Arizona’s Red Rock Country
Expect to be enchanted by the chic galleries, stone monoliths and spiritual energy of Sedona, the towering cliff dwellings of Montezuma Castle and the copper-mining community of Jerome, once known as the Wickedest Town in the West
Cresting the hill on the road into Sedona, Arizona, my husband, Mark, and I simultaneously gasped and blurted out an astonished “Wow!” Majestic landscapes lined with exotic red-rock formations filled the view to the horizon in every direction. Our truck and trailer swooped over the beautiful hilly roads leading into town, and I bounced around in the passenger seat trying to capture the incredible scenery on my camera. We had been to Sedona years before, but we had been weekending tourists staying in a hotel. On this trip we were lucky enough to be visiting for a few weeks in our fifth-wheel trailer and couldn’t wait to get set up and start exploring.
The most stunning aspect of Sedona is the dramatic drives around the Y-shaped town. Downtown Sedona is on the right fork, West Sedona on the left and the Village of Oak Creek at the base. There aren’t a lot of roads, but every one is a pure joy to drive. Running errands, even in the significant traffic that proves this town’s immense popularity, is something we looked forward to doing. “Let’s go do the laundry!” I suggested, eagerly hopping in the truck without knowing where a coin wash was, just so we could poke around town and soak in the views in our search for one. When we found ourselves taking photos of parking lots because of the striking red rocks towering in the background, we knew we were in a uniquely scenic place.
Despite its small size (population 10,000), Sedona stands tall on the world stage for travelers. As we ventured out onto Bell Rock Pathway, perhaps the most popular hiking and biking route through the red rocks, we heard languages from all over the world being spoken as we mingled with Asian and European tourists. This hiking trail is an easy stroll right into the heart of the red rocks, and we soon discovered it was a great place to get our biking legs in action, too.
The Templeton Trail forks off Bell Rock Pathway, and a challenging mountain-bike ride on this trail took us along a winding route to the towering monolith known as Cathedral Rock. The fun thing about this trail is the smooth ride along the base of the cathedral. Glorious red-rock peaks are easily visible in the distance, while the trail hugs massive rock walls that reach up to the cathedral’s steeples. As we rounded the last curve, the buttresses and spires of Cathedral Rock soared into view before us, looking as regal and ethereal as any manmade sanctuary ever built.
Another wonderful route into red-rock country is the Airport Mesa Loop trail. Starting close to downtown Sedona, this trail follows the edges of enormous cliffs, offering panoramic views across valleys and canyons that change colors throughout the day as the light shifts in the sky. The views were most stunning toward the end of the day, as the hues of the red rocks deepened to burnt orange and shadows crept across the valley floor.
Sedona is considered by many to have a strong spiritual power. Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, Airport Mesa and a few other spots around town are known as “vortexes” where transcendent energies are particularly concentrated and most easily sensed. These New Age sentiments about the area may sound a little far-fetched, but the ancient Indians felt a similar mystical inspiration here, and some modern tribes still perform sacred ceremonies in the area. I can’t say that we experienced anything out of the ordinary at these vortex sites, but it is easy to believe that the majesty of the landscape surrounding all of Sedona reflects the work of a divine hand.
This trail must be spectacular in the fall when the green leaves turn to shades of gold and red. A return trip is on our bucket list so we can find out.
Human hands are responsible for the abundance of exquisite and whimsical works of art around town. Home to many artists, Sedona is full of galleries and art studios. Several lovely bronze sculptures line the main street of town. An especially charming one depicts an artist standing before an easel, holding a paint palette. He is gazing at a magnificent mountain view, as a child by his side takes his photo. On an even more playful note, a group of oversize xylophones stands under a ramada in the center of town. Mallets resting on each xylophone tempt passersby to strike the instruments and listen to their deep, mellow tones.
In addition to Sedona’s art galleries, dozens of boutique shops and fun eateries occupy the main drag. After strolling through a few galleries and admiring red-rock-inspired images and sculptures, we stopped at Rollies Camera shop to find out which of the 250 hiking trails in the area their professional photographers thought was the most photogenic. “West Fork is my favorite,” photographer and shopkeeper Tom Kelly told us.
Without pausing to ask why, we were soon on our way there. Just a half-mile onto the West Fork Trail, we suddenly understood what sets this unique place apart and makes it such a favorite among locals. Whereas most of the Sedona area is about vast, open, sunny views and awe-inspiring red-rock formations, West Fork is a shady stroll under leafy branches alongside a cool stream.
We walked under a thick canopy of lush green vegetation and then found ourselves next to a series of huge rock overhangs that jutted out over a wide, shallow pool, creating perfectly mirrored reflections in the water. Here and there, red-rock cliffs peaked through the luxuriant greenery, forming a vivid backdrop. Another mile or so down the trail, the thick forest stepped back from the stream for 20 yards or so, revealing an inviting little wading pool surrounded by wide, flat rocks. Several hikers had stripped down to swimsuits and were enjoying a refreshing dip.
Two weeks after we left Sedona, we were agonized to learn that the West Fork area to the north of Sedona had become the victim of wildfire. Fortunately for visitors, it appears that the West Fork hiking trail itself was spared and that the worst of the damage was much deeper in the wilderness. This trail must be spectacular in the fall when the green leaves turn to shades of gold and red. A return trip is on our bucket list so we can find out.
Fires are a regular threat each summer season, and near the entrance of the West Fork Trail the remains of the charming Mayhew Lodge serve as a sobering reminder. Once a tiny cabin built by legendary grizzly hunter “Bear” Howard, the building was expanded by later owners and surrounded by apple orchards. Popular Western novelist Zane Grey loved this area so much, he set his novel The Call of the Canyon here. And when Carl Mayhew came to the site to photograph the filming of Grey’s novel, he bought the property and opened it to guests in 1926.
