Relaxing and Recharging in Red-Rock Country
September 12, 2013
Vacations serve many purposes. Winter escapes to the south give us a much needed dose of warm, balmy air. Ski trips north allow us to take advantage of all that ice and snow. Early spring vacations rescue us from the grey, depressing winter doldrums. And summer vacations are for getting away from it all (does anyone do that anymore?), partying late into the night, exploring, or for just plain unwinding. That’s the beauty of a vacation – it revives the spirit by providing a much-needed change of pace, scenery, and activity.
Our recent summer vacation to Sedona, Arizona was intended to recharge our somewhat depleted emotional and physical batteries. It did that for sure, but it also turned out to offer so much more.
If you’re not familiar with Sedona, it’s a southwest vacation spot located about 20 miles south of the fun-loving, Route-66 town of Flagstaff, Arizona. Sedona is situated where scenic Oak Creek emerges from its snaking, tree-lined journey from the high pine forests of the Grand Canyon down through deep, steep Oak Creek Canyon, winding past the picturesque red-rock formations that Sedona is famous for, then out into the cactus and sage deserts beyond. With such a wide variety of landscapes and climate zones in such a short span of distance, Sedona and its surroundings offer visitors an awesome and truly diverse vacation playground.
Because our time was limited this year, we opted not to drive to the southwest like we have so many other summers, but instead to fly. Trouble is, no carrier flies directly to Sedona, nor even to Flagstaff. It’s necessary to fly either to Phoenix, 70 miles to the south, or to Las Vegas, 70 miles to the west. We chose Las Vegas because, well, because it’s Vegas, baby!
Now, I hate flying. But I didn’t always. Back in the days of larger planes with ample leg-room, wider, cushier seats, meal service with real utensils, and courteous customer service, I enjoyed air travel. But those days of luxury air travel are long gone. Nowadays flying is an ordeal. Most airlines treat their passengers like criminals, problems, or freight. In other words, like convicts being shuttled to prison in a flying security wagon. It ain’t fun. Still, until Elon Musk gets his Hyperloop tube transport system perfected, flying is the only way to cover long distances quickly. So, since fly we must, fly we did.
Turns out our WestJet flight from Toronto wasn’t too bad. It was a new aircraft with more comfortable and spacious seats than on many planes, and the flight crew were quite pleasant (which, I have to say, is typical of WestJet). And, because I sat next to the window, the view, especially during the final portion of our flight, was spectacular.
I first took notice of the view as we passed over the Colorado Rockies. The early morning sun cast shadows across the peaks making them stand out. In the distance I could see smoke from a couple of mountain wildfires burning somewhere west of Pueblo. Sadly, July is the inescapable wildfires season in the southwest.
As we flew over the canyon lands I snapped a few photos. From the air the view looked like Google Earth (I’m embarrassed that I just wrote that). Using ground features alone, Nancy and I tried to figure out where we were, recalling landmarks from our myriad travels through that desolate country. We were pretty good at it too, identifying several unmistakable places like the town of Cortez, Colorado, as well as azure-blue Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon dam near Page, Arizona.
We could clearly see the meandering Colorado River where it carves into Grand Canyon, and of course Lake Meade and the awesome Hoover Dam just east of Las Vegas. We even spotted the new high-level bridge that now spans Black Rock Canyon, sparing motorists the slow winding descent down into the canyon on the road that crosses the dam (unless, of course, they wish to take this route). Nancy gulped at the sight of the tall, spindly bridge knowing we would be crossing it on our drive to Flagstaff the next day. She hates edges.
As is our habit when visiting Vegas, we booked ourselves a room at the La Quinta hotel at the corner of Paradise and Flamingo. We’ve found it to be conveniently close to the Vegas strip, yet far enough away to have much less traffic and noise. It’s a lovely, spanish-style hotel that offers elegant, comfortable rooms and a free breakfast. Their courtesy shuttle picked us up at the airport and we checked-in when our room was ready. It was on the second-floor overlooking the palm-shaded pool and gardens in the central atrium, with a view of the city a couple of miles away.
