Sedona Is a Surprising Desert Destination

Rock out in Arizona’s scenic wonderland.

By Sarah Rufca Nielsen August 21, 2017 Published in the September 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

"It’s stargazing time,” said my husband Kyle, holding a pair of wine glasses and beckoning me toward the patio of our hotel room. Typically, I’m not much for stars, but it was 10 p.m. on a Sunday in Sedona, and the town was asleep. From our hotel room, all we could see was the shadow of a rocky bluff rising up a few hundred yards away.

The town is one of only eight cities in the world designated a Dark Sky Community for its lack of light pollution, and twinkling stars are packed so densely here that I understood, for the first time, how the ancient Greeks imagined constellations among them. It occurred to me that everything shuts down after dark here because no nightlife could possibly compare to two people, sharing a blanket and a bottle of wine and looking at the stars.

I couldn’t have predicted how Sedona would affect me. For most of my life, Arizona was not on my vacation bucket list. Why leave Texas for another hot, conservative state, much less one with inferior Mexican food and no beaches? But Kyle has family in Phoenix, and on my first visit I found myself in awe of the mountains permanently visible on the edge of the horizon; of the huge, statue-like saguaro cacti that line every road; of the wonderful things the desert air does to my hair. Driving through Sedona after a day at the Grand Canyon, I was no less impressed by the famous red rocks that emerged around every turn.

Despite the plentiful cacti, central Arizona is a more verdant place than you’d expect, with the pines of the enormous Coconino National Forest blanketing the entire region. The climate in Sedona, a two-hour’s drive north of Phoenix, is more mountain than desert—the rare (for me) destination where proximity to nature trumps urban convenience.

Because of that, we stayed at Enchantment, a luxury resort that’s about a 15-minute drive up into the town’s Western foothills, sitting snugly against the walls of Boynton Canyon. For the past 30 years, the resort, originally a private residence, has slowly expanded, its rust-adobe guest casitas perfectly blending into the landscape.

Being out in the sticks does mean you have to do some advance planning, mostly to figure out where you want to watch the sunset. In the dusk light, the red rock formations seem to glow from within. It’s by far the best show in town. We spent our first sunset at Elote Cafe, a temple of Southwestern cuisine for 10 years. Okay, technically, we watched the sun slip away behind the neighboring hotel while sipping serrano-spiced margaritas in the waiting area. By the time we sat down to enjoy lamb shank adobo and smoked-brisket enchiladas, the darkness had enveloped us once again.

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Sedona's iconic red rock views

We missed our second sunset entirely by lingering too long among the expensive Native American–inspired handicrafts at Tlaquepaque Village, a high-end arts and crafts shopping center—another rookie mistake. It was only on our third and final evening that we finally managed to get it right by reserving a table on the deck of The Hudson, where the steaks, while fine, are essentially pretext to ogle the panoramic views over the valley and beyond.

Outside of its smattering of fine-dining restaurants, the town itself is almost a parody of a tourist trap—Uptown Sedona, especially, is crowded with shops selling crystals, beef jerky, fudge and faux-Western schlock. One local described it as “rubber tomahawk,” an Arizona take on "all hat, no cattle." But we did make a point to indulge in one tourist staple: a Pink Jeep Tour.

For over 50 years, the company has been taking visitors off-roading in tricked-out, Barbie-pink Jeep Wranglers. Our guide drove us through the rugged, rocky terrain of Broken Arrow trail, explaining the geological underpinnings of the rock formations, instructing us on how to take a photo to fake hanging off a cliff, and pointing out the area’s plants, including giant, asparagus-like agave sprouts and the juniper berries that tasted vaguely of gin.

But we also wanted to experience the natural splendor without four wheels. There are over 100 hiking trails in the area, many located near Sedona’s famous natural monuments: among them Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and—the best and most identifiable—Snoopy Rock, which looks exactly like a cartoon beagle lying on his back.

We headed out early one morning toward West Fork Trail, a popular path a few miles north of town that follows the narrow, shady canyon that tiny Oak Creek cut through the sandstone over the span of millennia. The easy, six-mile hike stretched out over several hours as we clambered over jutting geometric-rock formations and not-so-deftly hopped from stone to stone, crisscrossing the creek a dozen times.

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Chapel of the Holy Cross

As hikes go, it was incredible, but for a complete Sedona experience it lacked one crucial element: a vortex, where the natural energy of the earth is said to whirl around in spirals, like an eddy.

I was ready to indulge in the area’s plentiful new age stuff—mostly to annoy my husband—but there’s only so much I’m willing to pay for a fake picture of my fake aura, and $40 ain’t it. Stopping at one of the ubiquitous crystal shops, I handed Kyle some brecciated jasper, labeled as aiding in organization. “Do you feel more organized?” I asked him. He did not.

But it’s not just crystal-laden spiritualists that this place attracts. I reluctantly passed on a visit to Sedona’s Buddhist stupa and peace park in favor of a journey to the Chapel of the Holy Cross. Built in the 1950s, the tiny Catholic church is a trapezoidal modernist structure that the de Menils would have adored, rising out of the rocks with panoramic views nearly worth the exhausting climb up to the nave.

I knew I couldn’t leave Sedona without at least trying to experience a vortex. Luckily, there’s one in Boynton Canyon immediately adjacent to Enchantment, which is where we spent our last morning in Arizona, on an hour-long hike almost to the top of the rocky bluff, joining a handful of other people who were meditating and taking in the spectacular canyon views. One was playing a Native American–style wooden flute, just in case the nature-documentary vibe was incomplete.

From our vantage point, I could see for miles the endless craggy peaks stretching out into the distance. I felt small amid such vastness and grandeur and humbled by the eons that had painstakingly carved themselves into the stone. The words of Jane Austen sprang to mind: “What are men to rocks and mountains?” I felt centered, and totally at peace. Am I feeling the vortex?, I wondered, sensing movement in the air. But no, it was just wind.

Then again, red rocks are just eroded sandstone. The stars in the night sky are just exploding balls of gas. Sedona is just another resort town. But sitting there, looking out on one of the most majestic views in the world, I knew that it—all of it—was so much more.

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Casitas at Enchantment Resort

Get There

The best way to get to Sedona is by flying into Phoenix (United, Southwest and other carriers offer nonstop flights starting under $300) and driving two hours north.


  • Enchantment, with rooms starting at $336, offers a true luxury experience with endless amenities and immediate access to some of Sedona’s most popular nature trails. Our favorite hangout on the grounds was the resort’s Mii Amo spa, where we could switch between pool and hot tub against a backdrop of stunning natural vistas.
  • Closer to town, The Inn Above Oak Creek has rooms that start at just $120 and charming grounds—several rooms include balconies with creek-side views—and a central location within walking distance of shops and restaurants.
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Southwestern fare at Elote Cafe

Eat + Drink

  • Elevated takes on Southwestern and Mexican dishes at Elote cafe made chef/owner Jeff Smedstad a James Beard semifinalist earlier this year; the dinner-only restaurant does not accept reservations, so arrive early and be prepared to wait.
  • On scenic Route 89A, Indian Gardens Café & Restaurant boasts the best coffee in town alongside organic, locally sourced, vegetarian-friendly breakfast and lunch options.
  • The most approachable of Lisa Dahl’s mini-empire of high-end Italian restaurants in Sedona is pizzeria Pisa Lisa, while the newest, Mariposaboasts a Latin American–inspired menu and a patio with panoramic views.
  • Completely updated in 2015, The Hudson has an unrivaled location that’s now complemented by a contemporary aesthetic, a large bar and well-executed contemporary American cuisine.
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