SEDONA — You needn't be a desert rat to fall instantly in love with the rugged, red-rock monoliths that define this enchanting city of artists in northern Arizona's Upper Sonoran Desert. Nor do you have to be a New Ager, although if you believe in the mystical power of vortexes -- there are 15 of these swirling centers of energy within 10 miles of downtown -- you'll fit right into this hot spot for every imaginable spiritual and metaphysical activity.
Thankfully, you don't even need good weather for a visit you'll never forget. Even in a freezing rain, with its famous peaks obscured by gray storm clouds and with normally bustling streets void of people, Sedona is a stunner.
We would have preferred the brilliant sunshine and azure skies one associates with the desert. Especially since neither my husband nor I had thought to pack winter coats or warm shoes for our quick trip to Phoenix. (To a Pittsburgher, at least dumb ones like me, Arizona in January = balmy temperatures = another round of margaritas by the pool.)
Even the most fervent prayers, though, can't change the weather or extend a vacation. If we wanted to see this geological wonder, it was now or never. Grabbing our sweaters, we got into our cheap rental Chevy and made the 120-mile drive north to the mouth of Oak Creek Canyon.
You can look at all the pictures you want of Sedona's famous rock formations -- and look we did in our official guide on the two-hour drive through some of the scrubbiest, and occasionally uninhabitable, terrain I've ever seen. (Bet there's an interesting story behind names such as Horse Thief Basin and Big Bug Creek!) Yet until you actually lay eyes on the peaks, worn by water and wind over millions of years, you simply can't appreciate the majestic beauty. With their multicolored layers and wild buttes jutting into the sky, they look like a prehistoric form of modern art.
Locals take this fantastic scenery pretty seriously. So seriously, the McDonald's on Route 89A is the only one in the world to wear turquoise arches; officials thought the traditional yellow would clash with the surrounding red rocks.
In comparison to Scottsdale's cosmopolitan glamour and Phoenix's breathtaking sprawl, Sedona feels downright sleepy; it takes all of 10 minutes to drive through town -- and that's if you dawdle. Still, 3 million tourists make the trek each year to drink in the view and commune with nature.
With those kinds of numbers, I would expect the Uptown area, with its eclectic mix of kitschy souvenir shops, expensive cowboy boots and gorgeous views (when the clouds lifted) of Snoopy Rock on one side and Merry-Go-Round formations on the other, to work harder at being quaint. Then we happened upon the cobbled streets and intimate courtyards of Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village. This collection of Spanish-style stucco buildings, constructed in the 1970s, does a terrific job of evoking a tiny Mexican village. It's filled with more than 40 specialty shops, many of them exclusive galleries displaying the work of local sculptors, jewelry makers, painters and ceramic artists.
At a tiny store called Feliz Navidad, I found a wonderful glass ornament by artist Kebbin Carson in the shape of one of my favorite things from the Arizona desert: a cowboy (Saguaro) cactus. Around the corner at the Inner Eye Gallery, I scooped up a bronze wine bottle charm in the shape of a flower handcrafted by metal artist Sandra Sullivan. My husband, meanwhile, was charmed by the colorful desert landscapes at Point of Sedona Gallery.
We both were fans of Oak Creek Brewery, where we ate fried dill pickles at the polished wood bar and warmed our chilled bones with a pint of locally crafted amber lager.
Thanks to the lousy weather and a tight budget, we weren't able to take one of the popular hot-air balloon rides across Sedona's red-rock area (prices start at about $200 per person). We also passed on horseback riding along the banks of the Verde River and what probably would have been an exciting jeep tour up a historic dirt road toward the sandstone cliffs of Mogollon Rim. There simply wasn't enough time.
Nor was there time (or, on my husband's part, an open-mindedness) for a personal vortex tour -- though I briefly considered getting my palm or aura read by one of Sedona's 20 certified psychic readers. Ever since the late '80s, when psychic Dick Sutphen declared the vortex energy in Sedona was greater than anywhere else in the country, New Age pilgrims have had a presence in town.
