Nestled among giant, monolithic red sandstone formations, quirky Sedona, Arizona is evidence that utopia is indeed achievable. The scenery is fantastic... the dining is superb... and the art galleries are world-class... And the people of Sedona give their utopia its distinctly peaceful and relaxed character. I left the kids behind and enjoyed a two-day visit to this enigmatic place as part of a five-day early-December solo sabbatical.
Roughly an hour-and-a-half drive north of Phoenix and a half-hour south of Flagstaff, Sedona is not far from civilization... although you may feel as though you’re in the middle of nowhere. This rapidly growing small town (pop. ~11,000) still has no Wal-Mart nor 4-lane highways and corporate icons are relatively unseen. There are no towering signs, golden arches or electric line towers polluting your view of the scenery. There are no giant neon lights, multi-story buildings nor tacky paint jobs (except for the pink jeeps). The area’s earth tone buildings blend harmoniously with their beautiful surroundings. The main drag, uptown Sedona on Rt. 89A, is concentrated with shops, restaurants and art galleries. The eight-mile stretch of Rt 179 south of Sedona to the Village of Oak Creek has some of the best vantage points to view the scenery as well as some of the larger shops and art galleries. Lodging is plentiful and diverse... from intimate bed and breakfasts to huge resorts and everything in between.
The area is not exactly desert, but not entirely green. It’s best described as semi-arid high desert. It’s generally not oppressively hot in the summer (like Phoenix and Tucson) and the winters are relatively mild, although they may get a little bit of snow. Sedona is located in the Coconino National Forest. Although Coconino NF is known for its groves of majestic Ponderosa pines in the Flagstaff area, the Red Rocks region (i.e. Sedona) is predominately juniper. You’ll also see agave, prickly pear cactus and other interesting plants. The saguaro is not native to this area. Most of the trees do not grow to an appreciable height, so combined with the extreme relief of the red rock formations, your view of the scenery is rarely obstructed by the foliage. It is not necessary to seek out scenic views, Sedona visitors are totally immersed in scenery. Here are three outstanding peaceful vantage points from which you can quietly absorb your stunning surroundings...
(1) The Chapel of the Holy Cross is located about four miles south of Sedona just off Rt. 179. A clearly marked mile-long uphill road leads visitors to this pretty place. This Catholic chapel was built right into the red rocks with no visible excavation. Simple in design, this stunning structure was completed in 1956. The facade facing the valley below is simply a huge stone cross framed by the chapel’s stone structure. The road leading to the chapel passes below the chapel before it curves up to the parking area. A small parking area below the chapel allows visitors to stop and view (and photograph) the chapel from below. Cars, visitors and other clutter are not visible from this vantage point. Upon parking, a curving beautifully-landscaped walkway leads visitors to the chapel’s entrance. The chapel’s cavernous interior is beautiful and peaceful. It is dimly lit with well-known hymns playing in the background. Behind the beautiful altar is a gigantic picture window affording views of the scenery below.
2) Schnebly Hill Road is a rugged unpaved road which extends 17 miles from Sedona east across the mountains to I-17. It is paved for about a mile east of Sedona. A parking area at the end of the paved portion of Schnebly Hill Road is a great vantage point to watch the sunrise over the red rocks and the town below. It was my intention to drive the entire 17-mile stretch of Schnebly Hill Road, but after about a mile on the extremely rough unpaved road... I decided against it out of fear I’d blow a tire or damage my rented Nissan Sentra. (Note to self: Don’t ever buy a car that was once a rental vehicle in Arizona.) If you have good tires, heavy-duty shocks and 4WD, then you should be OK. Everything I have read says that it’s a beautiful drive, but a sturdy vehicle is suggested..
CHAPEL OF THE HOLY CROSS
(3) Airport Road intersects with Rt. 89A about a mile west of Uptown Sedona on the way to West Sedona. About a mile uphill on airport road, there is a parking area on the left. From there, you can see West Sedona and the surrounding red rocks. A short, but steep hike will take you to a "saddle" between the formations. From there, you can see all of Sedona from the west. This is on the opposite side of Sedona from the Schnebly Hill vantage point and is a great place to watch the sunset. Coincidently (or not), this is the site of one of the five (and most easily accessible) energy vortices said to exist in the Sedona area.
Sedona’s scenery, climate and energy vortices have transformed this area into a mecca for those who wish to explore their souls, become closer to their god or "become one with nature". Businesses catering to metaphysical and New Age spirituality are abundant. There are spiritual retreat resorts, psychics, vortex tours and plenty of new age shops. The Center for the New Age is a large shop which also offer psychic readings, aura photography and information of the area’s energy vortices. They also have a huge selection of quality spiritualist symbols and paraphernalia like crystals, magnets, pyramids, Buddhas, crystal wands and dragons. I was impressed by their huge selection of quality incense. The Center for the New Age is located just south of the intersection of Routes 89A and 179, across the road from the Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village. It is a good place to learn a little bit about Sedona’s metaphysical aspects... although one may get the sense that they are exploiting stereotypes of these belief systems in a quest for the almighty tourist dollar... much like the sale of voodoo dolls in New Orleans or feathered Native American headdresses at the trading posts. If you’re looking for something more "authentic", stop at the Crystal Castle... right next door to the Center for the New Age. It’s smaller and less slick, but their selection of books and items seemed to indicate that they cater as much to the practicing spiritualist as to the tourist. Despite the attention given to the New Age, Sedona is home to a wide spectrum of faiths, including many Christian denominations, as indicated by the Chapel of the Holy Cross and other houses of worship.