Being July, the temperature in Las Vegas was a fierce 110°F. Nevertheless, after getting settled in our room we walked the four blocks to the strip outside in the scorching heat. At the first opportunity we popped into some casinos we hadn’t visited before, like Ballys and the Paris Casino, mostly for their air conditioning. Then, after a couple more forays back out into the sizzling sun, we decided to find us a pub for a couple of cold ones. The Four Irishmen tavern in the New York, New York casino fit the bill nicely.
For this vacation we decided we would forgo fast food joints and instead eat in local brew pubs. Fortunately a classy one, the Gordon Biersch Brewery, was right across the street from our hotel, and their fare was delicious, well-made, and surprisingly low-cost. Their selection of tasty micro-brewed beers sure hit the spot, too.
The next day we set out for Flagstaff after picking up our rental car at the Enterprise outlet just up the street. They first issued us a cute Fiat 500 which barely held the two of us and our luggage. But on the highway the little car bounced around disturbingly, so we returned it to the rental agency and upgraded to a bigger car, then continued on our way. I must say that Enterprise handled the exchange quickly, without fuss, and at no extra charge. I heartily recommend them the next time you find yourself in need of a rental car.
Along the way, we lunched in Boulder City at the Boulder Dam Brewing Company which calls itself “the best dam brewpub in America”. Part brewpub, part museum dedicated to the local men who built the dam back in 1939. Afterwards, crossing that soaring bridge at Hoover Dam turned out to be a non-issue, not because we’d had a beer but because it was hard to tell we had even crossed it. Its concrete sides are high enough that only those in trucks or busses can see over.
The next leg of our drive to Flagstaff took us through desolate Golden Valley to the dusty town of Kingman. Fortunately this turned out to be a lot less risky than when we last drove this same highway a few years back after somehow breaking two lug nuts on our rear wheel, loosening the rest, and nearly losing the whole wheel. Did I mention we were also pulling a trailer at 75 mph at the time?
Flagstaff is a lively university town located on the I-40 midway between Albuquerque and Los Angeles. Famous for it’s whimsical, still-in-business Route-66 landmarks, it lies nestled in amongst refreshing pine forests, and prides itself on having some of the darkest, star-filled night skies in America. We’ve stayed there many times on our vacations and always look forward to our return visits.
Our overnight stay was brief, but fun. We walked downtown from our hotel along old Route-66 and puttered through the delightful shops for awhile. Time has taken a toll on this once bustling town as there are now several empty stores. Still, we had to visit our favourite new age shop called Sacred Rites to see if Kelly, the hippy proprietor, had any new exotic musical instruments to show off. We discovered years ago that a short visit to Kelly’s little spiritual hideaway is like an hour of meditation. Of course, he had several sound boxes that he was eager to demonstrate to calm our spirits. Once suitably relaxed, and before heading back to our hotel, we crossed the tracks to the Lumberyard Brewing Company for a delicious dinner and a refreshing pint.
The next morning we walked over to the nearby Galaxy Diner, a true Route-66 roadside attraction, complete with zippy Jetson’s-like neon lighting, chrome counters and stools, checkered tiled floors, 50s theme, red-vinyl booth seating, and even a juke box. Made me wish it was late enough in the day to order a milkshake, but we were there for breakfast. The $3.99 eggs, sausage, and toast special was served promptly, well-prepared, filling, and just about the best breakfast deal in town. And great coffee, too! Highly recommended if you ever find yourself in Flagstaff.
Finally it was off to Sedona. The scenic drive from Flagstaff down through twisty Oak Creek Canyon is always a pretty one. Sedona itself then appears in dramatic fashion at the end of the canyon. After miles of oak-shaded, winding road along the river, you emerge into the sunlight at Slide Rock, a wide, red-rock cascade that serves as a natural water park in the area. It’s a favourite attraction for tourists who gleefully belly-slide or bum-slide down the smooth rock chutes in their bathing suits. It’s also a popular location for photographers and film crews, having been featured in several Hollywood westerns like Angel and the Badman (1946), Broken Arrow (1950), and Drumbeat (1954).
Still heading south, the road next crosses spindly Midgley Bridge where it spans a deep gorge, the site of the first of Sedona’s many vortexes. Sedona is famous for its vortexes (they refer to them in the plural as vortexes, not vortices) which are associated with certain red-rock formations. The thinking is that the iron oxide in the rock is a good conductor of natural electromagnetic fields that spiral out of, or into, the Earth at five main locations in and around town. Every year thousands of visitors from around the world flock to this area just to experience for themselves the reputed positive emotional and spiritual effects of these mysterious vortexes.
