Glorious landscapes and a laid-back lifestyle await you in Sedona, Arizona
Written and photographed by Dominika Maslikowski
The locals like to say that God created the Grand Canyon but he lives in Sedona. Watching the sunset turn Sedona’s sweeping red rock landscapes into a vibrant orange makes it easy to see how this small Arizona city is a fair rival to the state’s most popular tourist destination.
Sedona’s majestic landscape contains sites held sacred to the Native Americans: the Yavapai and Apache tribes lived in the area until they were forced from the land onto a reservation in 1876. Today the city pulls in enthusiasts of the New Age spiritual movement who still believe in the magical, healing powers of its red earth and rock formations.
Surrealist painter Max Ernst built a quiet home in Sedona with his second wife after fleeing Paris to escape the horrors of World War II. Today the city’s galleries are filled with the paintings and sculptures of other artists who were similarly inspired or with etched pottery made by the Navajo tribe. Long used by film directors as a backdrop for dozens of Westerns, Sedona also offers plenty of hiking trails and outdoor adventures like off-road Jeep tours, hot air balloon flights and horseback rides.
The drive into Sedona is spectacular as the tall Saguaro cacti and flat desert turns into the red sandstone formations surrounding the city with a small-town feel. A short walk along a trail is a great start to a Sedona day trip. The Airport Loop Hike, a 3.5-mile (5.6km) trail that snakes around the city’s tiny airport, doesn’t take much exertion and offers stunning views of all the city’s famous landmarks like Cathedral Rock. The air, in contrast with Phoenix’s smog, is crisp and smells lightly of creosote bushes — their resinous aroma becomes pungent during infrequent desert rains and was used by Native Americans to relieve congestion.
The nearby Crescent Moon Ranch is called one of the most photographed areas of the southwestern United States. The site’s first homestead stands near the entrance of the ranch, where early Anglo settler John Lee shoveled through rock and dirt in the late 1800s to make a ditch to divert water to the OK ranch. A custom-built water wheel was brought in 30 years later that drove a water pump and an electric generator to bring lights to the ranch.
Further into the ranch — down a narrow pathway lined with a quiet creek, trees and berry bushes — the towering Cathedral Rock is reflected in the running water of Oak Creek. Children love to swim here in the summer and the brave dive into the waters during more moderate winters. Visitors love stacking stones into tall, gravity-defying piles as a way of leaving their mark. Such piles can be found balancing on tree branches and along the trails that run alongside the creek.
After a few hours of hiking, it’s a short trip back into town for a hearty lunch. The Barking Frog Grille is an old favorite. It’s a quirky restaurant with a hacienda-style southwestern decor of deep corals and blues that includes a cozy fireplace and outdoor garden area. American and Mexican classics like hamburgers, chicken-fried steak and tacos are refined here into elegant meals. The carne asada—thinly sliced grilled meat from marinated steak—is served with sides of refried black beans and red chili rice. The portions are Texas-sized and best eaten slowly or washed down with a bottle of Mexican Corona beer with a lime wedge.
Shopping for souvenirs or authentic art in Sedona can get tricky. The city is so popular with tourists that many shops downtown are wildly overpriced compared to Phoenix. Things can also turn kitschy: there are badly-executed watercolors of cowboys riding off into the sunset and plastic statuettes of cacti. For authentic Navajo pottery or original artwork, the Art Mart Gallery offers a large selection from dozens of local artisans. Native American dream catchers of leather straps, beads and feathers make great gifts. According to folklore, the dreamcatchers were made by mothers and grandmothers in the shape of a circular web meant to protect children from nightmares. The dreamcatcher was adopted by various Native American tribes in the 1960s and 70s as a symbol of unity.
For more leisurely browsing, the Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, offering a maze of upscale shops, restaurants and courtyards, has become a Sedona landmark in its own right. Modeled after a Mexican village, the center was built in the 1970s with details like wrought iron railings, hand-painted tiles and masonry walls that are a refreshing change from modern shopping malls. Some 40 shops are nestled throughout winding streets lined with sycamore and cottonwood trees that lead to four different plazas. The El Picaflor gallery is a stand-out with handmade Andean arts such as flutes from Peru and elaborately colorful skeleton statuettes associated with the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday honoring loved ones who’ve passed away.
Across the street, there is a slew of New Age shops offering crystals, astrology books and CDs of the sounds of nature that all promise inner peace and tranquility. The New Age movement has been booming in Sedona since the 1970s, when hippies and spiritual seekers claimed they’d discovered vortexes of electromagnetic energy with special healing and rejuvenating powers amid the towering landscape. Here you can get a psychic reading or a photo of your aura, or find out about the dozens of yoga workshops or meditation retreats on offer year-long. If you’re looking for a “portal to the Mer Ka Ba,” it’s here as well in the form of a Giza pyramid-shaped sculpture that plays soothing music and is topped with a spinning sphere.
As evening nears in uptown Sedona, it isn’t difficult to find a good view to watch the sunset. The entire city is surrounded by the picturesque red rock formations that seem to take on an ethereal orange glow at dusk. The Pink Java Cafe is a simple, no-hassle location to take a last look at the sweeping valley as the day nears its end, and is run by the same owner who offers rollicking off-road tours in pink Jeeps.
There are enough outdoor adventures in Sedona to extend a trip into a few days, though hotel reservations are recommended in winter when “snowbird” visitors flock from America’s colder states to the Arizona sunshine. The El Portal hotel is known for its casual elegance and rustic Southwestern decor, and was named as one of America’s eight best by Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report. After a day hiking the rugged Sedona valley, there’s no better way to relax than snuggling into a cozy lounge chair around one of the courtyard’s outdoor fireplaces, echoing the glow of red rocks still fresh in your mind. et