In the nether-region between conventional science and metaphysics lies some actual plausible theory as to the existence and nature of energy vortices, so I would caution naysayers to dismiss the concept outright as a bunch of mystical hooey. Vortices are described in a variety of ways, depending on whose literature you are reading. Here’s my best brief description... An energy vortex is an invisible funnel shape created by spiraling energy. Although these vortices are linked to the earth’s magnetic and electrical fields, the energy is not exactly magnetic nor electrical (however nobody seems to be able to say what type of energy it actually IS). The energy from the vortices resonates with the subtle energy operating in our bodies/spirits. Those who are sensitive to this energy are said to be both spiritually and physically invigorated, often for several days. The energy of each vortex is strongest at its center, but radiates for a quarter to a half mile. Sedona is said to be home of four of these vortices. Of course, I had to check out a vortex for myself. So I stopped at the Center for the New Age and picked up my free vortex map. I asked for the location of the closest and most easily accessible vortex. As it turns out, all four of the area’s vortices are fairly easy to get to by vehicle and a short hike. I was directed to the Airport Vortex, about two miles away. I hiked up the short trail to the saddle between two rock formations to the spot where the vortex was said to be centered. Alas, I experienced nothing more than the realization that I had to go to the bathroom... but hey... maybe there was a cause-and-effect relationship with the vortex.
PINK JEEP TOURS
One does not need to be in Sedona for long before noticing the omnipresent pink jeeps. Although the pink color clashes hideously with its earth tone surroundings, it’s a great marketing tactic. Operating since 1958, they claim to be the longest continually operating tour company in the United States. It is clear that safety is paramount. Each of the 66 jeeps has been fitted with a five-figure retooling to accommodate the passengers and the rugged terrain. Their heavy-duty off-road tires are changed annually and they are continually retraining and refreshing the drivers to the constantly eroding and changing trails. Each pink jeep takes a group of up to 6 or 7 along off-road trails that are nowhere near passable by ordinary 4-wheel drive vehicles. Several tours ranging from 2 to 4 hours are offered. Each tour features a particular aspect of the area... but all of the tours will give you a healthy dose of beautiful scenery, information about the areas ancient cultures, geology and biology. I took the most popular tour, the Broken Arrow tour. It was in the lower 50s and overcast in early December. For the sake of scenery, I was disappointed that there wasn’t much sunshine during my tour, but I think I prefer this over a 95 degree scorcher. Susan, our driver and guide, was very friendly and informative. She pointed out the different plants, the names of the rocks (my favorite name: "Old Fashioned Movie Camera Rock") as well as the area’s history. There was no question she couldn’t answer. The ride was quite bumpy at times, and extremely bumpy two or three times. We drove down the aptly named "Road of No Return", a short stretch of bumpy, rocky road down a 30 or 40 degree grade... exhilarating! The rough road is not suitable for very small children or those with major health issues or difficulty walking, but you don’t have to be in great shape either. You just need to be able to get up and down the jeep’s steep steps and to brace yourself on the bumpy parts. The tours depart from near their office in uptown Sedona. In many instances, they will pick you up at your hotel. It isn’t cheap, but a Pink Jeep Tour is a fun, family-friendly way to explore this beautiful countryside.
ART GALLERIES / SHOPPING
Sedona is home to many world-class art galleries... GOOD ones. A few of the galleries feature southwestern art, but the whole spectrum of artistic styles and media is represented. The largest and most prestigious galleries are located just south of the 89A/179 intersection. Unique shopping opportunities are abundant, but just about everyplace is quite expensive. Here are a few of the best galleries and shops that I visited...
The Exposures Gallery is Sedona’s largest and most expensive (presumably and hopefully). This enormous, colorful gallery is stuffed full of stunningly beautiful paintings and sculpture. Even those with no interest in are sure to be impressed by this modern palatial fantasy land. When I entered, one of the many impeccably-dressed staff greeted me immediately. She was friendly and cordial, but slightly patronizing... for we both knew instantly that I wouldn’t be purchasing anything. I felt wildly out of place in my jeans, ball cap and sneakers, but I was mesmerized by my surroundings. I perused the gallery, checking out the endless gorgeous fine art. I couldn’t afford any of the pieces and neither can you. I saw sculptures priced as high as $55,000... but it’s likely that they have some pieces with even higher price tags. The least expensive items that I encountered were $3000-4000. Photography is not allowed in the Exposures Gallery.
Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village is located in a pretty little wooded area along Oak Creek. Tlaquepaque (tuh-LAH-kuh-PAH-kee) is fashioned after an old Mexican/Southwestern village... with abundant arches, pillars, staircases, balconies and vine covered walls. The architecture and landscaping alone are worth a visit. The quaint little village has 18 art galleries as well as five restaurants and several clothing stores, jewelry stores and gift shops. Tlaquepaque is still upscale, but I felt quite comfortable in my ultra-casual attire. Built in the early seventies, Tlaquepaque is credited as being the catalyst for Sedona’s distinction as a premium fine arts community.
The Shops at Pinon Pointe are located on a hill at the 89A/179 intersection within the Hyatt Vacation Club. This shopping area contains numerous small art galleries and shops. The buildings are compact and modern-looking. It is well landscaped with plenty of outdoor sculptures, fountains and plaques containing local history.
Uptown Sedona has plenty of small shops along the main drag (89A). It is here you can buy t-shirts, inexpensive jewelry, shot glasses, refrigerator magnets and other touristy souvenirs.
On the south side of Sedona, just south of the big art galleries, is a huge store called Silver Son West. Billing itself as "the finest western and traditional art", I was more impressed by their selection of unusual items, and the owner’s extensive collection of antique road signs and advertising icons along the parking lot. Unlike most of the other Sedona shops and art galleries, Silver Son West is decidedly folksy rustic. They have a very eclectic selection of items for sale including southwestern pottery and lawn ornaments, decorations made from dried peppers, relatively inexpensive jewelry, cacti and desert plants, incense of the west, antique firearms and tons more. The parking lot is surrounded by dozens and dozens of old signs. For example, you’ll see Route 66 road signs, Coca-Cola signs, American Oil gasoline signs, a Western Union telegraph sign, a "we give green stamps" sign and a 6-foot-tall fiberglass big-headed Big Boy holding up a tray with a giant hamburger. Silver Son West is the closest thing Sedona has to a kitschy tourist trap and is uncharacteristic of the area, but they do it with flair and pizzazz.
Lodging is plentiful and diverse. Whether you prefer a tent, RV, budget motel, mid-scale hotel, bed & breakfast, luxury hotel or spa & resort, Sedona has it all. I stayed at the Hilton Sedona Resort & Spa about 8 miles south of Sedona in the Village of Oak Creek. My suite had a fireplace, wet bar, microwave, balcony, a big soft bed with five big, fluffy pillows and many other comfortable amenities. The hotel is home to a championship golf course and pro shop, driving range and putting green, two very nice outdoor heated pools and whirlpools, available massage services and an upscale restaurant. Even though the evening air was quite cool (40s?), I couldn’t wait to take a dip in the outdoor heated pool and soak in the whirlpool just to tell my snowed-in Ohio friends that I did. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Hilton Sedona Resort & Spa, but lodging options are plentiful.
Sedona has no shortage of great dining options. The Cowboy Club is among the most iconic. Situated on Sedona's main drag, the Cowboy Club's bustling main dining room has an old western atmosphere. The menu features steaks, buffalo and elk. They offer some exotic appetizers and sides, such as cactus fries and rattlesnake sausage. Their Silver Saddle Room offers even more upscale dining.
Heartline Café is located in West Sedona, about two miles west of the landmark 89A/179 intersection. This warm, intimate restaurant has a quiet, peaceful, old-fashioned dining room. The flower designs on the plates are reminiscent of Great Grandma’s good holiday china. Every one of their entrees is considered a specialty. As the name implies, Heartline Café focuses on healthy dining. They offer several pasta and vegetarian selections, several seafood selections, chicken, duck and pork. Meat and potato lovers are not left out though. They also have pan-seared ribeye steaks and char-grilled beef tenderloin. I highly recommend the pecan crusted trout You’ll receive a huge filet (head and tail removed), covered in a thick brown sauce with crushed pecans.
PECAN CRUSTED RAINBOW TROUT - HEARTLINE CAFE
Sedona is a stunningly beautiful, quirky and unusual place. Sedona is active year-round. I visited in December and it wasn’t crowded, but I imagine that parking and crowds may be an issue during the spring and summer months. Just about all of the Sedonans I encountered were transplanted from somewhere else. I met people who were originally from Pennsylvania, New York, my native Ohio, California... even Alaska. They come from diverse backgrounds, but they all seemed to be attracted to Sedona’s beauty, serenity and laid-back environment. I was told that it is difficult to make a living in Sedona... competition for the tourist dollar is fierce. That translates into top quality treatment for Sedona’s visitors. Nothing is done half-way. The restaurants, tour guides, art galleries, shops and other attractions are all top-notch. Nothing is cheap, either. Be prepared to spend. However, I would argue that a 3-day stay in Sedona is much more relaxing, rewarding and memorable than a 5-day stay at an average destination. So if you are going to splurge, this is the place to do it... just don’t forget to use the bathroom before visiting your first vortex.