“Dad, that man there, is that a real Indian?” I pointed my 11-year-old finger down at the lone figure wrapped in a blanket and perched atop a small gray peak below. My parents and I had climbed all the way to the top of Cathedral Rock in the red rock valley of Sedona, Arizona to stumble upon a solitary Native American man.
My father turned and said to me, “I dare you to call to him: hey, want some trail mix?“
We were later informed that the man was most likely undertaking a “vision quest” atop this sacred and resplendent landmark. Sedona is probably one of the most unusual little valleys in the country. My family found that despite its growing tourist industry, there are still some mysterious and quiet places to be found–if you poke around enough and like to wander a little bit in the red desert. And even if you don’t buy into the whole mystic-vortex, spirit-world, energy-center hoopla, any doubter will still enjoy the awesome beauty of Sedona’s red rock formations and the outdoor adventures it has to offer.
Situated just south of Flagstaff, the beautiful crimson desert of Sedona has captured the eyes of filmmakers in search of breathtaking panoramas of the old West in such films as The Quick and The Dead, and has continued to enchant and amaze tourists as well. With a multitude of outdoor activities, serene and historic sights, and a friendly environment to tourists, Sedona offers just about everything to the traveling family.
Although sighting an Indian in pursuit of a vision is not guaranteed, the whole family can appreciate the majesty of the red rock cliffs which encircle the valley that enchanted its very first American Indian visitors with a sense of awe and reverence.
Hiking the Red Rock Valley
Tourists visiting Sedona have many opportunities to enjoy its labyrinthine sandstone mesas and surrounding side canyons. My family and I could not get enough sightseeing on our first trip in 1989, when we saw the Native American man atop Cathedral Rock, so we returned again for another visit. Both times we chose to stay at the Sky Ranch Lodge, a good point of departure for day hikes with an elevated view of the valley, and every morning we walked just down the road to eat breakfast at the Sedona Airport Restaurant. With more than 400 miles of trails, many families will want to do some of their sightseeing on mountain bikes, too.
Stretching northeast between Sedona and Flagstaff is one of our favorite hiking destinations, Oak Creek Canyon, also popular for camping, picnicking and swimming. Running the entire 14-mile length of the canyon is the sometimes crowded Route 89A, crowded because it offers one of the most stunningly scenic drives in the area. Slide Rock State Park, one of Arizona’s best state parks for swimming in shallow creek waters and sliding along the slick surface of the worn bedrock, is located just about midway through the canyon. So don’t forget your swimsuits like we did.
Native American Culture in Sedona
When a Native American comes of age it is common for him to sojourn in the wilderness, with nothing but a blanket to cover his nakedness and no food, until he is visited by a vision. That’s why you’ll hear the term “Vision Quest” when you’re touring Sedona.
Another interesting cultural aspect is Sedona’s proximity to all sorts of historical Native American ruins and monuments as well as Old West ghost towns. Our favorite was Montezuma Castle National Monument, about a half-hour drive south of Sedona. These 800-year-old cliff dwellings were mistakenly named by explorers who thought that the Aztecs had fled to this area after the conquest of Mexico. In truth, this five-story, castle-like ruin set high on a cliff was built by Sinagua Indians, who were the ancestors of the Hopi. We couldn’t climb up to the limestone ruins, but the view from the trail below made one wonder how these ancient Indians had lived on the sheer face of a cliff.
If your family is as enthusiastic about Native American culture as mine, you will be as hurried to see all of the different historical landmarks as we were. Adjoining Montezuma’s Castle is the Yavapai-Apache Visitor Activity Center, which provides displays and information on all of the different American Indian tribes that lived in the region at different times. A few miles north of the castle there is a second small monument called Montezuma’s Well, with more of these mysterious ancient Indian cliff dwellings gathered around a pool of water.
Experiencing a Vortex for Real
Without a doubt, my family’s favorite part of the trip was hiking and exploring the areas around Sedona’s famous “vortices”. These four locations (Cathedral Rock among them) are alleged centers of strong spiritual energy, at least that is what you’ll be told by the nearest psychic or local New Age bookstore owner. Various members of the community offer different explanations of how these vortices draw their power, from ancient Indian beliefs to strong points in the Earth’s “natural” energy field. Although the skeptic may laugh at the stories of heightened emotions and alien encounters, he will certainly be able to discern what inspired these beliefs: the incomparable natural beauty of each site.
