From Craggy Sandstone Spires to Deeply Hued Buttes, Arizona’s Red Rock Country Radiates Natural Beauty.
In many ways, it is a fierce land. The pebbled desert floor is populated by thorny, angry-looking vegetation. Prickly pear cactus and cat claw acacia compete with manzanita, juniper and larkspur. Summer heat can be oppressive — peak visitor’s season runs fall through spring. Signs everywhere caution about rattlesnakes. In fact, gaze upon the vast, wrinkled topography and it’s hard to imagine this land giving life to anything. And yet, Red Rock Country seems to pulse with its own eccentric energy, awash in thundering silence.
The first rays of sunlight brush gingerly over Red Rock Country, as if nudging colors awake. Pigments emerge cautiously: deep violets gradually giving way to bands of burnt umber and cinnamon, streaks of rusty iron and tawny buff. Within moments, the rocky land surrounding Sedona ignites with intense, eye-popping hues, blushing with the slightest shift of sunlight.
To a group of early-rising onlookers, perched atop a windy mesa above the small northern Arizona town, it was as if someone had flung open the lid to an artist’s paint box, the desert exposed in a palette of vibrant shades.
All around, cameras click and hum like a herd of paparazzi.
“This was why we crawled up here in the dark,” sighed Elaine Burke, of New Jersey, taking pictures on her cell phone to send to her sister. “I just can’t stop looking.”
For newcomers, it’s hard not to gawk at Red Rock Country, a geologic sculpture garden erupting with rock formations gnawed by time, pine-carpeted plateaus, rainbow-colored canyons, and soothing oak-lined creeks. Tucked within the sprawling embrace of the Coconino National Forest, it is a land unto itself — there is nothing quite like it.
And there is much to offer here: a hundred miles of trails for hikers and mountain bikers; a thriving artistic community; camping and fishing; spa treatments; spiritual experiences; and a magnificent canvas to capture on camera.
For shutterbugs, it just doesn’t get any better. Drop into a local Visitor’s Center and ask about a great place to take pictures. Chances are you’ll be greeted with a broad, knowing smile.
“Just about anywhere,” we were told. “Fact is, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bad place to take a picture.”
Red Rock by RV
The secret to visiting this natural wonderland by trailer or motorhome is to plan well in advance. There are plenty of camping options, from primitive campsites with no hook-ups on public land to well-appointed private RV parks. But be aware that many campgrounds — especially those operated by the U.S. Forest Service — impose a maximum RV length at their campsites. Those limits vary dramatically, from 22 feet at Beaver Creek to 40 feet at Chavez Crossing.
And some sites stay open year-round, while others don’t.
Also, U.S. Forest Service campgrounds are generally operated on a “first come, first serve” basis; there are a few sites that will take reservations for some of their campsites; very few provide hook-ups. If you find that public campgrounds are full, check out the town of Cottonwood, 20 miles southwest of Sedona on State Route 89A, or Flagstaff, 30 miles north on State Route 89A.
Take it all into account when contemplating a trip here. And if you are driving a large motorhome, you might want to seriously contemplate bringing along a tow car, or renting something in the area. While plenty of parking lots accommodate larger RVs, getting out into the desert terrain to reach trail heads could play havoc with a big rig. A tow car would also make it easier to actually explore Sedona’s commercial district.
Research will pay off. More than 4 million people visit Red Rock Country every year, and for good reason. It’s a unique, technicolor playground, as well-suited to those seeking solitude and spiritual clarity as it is for families with a trailer-full of fidgety children to entertain.
At Pineflat Campground, north of Sedona off State Highway 89A, Mark and Rebecca Lenz praised the surrounding hiking trails as a great diversion for young campers. The Arizona couple says they try to make it to the campground at least once a year with their 25-foot travel trailer, sometimes meeting up with friends and family.
To work with RV length limits at the campground, they offer this tip: Reserve two campsites, one for your trailer, and one for your truck. At most prices, it’s still an affordable option.
“It’s beautiful up here in the fall — our favorite time,” Rebecca observed. “The color in the leaves is lovely, and while it still gets warm during the day, the nights cool down fast.” even getting to Red Rock Country can be fun. If approaching from the south, you’ll want to follow I-17 to State Highway 179, which winds north through Red Rock State Park and the Village of Oak Creek into the heart of Sedona.
At your earliest opportunity — and there will be many along the way — pull over and invest in a Red Rock Pass, available at any Forest Service Gateway Visitor Center, at Red Rock Ranger District and even local Circle K stores. Sedona essentially sits in the center of Coconino National Forest. If you pull off the highway anywhere along the way, including trail heads, you are expected to display the pass – sold as a one-day, a seven consecutive day or an annual pass.
The exception? If you pull over for 15 minutes or less to take a picture or study the scenery. It’s worth noting that Golden Age Passport holders — and their passengers — are permitted in lieu of the Red Rock Pass. The pass, however, is not inclusive. Be expected to pay visitor’s fees when stopping in nearby state parks, campgrounds and day use areas.
