Exploring Sedona: From Mysticism to Mountains

Hiking Sedona: Climbing Cathedral Rock Trail
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Exploring Arizona

Over Martin Luther King Day weekend Tara and I took advantage of the awesome Frontier Airlines fares between Houston and Phoenix. I’ve been meaning to knock Arizona off my list for pretty much forever, and even though we had just returned from the Christmas holidays we were ready for another vacation.

Rather than stay in Phoenix (why go from one big city to another big city?) we decided to head north to Sedona, seeking a little wilderness, peace and quiet.

A tourist town at heart, Sedona is perfect for the outdoor enthusiast, and it isn’t far from other attractions. It reminded me a little of Estes Park, Colorado, which serves as a gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park. Lucky for us, we were visiting during the off-season, so we were treated to peace and quiet on streets that are probably usually bustling with activity.

Even though it was January, we kept ourselves busy. The weather was perfect and we had plenty of options.

1) Find your focus

Sedona is big on new age mysticism. You can’t avoid it there. There are crystals and vortices and mediation centers and psychics. Ever the skeptics, Tara and I may not buy into all of it, but we do have a healthy appreciation for mindfulness and meditation. That made Sedona, while a little over the top, the perfect place to refocus.

Even our lodging was…well, unique. We decided to ditch the hotel and find local lodgings through Airbnb. We ended up at a digestive retreat, of all places. And it took some creative driving to get there.

The road to Grace Grove Retreat
Our lodging location was a little off the beaten path…

Being January, it was the off-season for digestive health (apparently), so the owners of the retreat were renting the rooms out. Located quite literally in the middle of nowhere (dirt road and river traversing included), it was exactly what we were looking for in our escape from city life. While we were only a half hour from Sedona and civilization, the resort itself was quiet and provided us with an endless supply of tea.

How to do it: We found our accommodations through Airbnb, and it was one of many options! If you haven’t used the service before, it’s really fantastic (use my link and receive $25 off your first stay). If you’re more comfortable in a traditional hotel, don’t worry. There are plenty of ways to find your focus in Sedona. My recommendation? Get outside and into its beautiful wilderness. You won’t be disappointed.

desert

2) Watch the sunrise at the Sedona airport

If you’re spending any amount of time in Sedona or the surrounding areas, it’s worth the early wake up call to see the sunrise. The best place to do this is from the airport. There’s a trailhead there, a small restaurant, a hotel, and a beautiful overlook. Bring your cameras, and don’t forget your jackets. It gets chilly in the mornings!

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How to do it: The airport is small, and easily accessible. Located on Airport Terminal Drive, make sure you arrive there with plenty of time before sunrise. You can see the first rays peak above the mountains. Once it’s officially morning, head over to the Mesa Grill, which has an amazing breakfast selection at decent prices.

3) Ascend to new heights at Cathedral Rock

Cathedral Rock is probably one of the most iconic hikes in Sedona, Arizona. If you’ve seen pictures of Sedona, you’ve seen pictures of Cathedral Rock.

cathedral

Typically, finding out that something is the tourist attraction in town makes me run the other direction. But tourists were few and far between and we had gone to Arizona to hike. We wanted to see the best that Arizona had to offer us, so Cathedral Rock it was.

The hike takes you up into the “saddle”, or the point between the two tallest rocks (which are vertical and unhikeable). From the saddle you can see the desert surrounding Sedona.

Worth it?

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Oh, yeah. Some places are tourist attractions for a good reason.

We opted for the longer version of the hike, which was a good 3.5 miles of mostly flat terrain with a total scramble for the last .3 miles (that’s one way). The climb is hard, but the view at the top makes it worthwhile. We were lucky enough to reach the summit right around sunset. Luckily we had our head lamps with us, because we were hiking in the dark on the way back!

How to do it: If you just want to do the last .3 miles to the top of the rock, you can park at the Back o’ Beyond Cathedral Rock Trailhead. Otherwise, head on over to Yavapai Point and take the trail from there. It’s a longer hike, but if you’re physically fit and well prepared it’s worth the trek.

4) Get your geology on at Oak Creek Canyon

Okay, you can geek out about geology pretty much anywhere in Sedona. The red rocks lay bare hundreds of millions of years of history, and if you know how to read them you can get some pretty fascinating insight into the history of the region.

That said, Oak Creek Canyon has a particularly fun geological twist. From the top of the canyon, you can see the impact of a fault line.

OakCreekFault

Can you find it?

Need a hint?

Look at the mountain all the way to the left of the frame. Then look at the one all the way to the right. See how they’re different heights? That’s because a fault runs down the middle of the canyon. Oak Creek River runs right over it. How can you tell?

This is where I need Tara’s help, but if you look at the layers of the rocks on the left side and the layers on the right, they don’t match up exactly. They exist in the exact same order, but the ones on the left are all knocked down a few hundred feet. This is probably because of some ancient earthquake.

