard.
Of course, among day trips there’s also the Mother of them All: the Grand Canyon, two hours away and taking you right back to those Native roots, as at least six tribes have endowed the Canyon with spiritual significance and one, the Havasupai, still lives deep within the canyon. If you’re 62 or older, be sure to invest in your Senior National Parks Pass, an unbeatable bargain despite the recent price rise to $80: it’s good for the rest of your life and will gain admission to any National Park or Monument for yourself and anyone in your car (up to six people) too.
Park early at the Visitor’s Center and explore exhibits on the Canyon’s geological and human history. Join the crowds from around the world admiring the view from Mather Point, and then enjoy a 2.5 mile Rim walk down (or take the free shuttle each way) to El Tovar for a superb lunch before peeking into the Bright Angel History Room, perusing the fine turquoise jewelry at Hopi House, or even making your way a short distance down into the Canyon on the Bright Angel Trail. You can book a room in Tusayan, just outside the South entrance, or even stay in the park if you have the foresight to book a year out. Frankly, lodging in Sedona is generally much more varied and refined, so we haven’t minded the pleasant drive back in the evening, perhaps stopping for dinner in Flagstaff.
You’ll find especially nice versions of many major hotel chains when you visit Sedona, including Hilton, Hyatt, Wyndham, and a brand new Courtyard by Marriott just south of town on 89A. Charming Bed and Breakfasts and Airbnb’s are down every side street, and some are quite luxurious. If you’re looking for resort amenities, from service to fine dining to comfortable and unique casitas or cottages, the big names are Enchantment, tucked away in Boynton Canyon just twenty minutes out of town, or L’Auberge, just down the steps from uptown and 89A on Oak Creek.
Friends who’ve stayed at both rave about them, slightly prefering L’Auberge for its easy access to shops and restaurants and its country-inn feel. For a slightly less dear indulgence by the Creek, consider Amara, just next door. It’s now a Kimpton, which I adore for their boutique quirkiness. Each hotel celebrates its locale with unique design elements, here Contemporary Southwestern; for most rooms you’ll need to request a tea kettle or coffee maker, though they’re proud to offer local roasts in the lobby every morning, but you’ll find a yoga mat in every closet (and here, complimentary yoga classes to start your day); and the welcoming wine reception each and every evening is a great way to end a day of adventures or get a night on the town started. Here, acclaimed restaurant/lounge Salt Rock overlooks the enticing infinity pool, which in turn overlooks Oak Creek and Snoopy Rock on the other side.
You’ll eat well when you visit Sedona, whether casually or formally. Find first-rate pizza to eat in or take out at Picazzo’s, Pizza Lisa, or the new branch of Oregano’s. For more elevated Italian, head south of town to Bella Vita. Recently we enjoyed an exceedingly rich Pappardelle Funghi and a delicious Vitella con Capelli amidst its warm tones, cloth tablecloths, traditional art work, and glowing chandeliers. The waitstaff was just as comfortably warm and friendly as the setting was elegant. You can also find Chinese, Japanese, and Indian cuisine, and there’s the finest of dining at L’Auberge’s Cress, Renee’s at Tlaquepaque, or out at Enchantment’s Che Ah Chi.
But Southwestern innovations, with their surprising expressions of Mexican influences, are probably what Sedona does best. We had unique versions of tortilla soup and a southwestern Caesar while overlooking the canyon’s red rocks one day for lunch at Enchantment’s View 180. Have the most authentic Mexican around at Claudia Gonzalez’s Tamaliza, where you can eat in or take out; their tortillas are fresh and their mole sauce, which is vegetarian, is phenomenol. At Elote, share the unusual guacamole or namesake grilled elote (corn) dish to start and follow with flat iron asada, smoked pork cheeks, or roasted squash chile relleno alongside a Gran Viejo or Ginger Rosemary margarita (no reservations, so the wait is part of the experience, or we’ve enjoyed eating at the bar).
My new favorite is probably Mariposa, chef Lisa Dhal’s most recent offering. On an August evening we sampled fried avocado with a pepper aioli and perfectly seasoned and grilled scallops, plus grilled skirt steak with frijoles and rosemary potatoes, all accompanied by local beer and a tasty Junipero cocktail. Meanwhile, we oggled the grand setting, Mariposa’s steel beams and stone walls and stretches of glass corralling its own canyon vista, framing and drawing in every sun ray and red swoop for our enjoyment. Again, service was professional yet welcoming.
But wait! I haven’t talked about the mountainside delights and eccentricities of Jerome, less than an hour away, or of Prescott down on the other side. Flagstaff and Phoenix and even nearby Clarkdale have other fascinationg museums and historic sites. Wineries in Page Springs and Cottonwood offer surprisingly sophisticated wares from their Verde Valley vineyards, along with tasting flights and tasty gnoshes. There are impressive gallery walks and state parks and ruins in all directions, and more Red Rock walks too. In other words, I’ve spent a dozen weeks and counting in the Sedona area and still haven’t run out of things to do.
It’s a wonderful place to have a second home, but my S.O. and I are happy with a timeshare. Timeshares are a distinctively untrendy notion, with their typically hard-sell realtors’ presentations, wildly fluctuating values, and cumbersome exchange processes, but sometimes they make sense. We acquired our second week for a song a few years after the ’08-’09 recession and still pay far less than $1,000 a year (i.e. much less than a decent motel room would run) in annual dues per week’s ownership. We get our choice of weeks, for a modest but attractive and well-maintained studio with community pool and laundry facilities on the edge of town.
If you do your research, you can easily find a bargain that will hold its value. It would make a great occasional gift or trade for family or friends, or, with a continued high occupancy rate—last word was more than 80% even in the slowest season—you can rent out a week you don’t need, so we’ve found ours worth keeping.
Through the years we’ve both traveled throughout the U.S. and internationally, and we certainly haven’t stopped anticipating travels further afield, but when we visit Sedona, the warm, red welcome keeps us coming back year after year.