The force was still with us. While shopping for dangly turquoise earrings for our twin daughters, a shop owner informed us that rainy, winter days were the perfect time to enjoy the fireplace at Enchantment, a luxury resort/spa in the heart of nearby Boynton Canyon. Purchases in hand, off we went on Highway 89A through West Sedona with our photocopied map and great expectations.
Maybe it was the unexpected arrival of snowflakes, or the fact the clouds had finally dissipated, revealing two of the city's most famous rock formations -- the aptly named Coffee Pot Rock and Capitol Butte -- the drive couldn't have been prettier. As we negotiated the narrow mountain roads, driving farther and farther into the woods (had we been pranked?), one spectacular formation after another exploded into view. I made my husband stop several times so I could take pictures.
Enchantment itself, which is surrounded by the Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness in Coconino National Forest, was, well, enchanting. And that was before the prickly pear margaritas and deep-fried "beaver tail" cactus at its cafe overlooking the rocks, Tii Gavo.
"Do you ever get tired of looking at this?" I asked the guard who stopped us at the entrance to the resort so he could copy our license-plate number.
Getting back on the road to Scottsdale was another matter. We decided to take the scenic route along Upper Red Rock Loop Road, which would offer us a view of Cathedral Rock, one of the most photographed formations in the area and site of a power vortex. Big mistake.
Not only did we end up getting lost, but a few miles down the road the pavement abruptly gave way to red dirt, which due to rain was rapidly turning into red mud. The rental car agent's stern warning not to drive our four-cylinder, two-wheel-drive economy sedan in the mountains no longer seemed like a sales ploy to upgrade. My husband cursed as the car lost traction and threatened to slide sideways into a ditch.
I peered at the map in the back of our official guide, trying to figure out where we'd gone wrong. It didn't take long for a (danger) light to go off in my head.
"Well," I told my husband with a nervous laugh. "I guess that's why the road goes from black to red." He was not so easily amused.
By the time we hit the blessed hard pavement of Route 260, it was closing in on 4:30. But we still had one more planned stop in the Verde Valley -- and it was at least 20 miles away. Time to put the pedal to the metal, with just a two-minute pause to take pictures of the totally bizarre but somehow irresistible 39-foot statue of Mother Earth in front of the Mago Retreat Visitor Center outside Cottonwood. ("Do we turn left at the huge Jesus?" my husband asked when he spied it on the horizon.)
We'd flirted with the idea of stopping at Montezuma Castle, one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in North America, on our way to Sedona. We were in such a hurry to get there, however, that we tacked it onto the return half of our trip. In hindsight, that was another dumb decision.
Constructed by southern Sinagua farmers in the 1100s, the 20-room castle was among four sites President Theodore Roosevelt designated in 1906 as our nation's first national monuments. Five stories tall, it's nestled rather ingeniously inside a limestone cliff some 100 feet above the ground. In pictures, it looks like an ancient apartment building. I say "in pictures" because the closest we got to the castle was the entrance to the national park. And that was at 4:58 p.m., or exactly 2 minutes before closing.
As luck would have it, a park ranger was just pulling up to the metal gate; but no amount of sweet-talking could persuade the guy to let us slip by for a quick look-see.
"It's a mile down the road, and then another third-of-a-mile hike to the entrance," he scolded me, fishing a brochure out of his truck. "You really should have gotten here by 4." I had to settle for picking up a rock from the road and tucking it in my pocket.
Yet even the most by-the-rules park ranger can't close a door without opening a window. Ten minutes later, I was pulling the lever on a nickle slot at Cliff Castle Casino in nearby Camp Verde, which if you believe the marquee, is Arizona's No. 1 casino 10 years running. It's operated by the Yavapai-Apache Nation.
Never a lucky gambler, I ended up losing my $5. My husband, who wagered only 4 quarters, walked out with 50 bucks.
Guess who bought dinner when we pulled into our resort in Scottsdale two hours later?