As you drive further still, the amazing red-rock hills and formations that surround Sedona suddenly seem to loom up right in front of you. If you’re the driver you may have a hard time because the scenery is so astounding and breathtaking you’ll be hard-pressed to keep your eyes on the road. But do so, because no sooner does this amazing scenery appear than you find yourself entering the north end of uptown Sedona, the fun, silly, touristy part of town. Tacky? Sure. Fun? Positively. Colourful, lively, and not-to-be-missed? Most definitely! Many couples and families who come to Sedona venture no further than this part of town.
Our little villa, called The Rooms Upstairs, was easy to find on Jordan Road just one block back of uptown Sedona. Our unit was one of two batchelor-style apartments located on the floor above a local architectural firm. We think it might have been managed by the wife of one of the architects. Online it promised a spectacular view of the red-rock hills, a private covered patio, a kitchenette and – not to be dismissed lightly – air conditioning. It delivered on all those promises and then some. We were thrilled when we saw what Nancy’s online visit to VRBO (Vacation Rentals by Owner) had landed us.
On our first evening in Sedona we drove to the nearest of the 5 main vortexes – Airport Vortex. It lies just west of uptown Sedona, a short way out route 89A, by a small landing strip atop a mesa which serves as the local airport. It was almost sunset when we parked and began wandering around the rocks and cactuses enjoying the scenery, but not really sure where the vortex was. Many people could be seen standing or sitting on the top of the large rock formation but Nancy was reluctant to attempt the steep climb because she doesn’t like heights or edges. And besides, we weren’t really sure if that was the vortex or not. After walking around for awhile we headed back to our room where I checked one of my many Sedona books and found that the top of the rock formation was indeed the centre of the vortex. Oh well. We made a promise to return another day and try again.
The next day we drove a few miles south of town to the park ranger’s station to buy the necessary 5-day parking pass that would allow us to park our car at the trailheads of the various trails that we planned to hike over the next few days.
By the way, you might be interested to know how Sedona got its name. Back in 1890, Thomas Carter Schnebly owned much of the land and used it as apple orchards. When the US Postal Service requested a name for their records, he suggested Schnebly Station. Wisely, the Post Office nixed that idea, forcing Schnebly to go with his second choice, naming it after his wife, Sedona Arabella Miller. Good thing, cause I don’t think entitling this blog “The Spirit of Schnebly” would have had quite the same ring to it.
The first trail we undertook was the Bell Rock/Courthouse Butte trail which we drove to midmorning of the next day. By then the sun was high in the sky and it was already hot (but it’s a dry heat). The first hikers we encountered warned us that the trail was “awful”, but we had a book that said otherwise, so we decided to find out for ourselves. We’re not sure what that unhappy group ran into but we absolutely loved the cragginess and raw wildness of the trail, and the amazing view afforded from all sides of those two huge rock formations. I guess some people are just hard to please.
The Bell Rock/Courthouse Butte trail was a terrific hike even though we didn’t attempt to reach the Bell Rock Vortex which required some climbing. And it was very hot. So from that day on we decided to heed the advice of others and get an early start on the trails.
The next dawn we were up at 5:15 AM and on our way by 6. Besides cooler temperatures, the early morning colours are softer and more photogenic, so it really paid off. Most days we were back from our hike by 9:30 or 10, at which point the temperatures were just starting to climb into the low 100s. We would then spend the balance of the day puttering, sight-seeing, checking out the local brewpubs, shopping, or just reading on our shaded patio.
Our next morning hike was to Kachina Woman, a dramatic 90 foot spire of red-rock at the head of the longer Boynton Canyon trail a couple of miles west of town. There we saw evidence of a native drum circle marked out in fist-sized stones. We spent over an hour there just sitting silently, taking-in the panoramic vista, possibly mellowed somewhat by the effects of the vortex located at the base of the spire.
For the remainder of our stay we tried to manage one hike each day. A couple of rainy days hampered this, but we did eventually hike every trail we had originally intended to. One of these was the Airport Mesa trail (which I started by first scrambling to the top of Airport Vortex, but without Nancy who was a bit reluctant to climb the steep hill).