Mayhew’s lodge soon became a favorite retreat for A-list celebrities including Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart and President Herbert Hoover. The Mayhew family eventually sold the lodge to the U.S. Forest Service in 1968, and tragically, in 1980, a fire reduced it to ashes. Walking around the broken ruins of the stone fireplace in what was once the living room, I ran my hands along the partial stone wall and glassless round window that still stand. It is hard to imagine the sounds of those Hollywood voices booming through a two-story building here, sun pouring in the large windows and glinting off a 1940s vintage car parked out front, as portrayed in an antique photo of the lodge on a plaque nearby.
Celebrities still flock to Sedona, and the town has a decidedly upscale tone. Loaded with spas, high-end hotels and fine dining, it is a playground for the rich and a welcome escape from the desert heat for folks from nearby Phoenix. We discovered that one of the best ways to cool off after a day outdoors was to stop in for a delicious microbrew beer at the Oak Creek Brewing Company in the Village of Oak Creek just south of Sedona. Their Nut Brown Ale has long been a favorite of ours, and we got a kick out of drinking it in the brewery’s tasting room, right next to the massive fermenting tanks.
After a few days of playing in the red rocks, we were ready for a change of scenery, and a day trip to Montezuma Castle National Park fit the bill perfectly.
Montezuma, also known as Moctezuma, was the Aztec king whose Venice-like canaled city in what is now Mexico City was destroyed by Spaniard Hernán Cortés and his army in 1521. As we approached a cliff dwelling high up on a sheer rock wall, I wondered what Montezuma had been doing in Arizona. Had he made the 1,500-mile trip here at some point during his life?
The walls and windows of the cliff dwelling resemble Indian ruins found throughout the Southwest, and we soon learned that when early settlers discovered these ruins, they incorrectly assumed the Aztecs had built them. They named the site Montezuma Castle, and it has stuck through the years. However, these evocative 20-room cliff dwellings were built by the Sinagua (Spanish for “without water”) people about 1,000 years ago. Until the late 1970s, visitors could climb up into the ruins on wooden ladders, but today preservation takes precedence over tourism, and the dwellings can be viewed by the public only from ground level.
A few miles away but still in the national monument, Montezuma’s name was given to a natural spring and deep-water pool, Montezuma Well, where there are a few more ancient Sinagua ruins. Walking along a paved path that descends to the level of the water, we were surprised to find ourselves by a brook surrounded by tall leafy trees in a very cool and moist habitat. Beautiful yellow columbine flowers were in bloom everywhere, and the sound of rushing water drew us to a mini-waterfall at the end of the path.
Another delightful day trip from Sedona took us to the turn-of-the-last-century mining town of Jerome. This tiny town sits high on Cleopatra Hill with views of the Verde Valley from every street.
Once home to two thriving copper mines (and all the wild brothels and bars that went with them), Jerome is now a charming town of art galleries, bistros, landmarks from days gone by and just 448 residents.
Plaques on the historic buildings tell stories of those early times. A few structures were left open to the elements after the last of many fires burnt them down; just the stone walls remain. The story of madam Jennie Bauters on a plaque outside her establishment characterizes the rough-and-tumble nature of life in those days. Arriving straight from Belgium in 1896, Bauters built two brothels that burned down in successive citywide fires. The third one, from 1898, still stands, and the activities inside quickly made her the richest woman in the Arizona Territory — until she was murdered in 1905.
Back in modern-day Sedona, one of the most popular excursions is a 4×4 Jeep tour on Schnebly Hill Road. We opted to take our own truck on this road instead, and the drive out of the cool pine forests near Flagstaff down into the blazing red rocks of Sedona was a trip we will long remember. The road is extremely rough in places, but the views and vistas were worth every bump. As we snapped photos of jubilant Jeep tourists being tossed all over the place, we heard one fellow yell to his buddy, “This is going on Facebook!” as he held his camera high in the air for a selfie in the Jeep with the jagged red rocks behind him.
Sedona, Arizona, fulfilled all our expectations and delivered so much more. Quaint, rugged, chic and picturesque, all at the same time, the town gave us a fantastic array of things to do and left us wanting to come back for more.
RV Parks and Campgrounds
Coconino National Forest
Three U.S. Forest Service campgrounds — Cave Springs, Chavez Crossing and Pine Flat —
accommodate small trailers and motorhomes. In Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon.
Reservations: 877-444-6777 | www.recreation.gov | www.fs.usda.gov/coconino
Dead Horse Ranch State Park
Electric hookups only. Daily rates from $25. In Cottonwood, 20 miles from Sedona.
Oak Creek Mobilodge
Shady campground with access to Oak Creek. Monthly rates from $495. In Sedona.
Rancho Sedona RV Park
A Good Sam Park with sycamore and cottonwood trees for shade. Daily rates from $48.50. In Sedona.
888-641-4261 | www.ranchosedona.com
Rio Verde RV Park
On 30 acres along the Verde River. Daily rates from $31.23. In Cottonwood, 18 miles from Sedona.
928-634-5990 | www.rioverdervpark.com
For More Information
Coconino National Forest
928-527-3600 | www.fs.usda.gov/coconino
Jerome Chamber of Commerce
928-634-2900 | www.jeromechamber.com
Montezuma Castle National Park
928-567-3322 | www.nps.gov/moca
Sedona Chamber of Commerce
800-288-7336 | www.visitsedona.com