The gracefully spired Cathedral Rock is Sedona’s most famous vortex and one of the most photographed rock formations in the valley. One of the best aspects of visiting Cathedral Rock is finding your own way up its rocky base to the small cradle nestled at the top, and admiring the spectacular view laying far beneath you. Hiking Cathedral Rock made quite an impression on me when I was young, both because of its great beauty and the strange tranquility the great rocky seat inspired. The Bell Rock Vortex inspired a totally different, almost frightening sensation. One of Sedona’s more bizarre rock formations, Bell Rock’s ominous atmosphere makes it a favorite spot for watchers of UFO activity.
The Airport Mesa Vortex is one of Sedona’s more unassuming vortices, but it provides a gorgeous view of the valley spread below. Visitors to Sedona have caught on to the unique vantage point the Airport Mesa offers, and often dozens of people climb to its elevated position to view the sunset sparkle off of the red rocks. Reputedly the most powerful vortex in the red rock valley, the Boynton Canyon Vortex is also one of the best for hiking. Several ancient Sinagua Indian cliff dwellings can be observed along the canyon trails and although they are small, hikers are allowed to explore inside of them, an exciting experience for imaginative young children.
Sedona Trip Planning Details
Here are some things I learned from having traveled to Sedona as a young kid.
When To Go: Sedona has a typical desert climate, making it pleasantly warm in late fall or winter. In late spring and summer, the average temperature climbs to the high 90s during the day, and falls to the low 50s at night.
Essentials: Families that set out for a day of wilderness hiking or biking should prepare for sudden heat waves (the 2,500-foot drop in elevation from Flagstaff can make Sedona 10-20 degrees hotter). Bring lots of extra drinking water and sunblock. Always remember to respect the environment: it’s no backyard, but a legitimate desert valley.
Recreation & Active Fun: Sedona’s natural beauty and rugged terrain provide many opportunities for outdoor adventures. Biking, hiking, camping, climbing, swimming, water sliding, ballooning, jeep riding (guided or unguided), golf, horseback riding, birding, star gazing and picnics on the banks of gurgling Oak Creek or in Sedona’s city and state parks, are just some of the options for all ages. For toddlers, there are playgrounds and swings at Sunset and Posse Grounds parks when tiny hikers run out of steam. Older children can use the facilities at Sedona Skate Park or the municipal tennis courts; try bowling, miniature golf or ATV’s; or visit a trout farm and fish hatchery. For a day fee, the Sedona Racquet Club provides family access to an indoor salt-water pool, tennis courts and workout rooms.
The whole family will enjoy a day at the Out of Africa Wildlife Park, a zoo that’s a safari-like experience through 104 wilderness acres, and the Verde Canyon Railroad, a four-hour, round-trip excursion through Sycamore Canyon. (Look for the eagles!)
Hotels and Camping: The red rock valley is filled with excellent resorts and hotels, many of which provide guests with superb views of Sedona’s twisting rock formations. I recommend the Sky Ranch Lodge, where we stay because of its elevated view of the valley that we find worth the price. The Desert Quail Inn combines reasonable prices with a good location. For a more luxurious choice, try the wonderful bed n’ breakfast Sedona Views B&B adjacent to the Coconino National Forest. The helpful proprietors are part of what’s made it TripAdvisor users’ favorite B&B in the US.
If camping is your bag, you must stay at the Lo Lo Mai Springs Outdoor Resort located in a beautiful part of Oak Creek Canyon. The Forest Service also maintains campgrounds and picnic areas (strictly regulated because of the high risk of fire in summer); reserve ahead with the National Recreation Reservations Service.
Local Cuisine: Sedona’s specialty is Southwestern cuisine, and there are a few great family establishments that serve some of the tastiest morsels the red rock valley has to offer. The Cowboy Club Grille & Spirits in uptown Sedona serves authentic Western food in a fun Western saloon ambiance with a popular Happy Hour. The Blazin’ M Ranch Chuckwagon in nearby Cottonwood offers chuckwagon suppers and a stage show along with pony rides, a shooting gallery, tractor-pulled rides, farm animals and a lot more to entertain the kids.
For general pre-trip information, contact Visit Sedona. There are Visitor Centers which provide local vendor information, trail maps, rock art and archeology tours and information about conservation in the area. The Red Rock Pass is required for hikers with vehicles; the fee supports worthwhile preservation work in the Coconino National Forest.
Guided Tours: Although exploring Sedona on your own is the most fun, you can benefit from the information that a knowledgeable guide offers. Some of the best tours are four-wheel-drive Jeep trips in the backcountry such as those offered by Pink Adventure Tours or Sedona Red Rock Jeep Tours, who also offer tours geared toward exploring Sedona’s vortices and just plain rough-off-roading adventures.
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