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72 Hours in Sedona

A town of 10,000 people at 4,000 feet, Sedona stuns its visitors with its breathtaking red sandstone formations.

Will McGough

Imagine a kid standing on the shoreline, scooping up wet sand, then taking it back to his dry sand mounds and dribbling it from his fingers to create tall, globular stacks drying in the sun. Then, color those stacks rusty red, blow up them to a thousand feet tall and move them to the middle of the desert. All that’s missing then is a sign that reads, “Welcome to Sedona”. It was wind, rain and time that actually shaped the landscape around this central Arizona town, but “globular sand buttes” is the best imagery one can use to describe a lot of it.

The drive north from Phoenix — one of the more common ways into Sedona — begins with flat desert scenery and saguaro cacti, but things change as the road slowly climbs north a couple thousand feet into the mountains, the land rising up and the saguaro giving way to prickly pear. It’s a breeze of a drive until 13 traffic circles force you to take your foot off the gas just outside the town. But by then you’re entranced by your surroundings, which have changed from rolling, sloped mountains to slide rock, layered at the bottom but sharp and jagged at the top.

A town of 10,000 people at 4,000 feet, Sedona stuns its visitors with its red sandstone formations that serve as a playground for hikers and bikers. It’s also considered a place of spiritual healing, attracting an array of New Age thinkers, fortune-tellers and psychics. This combination of natural beauty in the Coconino Forest and the clairvoyant personality of its residents create an eclectic environment that puts Sedona in a category all its own.

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Where to Stay
When finding a hotel in Sedona, it is important to understand that the town is laid out in a “T”, with Highway 179 forming the vertical part and Highway 89 the horizontal top. You’ll want to stay as close to this junction as possible, as it puts you in the best location to explore in all directions: The Village of Oak Creek, Bell Rock and Cathedral Rock to the South; Uptown Sedona to the west; Bear Wallow Canyon to the east; and Oak Creek Canyon to the north. Kimpton’s brand-new Amara Resort and Spa faces Bear Wallow Canyon and Mitten Ridge, attracting a fun crowd with its free wine hour. Just next door is L’Auberge de Sedona, the most luxurious and romantic property in town. Try a Vista Suite for sprawling views of Bear Wallow Canyon, or tuck yourself away in front of a wood-burning fireplace in a Creekside Cottage, under the canopy of riverside trees. Almost every hotel in Sedona will feature good views, so it’s all about what type of property you prefer. A few others to consider are the Poco Diablo Resort, the Sedona Summit Resort, the Adobe Grand Villas, the Best Western Plus Arroyo Roble Hotel & Creekside Villas and the Sedona Rouge Hotel and Spa (it’s currently under expansion, so call for details before booking).

Where to Eat
After hiking red rocks all day, a beer will most definitely be in order. Sedona’s best watering hole is Oak Creek Brewery, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. There’s a family-friendly restaurant on the main drag (179), but be sure you hit the original brewery and tap house on Yavapai Street in Uptown Sedona, where you’ll find live bands and local flair. Pair a beer with a snack from Simon’s Hot Dogs, which serves from a small window at the brewery’s entrance. For a small town, Sedona does have a wide variety of ethnic food options, including India Palace, Thai Spices, and the Italian Dahl and DiLuca. Vegetarians will enjoy the back-patio setting and tasty, healthy menu at Chocolatree. For cheap local tacos, try Tortas de Fuego. Sedona also has many “upscale” Mexican restaurants, such as Elote and SaltRock Southwest Kitchen. If you really want to treat yourself for a romantic dinner, try the three-course menu at the L’Auberge Restaurant on Oak Creek, featuring 36-day aged beef carpaccio, salmon mousse, and Arizona pine-smoked venison. If you decide to take a slow morning, try Ken’s Creekside for brunch.

What to Do
Sedona has a reputation as an energy vortex, a description that can be as complicated or simple as you want it to be. Many people believe the area to contain a high concentration of spiritual energy that promotes healing and vitality. Because of this, Sedona attracts many New Age thinkers. If you’ve ever wanted to get your fortune told, this is the place to do it. You can stop in at any one of the many psychic shops along the main drag, or set up an appointment with an independent psychic. But you don’t have to get a reading to experience the energy of Sedona. There are four main vortexes that have been identified as having the strongest energy, all of which have become iconic hikes: Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, Boynton Canyon and the Airport Loop. These are all beautiful places to explore, but attract the most attention from tourists not only because of their designation as vortexes, but because they are extremely accessible from the road and relatively easy hikes. (There has been much debate about this “coincidence” of accessibility amongst locals; some think the vortexes were placed in those locations specifically for tourism purposes.) Regardless, the hikes are worthwhile, but go at off hours or take longer routes that draw fewer crowds, such as the Courthouse Butte Loop instead of the Bell Rock Loop. The same goes for the West Fork Trail, which is both beautiful and popular. If you want to get off the beaten path and are in search of “classic Sedona”, check out the Hangover Trail, which takes you on a loop around Mitten Ridge. Similar trails in the same area (Bear Wallow Canyon) are Cowpies Trail, Margs Draw Trail and Munds Wagon Trail. If you want to take a walk by the Oak Creek River, go north on the Huckaby Trail, but be sure to ask about river conditions due to crossing sections. For the toughest challenge in town, climb the Bear Mountain Trail to Sedona’s highest point. If you’re feeling less frisky, the adjacent Doe Mountain serves as Bear’s smaller sister. Before you plan a hike, stop at any of the town’s outdoor stores, pick up a map and inquire about trail conditions. Many trails cross the river, and whether this is possible depends on the water level.

Venture Out
The Verde Canyon Railroad provides an alternative way to leisurely take in the unique scenery of central Arizona. The depot of this train to nowhere is located a half hour southwest of Sedona and takes a slow journey through limestone canyons, red rock buttes and river-filled ravines. Flagstaff and Arizona’s highest mountain, Humphrey’s Peak, are under an hour from Sedona. Depending on the time of year, you can ski at Arizona Snowbowl just seven miles north of Flagstaff.
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