What the heck? You want to take me to the desert? What kind of vacation is that?
That was my wife’s first reaction when I said let’s go to Sedona, Arizona. I briefly explained that Sedona is in the middle of the desert, but it is much more than desolate landscapes and sand.
So, we packed our bags and embarked on an unforgettable road trip. The first leg of this journey was through familiar California towns, palm trees, and windmills. But once we entered Arizona, the landscape started to change into stark rock formations and rare, lonely bushes here and there. And to complete our desert experience, we encountered a ferocious sandstorm.
Sedona and the valley surrounding it is perched at 4500 feet (1.37 km), making it much cooler than the Arizona desert. The valley is so hospitable to life it has attracted the attention of prehistoric people and natives since 11,500 BC.
Interesting Facts: The canyon walls of Sedona show nine layers of stone from different geological periods that span over hundreds of millions of years.
Today, it is a thriving tourist town and retirement community with many resorts, shops, and restaurants. The tranquility of the scenery, beautiful red rocks, and lush greenery attract tourists from around the world.
Where to stay
Sedona is well established as a tourist destination, so that you can find accommodation for every taste and budget. You can find a hotel or motel room, live in luxury at a resort and spa, or find seclusion at a retreat.
If you want to get very close to nature and enjoy a night under the stars, you can camp for free at Sedona. If you did not bring any camping gear with you, rent a tent through Airbnb.
An excellent resource to help find your perfect stay in Sedona is here.
What to do
The mystical side
The Sedona mystics claim magnetic vortices are running through the area, giving it an otherworldly significance. Many tour operators are willing to take you hunting for Bigfoot or aliens. Staying overnight in the National Forest is not allowed, so these tours only go until dusk. I think the best sights are yet to come – when it gets dark. Read about our Vortex tour here.
Interesting Facts: Sedona’s vortexes are a popular draw for many spiritual seeking visitors and new age thinkers.
Low light and perfect weather make Sedona a great place for stargazing. Just step a few feet away from town, and you can have a clear view of the heavens. For a better view, try to go behind one of the famous red rock formations facing away from the city. You will be plunged into total darkness with only starlight to guide you.
Get some tips on Stargazing at the Sedona Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau.
Tip: When you go on one of those stargazing excursions, it is recommended that you take a red flashlight or headlight. The red light allows you to find your way on the trail but doesn’t create a lot of light pollution.
I inquired about the best stargazing sport from a ranger at uptown Sedona’s visitor center. She gave me some great ideas:
Thunder Mountain: It is in the Coconino National Forest, north of Highway 89a. Take Dry Creek Road to Thunder Mountain Road, go about .6 miles, then turn into the trailhead to the left. Take a short hike, which will take behind the red rocks for total darkness.
Sugar Loaf Summit: This is also in the Coconino National Forest, north of Highway 89a, but the road to the trailhead starts from Coffee Pot Drive. The trailhead is actually on Buena Vista Drive. Another short hike takes us to one of the best star-viewing spots.
Astronomy clubs: Another way to experience the Sedona starry night is to attend an event hosted by the area Astronomy clubs. Go to the Astronomers of the Verde Valley to get additional information and to check their event calendar. You can also try Sirius Lookers.
We recently went with Sedona Stargazing on their tour into the night skies. Read about it here.
Stroll around town
This is the historic part of town where Sedona started. Many of the buildings here are on the registry of historic buildings.
You can also find the Visitor’s Center at the corner of 89a and Forest Road.
Tip: Parking is mostly free in uptown around the side streets. On Hwy 89a, there are metered parking spots with a 3-hour limit.
Close to the visitor’s center is a shopping plaza with some great souvenir shops and excellent restaurants. We especially liked Wildflower Bread Company, where we enjoyed breakfast and lunch on two different days. This establishment bakes everything in-house and only uses locally sourced fresh ingredients. The food was delicious!
Walking through the rest of the street, you can find many art galleries, hotels, restaurants, and great views of the Red Rocks.
Interesting Facts: The sun shines over 300 days out of the year which is more than Florida.
This area is also the hub of tour activity. If you haven’t already booked your tours, you can find tours for every taste and adventure level. Some of my favorites are Red Rock Western Jeep Tours, Pink Jeep Tours, and Red Rock Balloons.
On a recent visit, we went with Pink Jeep Tours on a 3-hour Scenic Rim wild ride. After getting out of town on Highway 179, we entered a rough, bumpy dirt road that took us deep between the majestic red rocks.
You can actually use this “Schnebly Hill Road” road to reach Flagstaff, but only if you have a sturdy 4-wheel drive vehicle – and are willing to punish your ride. The road is very rough, with many cracks and rocks.
The jeep kept climbing from Sedona at 4300 ft (1.31 km) to the “Mogollon Rim“ at around 6500 ft (1.98 km).
Along the way, we gazed at the 7 warriors' rock formations guarding the valley below. We hiked to a bluff with a panoramic view of the Verde Valley and Sedona, and we rested at the rim with even more dramatic views far below.
The best way to enjoy the red rock formations around Sedona is to take one of the hiking trails close to town. My favorites were Cathedral Rock and Crescent Moon Ranch State Park – explored below. For a superb guide to Sedona trails, go here.
If you choose the short .7-mile trail, you will climb quickly to 600 feet (ca. 183 m). The trail is well-marked and takes you to a plateau where you can rest and enjoy the view.
If you have more time, I recommend taking the longer trial. You can take the Easy Breezy trail from the Cathedral Rock trailhead and keep going until you hit the HT trail. Turn right on the HT trail, which starts to climb gently until you hit the Templeton trail.
Interesting Facts: More than 90 feature films and countless videos and commercials have been shot in the Sedona area including Billy the Kid and 3:10 to Yuma.
As you climb gently along the Templeton trail, you can enjoy views of the rocks from all angles and end up at the top of Plateau with all the other hikers. You can then hike down the steep trail back to the trailhead.
Crescent Moon Ranch State Park
You can get to the easy trail running along Oak Creek from the parking lot with commanding views of Cathedral Rock. The trail is mostly shaded, with many benches and relaxing spots along the way.
Leave the main trail and venture closer to the creek to get better photos of the running water and the looming red rocks in the background.
Visitors can have a picnic or barbecue, fishing, or swimming in the creek. It is also a launching pad for many hiking trails in the area.
Soldiers Pass Trail
Along the way, you will pass "Devil's Kitchen sinkhole", "Seven Sacred Pools", natural arches, through a Wash, and up to the Brins Mesa. One at the top, you will enjoy great views in every direction.
Where to Eat
During our Sedona trips, we tried many restaurants. Some with amazing views and others just for the food. Some are upscale and expensive, like Cress Oak Creek at L'Auberge Sedona, while others are simple neighborhood eateries like Café Jose. Read more about our favorites here.
The Grand Canyon
Sedona can also be a launching pad for more adventure. The Grand Canyon is about 2-hours away by car. You can make it a one-day trip and enjoy the stunning views from the South Rim. Read more here.
Many tour operators run day tours from Sedona to the Grand Canyon.
Flagstaff is only about 50 minutes away from Sedona and offers a world of discovery. The road from Sedona to Flagstaff is itself a destination. You will be going through Oak Creek Canyon most of the way, with great views on either side of the road.