The region is bursting with things to see and do, so give yourself a few days to take it in. At an elevation of about 4,500 feet, weather tends to be warm, but temperate, much of the year. Most people seek out Red Rock Country during the mildest seasons, March through May and September through November. Consider a visit during late fall and winter, when days still warm well into the 60s and crowds are the thinnest.
A feast for the feet
You’ll know you’re nearing Red Rock Country when the landscape seems to open, revealing spicy-hued rock formations, as vivid as a gaping wound. Suddenly, the rolling desert landscape turns vertical and even a little mystical.
Like the exposed spires and pinnacles — a lovely product of the eroding power of wind, water and ice — this is a land filled with layers of intrigue. The only question? Where to start. It’s worth stopping by one of the many visitors’ kiosks for maps and expert advice on how to proceed.
Hiking is a great way to take an initial survey of the landscape, and you’ll find trails for every level of fitness; the sheer variety of scenery never ceases to amaze. Take a leisurely stroll through Red Rock Crossing/Crescent Moon Ranch picnic area, mostly along paved pathways, and you’ll be rewarded with a splendid view of Majestic Cathedral Rock — while you’re at it, plan to picnic alongside Oak Creek.
Walk about half-a-mile from the end of Soldier Pass Road and you’ll find Seven Sacred Pools, a string of rain-water-fed pools planted in a sandstone ledge.
Wander past ancient pueblo ruins on the Boynton Canyon Trail. Hikers can follow well-cut trails maintained by the National Forest Service or make their own way with the help of private guidebooks. Trails can also lead you deep into two designated wilderness areas, Red Rock-Secret Mountain to the north and Munds Mountain to the south.
Expect to see mountain bikers. Though select hiking trails are off-limits, Red Rock Country is a Mecca to mountain bikers. Over a gigantic omelet at the Coffee Pot Restaurant one morning, a mountain bike enthusiast from San Diego explained it this way: “It’s not just the number of trails I can choose from; it’s the quality and the fact that so many are located so close to town [Sedona].”
Hikers and bikers should observe basic trail courtesy. Also, always plan to carry more water than you think you’ll need and rehydrate often. At this elevation, hats and sunscreen are a must, no matter the time of year. Because desert temperatures can plunge to chilly depths at night, it’s also a good idea to bring extra clothing. On extended or back-country hikes, carry a compass, flashlight, snack and waterproof matches just to be safe.
Photos at every turn
The same scenery that appeals to hikers and bikers will make photo buffs positively drool. The drama of geologic architecture everywhere you look invites shutterbugs to play here, with great access to it all. You can take a rigorous hike to photograph hidden marvels, follow well-worn paths, or simply pull over and roll down the window of your RV.
Local experts suggest making the most of the marvelous light found at sunrise and sunset. In Sedona, follow Airport Road to the top of the mesa for a fabulous overlook that can draw up to 100 onlookers any day of the week. On the way up, you’ll see a massive rock to your left — a recognizable trail head — that lends terrific sunrise views.
Peak light can come and go quickly. The rocks explode in blazing color at sunset, but may fade within 10 minutes or less. There is so much to see and photograph here it’s tempting to quickly burn through rolls of film or memory cards. Slow down and take time to study the place first. The scenery isn’t going anywhere.
Professional photographers also suggest looking beyond obvious prominent rock formations. Desert flora and clear mountain creeks are also a part of the land, and worth documenting.
A few no-fail places to check out for great photos:
• Chapel of the Holy Cross: built into the towering sandstone landscape at the end of Chapel Road, off State Highway 179, south of Sedona. Intriguing architecture, a great place for spiritual reflection, fabulous sunset views.
• Centennial Trail Overlook: Head west out of Sedona on State Highway 89A; turn right onto the road directly across the highway from Upper Red Rock Loop. Park and hike in 1/3 mile to see a great wall of red rock to the north. Best to photograph mid-afternoon.
• Red Rock Crossing: Oak Creek ambles about the foot of massive Cathedral Rock. One of the most photographed sites in Arizona.
• Slide Rock State Park: take State Highway 89A north from Sedona. Between canyon walls, Oak Creek dashes over huge sandstone slabs popular with swimmers. Lovely in the fall.
Sacred spaces, creative juices
Rising early one morning to catch sunrise, we found ourselves bundled against a chilly pre-dawn breeze atop a rock overlooking Sedona. From the next rock over, we could hear a cluster of people making strange “oohing” noises, not unlike a cow calling to her calf.
Next, the rock burst forth in maniacal forced laughter. “I want what they’re having for breakfast,” quipped an onlooker.
“Oh, laughter meditation,” the local woman said. “Very popular.”
Given the heavenly scenery, it’s little wonder that many find Red Rock Country a supremely spiritual setting — some might even say, supernatural.
