Wandering the West
February 23, 2010
Sedona is one of those romantic-sounding places that had always been on my life list of places to experience. In Phoenix last week I rented a convertible, put the top down and went in search of the vortexes of Arizona’s red-rock country.
Sedona is more than the red-rock scenery that you’d see across southern Utah. For reasons unknown to me, it has gotten the reputation among New Age Shirley MacLaine types as one of those rare places on earth where spirals of spiritual energy interact with a person’s inner self to facilitate prayer, meditation and healing. (That came off a website description. I’d never be able to make that up.)
I’ll get back to that later, but first you should know that this little town of 11,000 or so attracts 4 million visitors annually, mostly for its scenery. You come up Highway 179 from Phoenix and suddenly, after miles of no-man’s land, up pop red and orange sandstone monoliths, and walls of red sandstone topped by pine. The valley floors are partially pine covered as well, a refreshing break from the sage-covered flatlands surrounding Utah’s sandstone monoliths. It’s a cooler feel, between the trees and the rocks, and the elevation, which at 4,000-plus feet produces mild, golf-able weather, and cooler summers, certainly, than Phoenix.
The approach from the north is even more spectacular, if you take the alternate, Highway 89A through Cottonwood Canyon, a switchback-covered descent through a spectacular canyon, where bends in the road reveal quick glimpses of the red rock which lies ahead, followed by a full reveal of the red sandstone cliffs that surround Sedona like a big masonry wall.
This is a great side diversion if you’re going to the Grand Canyon or Phoenix. It’s about 120 miles, or less than two hours, north of Phoenix.
The main recreational events here are much like Utah’s side of the Colorado Plateau. It’s a mecca for hikers and mountain bikers. Golf courses offer oases of green-carpeted fairways. (Try the Robert Trent Jones layout at Oak Creek). Off-roaders hopefully stick to established trails to test their machines against steep sandstone monoliths and washboarded dry creek beds. I found some local friends to lead me on hikes around Courthouse Butte, a level two-hour amble also popular with mountain bikers, followed by a gentle climb to the top of Doe Mountain. At the top, we walked the edge of the entire butte, getting a 360-degree sweep of the Sedona countryside. There are over a hundred established hiking trails. Other popular hikes take you to other formations, like Castle Rock and Bell Rock, whose distinctive bell shape marks it as a major upflow vortex site.
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In 1987, during something called the Harmonic Convergence, the top of Bell was supposed to open and a flying saucer was supposed to lift off from its hanger inside. Despite a crowd of thousands gathered for the big moment, I don’t recall any actual takeoff, and I think I would have remembered.
With multiple millions reaching Sedona’s famous rocks each year, there naturally is a big tourism economy to serve them. Everything in the business district is tastefully done. Even the McDonalds has a stucco exterior and turquoise-colored arches. This town is full of artists and gallery strolling is a popular non-hiking pastime. This week the Sedona International Film Festival is screening films from 145 indie filmmakers. At other times of year an arts festival and "Jazz on the Rocks" fill the town with music and art fans.
Just be careful whom you ask local advice from. Dozens of storefronts beckoning you in for "tourist information" are really come-ons for timeshare pitches. The one I got sucked into was staffed by a woman who knew absolutely nothing about Sedona except where a great timeshare property was.
Sedona now is coping with the same sprawl issues we have faced in Park City for years. There is little private land available for expansion, but the U.S. Forest Service in the past has willingly given up forest lands in trades with developers. One group of local citizens is trying to get a temporary land-trade ban made permanent.
I hope they succeed. It would be a shame to get atop Doe Mountain again and see the empty spots between buttes filled with homes, spider webs of roads and the turquoise arches. On the Colorado Plateau, arches should be made of sandstone.
Free-lance writer Larry Warren has been wandering the West covering news stories for television and magazines since he landed in Utah in the mid-1970s. In this column he writes about the favorite places he goes back to when he can.
Insider tip: Shop at Tlaquepaque in Sedona where galleries and restaurants wind through a shaded river bottom in a Mexican-village-type atmosphere.