Also, yes, that’s snow on the ground. And it’s just a fifteen minute drive away from the red rocks!

How to do it: Oak Creek Canyon can be reached by taking a twisty scenic drive up the mountains to a scenic overlook. From there you can return to Sedona or continue on to Flagstaff, only another 20 minutes down the road. Alternatively, there are hiking trails all around this area, so you can easily spend a whole day exploring!

5) See a petrified forest

Looking for a day trip? We couldn’t go to Arizona and not go to at least one National Park. Instead of Grand Canyon, we turned east and drove to Petrified Forest National Park. It’s a bit of a drive from Sedona, but there are some nifty stopping points along the way, including Flagstaff and Winslow, Arizona.

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The park itself was set up around collections of petrified wood. Still retaining remarkably recognizable tree-like characteristics, these fossils are old.

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This colorful log is a youthful 211 million years old or so.

In addition to the petrified logs, the park has an abundance of archaeological remains. Petroglyphs and the foundations of old dwellings dot various portions of the park.

Petrified Forest National Park
I can’t help but wonder what the people who lived here thought about the fossilized forests all around them.

 

If that weren’t enough, Petrified Forest National Park is home to a portion of the Painted Desert, which is absolutely stunning, and on a portion of the Historic Route 66. There’s plenty of history here — from millions of years ago to a century ago.

Sedona

How to do it: Petrified Forest National Park doesn’t offer any carside camping or RV sites. It’s best approached as a day trip or a primitive backpacking venture. With only one main road cutting through the park, it’s easy to drive it in a couple of hours, stopping off at the major sites as you go.

A geological, archaeological wonderland, central and northeastern Arizona are a geeky nirvana.

We left Houston searching for focus and revitalization, and we returned feeling rejuvenated. Between hiking, lengthy road trips through the Navajo Nation, exploring National Parks, and even standing on a street corner in Winslow, Arizona, we managed to pack a lot into four days. A couple of recommendations, should you decide to make the trip:

  1. Make sure you have a car – particularly a mid-sized SUV or larger. More than once we were grateful for the Jeep we rented as we bumped and bounced off road!
  2. Visit during the off-season. Sedona is a tourist town, second only to the Grand Canyon in the state of Arizona. In January it was quiet, and we were able to enjoy the scenery without being overwhelmed by people.
  3. Hike responsibly. Remember, this is a desert. Pack plenty of water, some food, a first aid kit, and your headlamp. You never know when you might be caught in the dark.
  4. Be open-minded. Sedona’s charm comes in large part from its abundance of new age mysticism. Whether you believe in it or not, it’s a part of the culture and personality of the place.
  5. Don’t forget to slow down and appreciate the wonders around you. This is a place where the mighty forces of the natural world are breathtakingly apparent. Take note of them, learn about them, and don’t forget to breathe.
Hiking Sedona: Climbing Cathedral Rock Trail
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  • What a great review! I’d like to go hiking around here for sure. And I wouldn’t mind staying at that place you found on airbnb – unlimited tea?! I’m down! I wouldn’t mind taking a peaceful retreat either.

  • I know nothing about geology but your photographs are so breathtaking that I’d pack up and go to Sedona just for the views. How can you do anything but meditate and feel one with the world with views like that! Thank you for sharing your tips and photos. What an amazing place! Even if it took some creative driving to get to your lodgings.

    • I don’t know much about geology either, honestly. But Tara is an endless supply of information, so every time we go on a trip like this I learn a ton!

      Geology aside, though, it’s definitely worth visiting just to appreciate the views. 🙂

  • We went to Sedona on our honeymoon and loved it! We used Roadside Geology of AZ to find cool features on our drives.

    • We have a small collection of roadside geology books. They make road trips so much more interesting! We also picked up Sedona Through Time while were were there.

  • Anna

    I haven’t been to Arizona (and I don’t think it will happen anytime soon), but I can see that it’s a beautiful place and a geologist’s paradise!

  • Winslow, AZ is worth a quick visit. It’s fun to get a picture next to the “Standing on the corner” statue.

    Great photos! and thanks for hosting #WeekendWanderlust

    Steve

    • Hi Steve, thanks for your comment! I’m ashamed to say that until Tara started playing the song (on repeat) and demanding that we make a pitstop in Winslow I had no idea it was a thing. I’m really glad we stopped, though! It was fun, and broke up the road trip nicely.

      And now I can’t get the song out of my head.

      • I agree! Definitely worth a short visit. And it makes a great photo op.

  • Wow, these photos are just so wonderful. I’d love to get to this part of the world… maybe one day.

    • The crazy part is that these photos barely do it justice! We saw a sunset one night that was literally the most stunning thing I’ve seen in my life. I didn’t post any pictures though, because they all pale in comparison. It’s a beautiful part of the world, that’s for sure.