Crystals, alternative healing, yoga, medicine wheels, and auras are woven deeply into the fabric of local life around Sedona, which began to feel the New Age influence in the early 1980s. In fact, in 1987 Sedona hosted some 5,000 believers at the Harmonic Convergence festival.
You can’t visit without hearing about the famed “Red Rock Vortexes,” described as metaphysical power points where energy is said to flow from the earth. If you’d like to check out the Vortex scene for yourself, consider treks to Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, the Airport Mesa and Boynton Canyon. Of course, you can always sign up for a Vortex tour, where you can track the earth’s energy from the comfort of a desert jeep.
Once you’ve satisfied your curiosity, wander back to town. Sedona is a melting pot of creative people, and home to a burgeoning artistic community, where you’re likely to spot sculpture even perched upon the roof of a gas station.
Some 80 art galleries can be found here; stroll the colorful storefronts in uptown Sedona or check out Tlaquepaque, a cluster of shops, restaurants and art galleries set in a faithful recreation of an 18th century Spanish colonial village.
Today, Sedona residents work hard to keep their small town from turning into Disneyland-in-the-Desert. It’s said to be one of the only communities in the nation where the local McDonald’s doesn’t display golden arches; they’re a soft teal and subtly presented on a low, tasteful sign. Here, you won’t find towering signs competing with the scenery.
It’s nice to avoid commercial glut, but the absence of signage in Sedona can also make it tough to find basic services. Here’s a suggestion: You’ll find a grocery superstore, several natural foods groceries, and a large pharmacy along the stretch of Highway 89A that cuts through West Sedona. In-town drivers, take note: Sedona streets are diligently patrolled for speeding. it was not unusual to see about three vehicles pulled over in any given hour.
An ancient land
Don’t miss a chance to sample some local history; prehistoric Indian ruins abound. You can take a scheduled tour of local sites, or just set out on your own. Hundreds of prehistoric pueblos and granaries are tucked within the rocky folds around Sedona and nearby Verde Valley, often visible from hiking trails. Many of the remains are attributed to the “Sinagua” people, a broad term that means “without water.”
The Sinagua date back to around A.D. 1150 and mystify academics to this day. After building intricate stone pueblo systems, the groups or tribes simply seemed to disappear, adding to the sense of mystery. Two small ruins can be reached near Sedona. The National Forest Service manages Palatki and Honanki. To find them, take State Highway 89A west for 9.5 miles from where it intersects with State Highway 179 in Sedona. Take a right on Forest Service Road 525, drive six miles to where Forest Service Road 795 breaks off to the right and take Forest Service Road 795 for two more miles to its end. A trail leading north for 0.2 miles will take you to Palatki Heritage site; a trail leading west leads to a notable petroglyph site.
To reach Honanki, continue on Forest Service Road 525 for 3.2 miles past its intersection with Forest Service Road 795. For more information, call the Coconino National Forest/Red Rock Ranger District at (928) 282-4119.
To sample the ancient culture on a larger scale, try visiting Wupatki National Monument, about an hour northeast of Sedona. About 30 miles to the south of Sedona, you’ll also find some 300 ancient dwellings at Walnut Canyon National Monument.
Nearby Verde Valley hosts two national historic monuments: Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot. Located just north of camp Verde off I-17 is Montezuma Castle National Monument, which ranks as one of the best preserved prehistoric cliff dwellings in the United States. Though the hillside pueblo itself is not open to the public, trails run beneath it for panoramic views. Tuzigoot National Monument, the remnant of a 110-room pueblo topping a high ridge overlooking the Verde River Valley, lies just a few miles north of Cottonwood off Alt. Route 89.
Easy trails allow you to wander through rooms, and the on-site Visitor Center at this hilltop village is said to house one of the region’s best collections of Sinagua artifacts. Just a stone’s throw away is the scene of more recent history, and a notable stop.
Today, the tiny community of Jerome looks like a ghostly vestige of the former mining community that once thrived here. In the late 1800s, when silver and copper flowed from these desert mines, it was counted as the territory’s fifth-largest city, and branded a thoroughly “wicked” town, filled with saloons, gambling parlors and fast women. What remains is a living museum and fledgling artist’s colony. Check out the opulent Douglas Mansion at the Jerome State Historic Park or get a flavor of the past at the Jerome Historical Society Mining Museum.
While you’re visiting the Verde Valley, make time to stop in at Dead Horse Ranch State Park. Not only is it one of the region’s only public campgrounds with RV hook-ups, it boasts great hiking trails and a lovely, marshy lagoon — perfect for kayaking or wetting a fishing line.
Kevin and Jill Gallegos found it a relaxing setting for simply sitting in the sun with a good book. Though home for the Aussie retirees is Queensland, they found Dead Horse Ranch a great home- away-from-home in their 25-foot rental motorhome. And the quiet, affordable campsite was very much to their liking.
“We prefer the path less traveled,” said Kevin, with a smile. “And at the moment, we’re all canyoned-out.”