Another enjoyable hike was the close-by Jordan Trail that wound around scenic Coffee Pot Rock (which we could see from our patio) and which ended at an amazing sinkhole called the Devil’s Kitchen. We were able to walk to the trailhead which was only a mile or so from our villa.
The Doe Mountain trail was the only hike that required any vertical scrambling, making it unsuitable for beginners. Nancy wasn’t swayed by the reviews of the hike that warned of the elevation gain and places where the footing wasn’t that assured. Even when a group of hikers ahead of us turned back halfway up the path, she insisted that we push on. And are we ever glad she did. The view at the top was breathtaking and well-worth the climb.
Our final hike to majestic Cathedral Rock wasn’t really a hike at all, but more of a photo stop to get that quintessential Sedona shot. But we had trouble finding the exact place to take the photo I wanted. This, and a suddenly finicky camera, somehow sent me into an uncalled-for rage. I later discovered that the vortex at Cathedral Rock is of the negative variety that can often cause unexpected eruptions of anger or tears. I’d say it works.
Another photo stop was the Church of the Holy Cross, the stylish white chapel perched high amongst the red rocks that, for some reason, has also become synonymous with Sedona.
From my descriptions above you might think that all we did in Sedona was hike. Far from it. We browsed and shopped and puttered about, trying to see parts of the community that we had never visited before. And the dry, warm air added a special magic to the evenings.
Several times we visited the faux-Mexican shopping mews called Tlaquepaque which is a must-see for any visitors to Sedona. The Oak Creek Brewery there became a favourite stop of ours on all those hot, parched afternoons. We also saw some amazingly-talented native Apache dancers performing there.
Another of our favourite spots was Indian Gardens, a restful little green oasis tucked in amongst the trees just north of Sedona in shady Oak Creek Canyon and famous for its healthy breakfasts and hearty sandwiches.
A true highlight of our trip to Sedona was meeting our delightful neighbours, Sandy and Janet, two lively Canadian women who had driven up from Phoenix (where they were originally vacationing) to escape the heat. They were on a scaled-down kind of girls-gone-wild trip away from their husbands back in Vancouver, BC. This, and their choice of rental car – a hot black mustang convertible – earned them the nicknames Thelma and Louise.
T & L were on a mission to check off some of their bucket-list items including taking a daring scenic helicopter tour of the Grand Canyon. When they returned later that day from their hair-raising adventure they regaled us with harrowing yet hilarious tales of just how frightening and exciting it had been. Sitting out on our shared patio, the four of us emptied many bottles as we exchanged funny stories about our respective families, travels, adventures, and lives.
I could go on and on, but I’ve taken up too much of your time already. If you want to know more about Sedona you’re just going to have to visit this incredible little town for yourself, discover your own favourite places, and have your own adventures. When you do, let me know what you discover so we can add it to our list of places to visit or things to do the next time we’re there. Which will be as soon as it can be arranged.
We returned to Las Vegas the way we had come, through Flagstaff where we stopped briefly to visit a couple more vintage Route-66 attractions before heading back out onto the westbound I-40. The trip to Vegas was – what else – sunny and hot. We arrived to a strange isolated monsoon that covered a circular patch of the city, pouring and blowing ferociously within that circle, but nowhere else. Emerging from that mini-storm, we saw in the distance the billowing smoke from the huge, out-of-control Carpenter Canyon wildfire a few miles south of the city. What a sobering welcome back.
You see, wildfires were no longer a thrilling sight for us, as we had been in Sedona, only 70 miles from the town of Prescott, when 17 young firefighters from that little town tragically lost their lives in the Yarnell Hill Fire. It really shook the locals, as wildfires are a frightening fact of life in the southwest every year.
For our last day in Vegas we walked over to the Caesar’s Palace casino. After wandering around this incredible wonderland, we had ourselves a sumptuous Italian dinner while seated beside a replica of the ornate Trevi Fountain. A nice end to a wonderful vacation.
On the day of our return, our flight was delayed several hours by unexpected rains and floods in the Toronto area. But at least we were aware of the delay, and spent the day lounging around the pool at our hotel instead of sitting in the departures lounge at the airport. So, after a pleasant and scenic homebound flight, we arrived safe, relaxed, and full of stories to tell, and all ready for our next adventure.