Exploring Sedona

Sedona’s Red Rock Country. It’s a destination on seemingly every Arizona traveler’s bucket list. People from around the globe are drawn to this curious desert town, where smoldering rock formations and ponderosa pine forests envelop a bustling, mystical hub.

Many visitors come seeking healing energy from Sedona’s four vortexes – but why no one wants to use the grammatically-correct vortices is beyond me. The ‘vortexes,’ if you will, are believed to be swirling centers of energy coming up from the Earth. There are supposedly four in Sedona: at Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, Airport Mesa and Boynton Canyon. The upwellings of masculine and feminine energies are alleged to stimulate healing and self-awareness and, for believers, immersing oneself in a vortical meditation is a central part of a Sedona pilgrimage.

For other visitors, Sedona is all about the opportunities for outdoor recreation. With countless hiking, mountain biking, and off-road vehicle trails crisscrossing the town, there’s certainly no shortage of adventure for all interests and abilities.

With all Sedona has to offer, it kind of begs the question: Does it live up to the hype? Contrary to popular opinion, Sedona really wasn’t one of our favorite places (cue the mass unrest). For us, the natural beauty and quirky downtown weren’t enough to offset the insane amount of tourist traffic. While the small town is home to just 10,000 year-round residents, Sedona’s population swells as it welcomes upwards of three million visitors annually, many of those during the busy summer season.

Because of this constant surge, the trails and roads here are absolutely inundated with vehicular and pedestrian traffic, and parking is also a huge problem. The city has tried to ease the strain with free shuttles, but it’s just not enough. The amount of people descending on an otherwise quiet town for a quick stay is unprecedented, and something Stephan and I just couldn’t deal with (and we weren’t even there during summer’s peak). Honestly, I don’t know how Sedona’s residents keep from losing their minds, and I don’t know how you possibly alleviate the congestion in a sustainable way.

Although it wasn’t a place we’d seek out again, we did still manage to enjoy some time on the trails as well as a few good vegan meals. If Sedona’s been on your must-visit list, check it out and decide for yourself whether or not it’s worth the hype. And if you do visit, here are a few suggestions for hikes and restaurants as well as some pro tips to get you started.

Soldier Pass & Brins Mesa Loop Trail

Every so often when we select trails, we find ourselves making the same mistake: We research a trail that everyone raves about as a favorite, must-do, brilliant hike and ultimately find ourselves underwhelmed. This time it was Soldier Pass.

The highlights of the Soldier Pass Trail are the Seven Sacred Pools as well as a short spur that leads to Soldier Pass Cave. If you’ve got kids, the cave might be cool, though it really didn’t do that much for us. If you’re keen to see the pools, keep in mind they may or may not have water in them, depending on recent rainfall. When we hiked this trail in March, the pools were completely dry. If you’re looking for a short, easy trail, Soldier Pass might do it for you. However, if you’re looking for the best scenery, you can probably do better.

It seems as if most people choose to hike this as a three-mile out-and-back to Soldier Pass Cave. However, it can be combined with the Brins Mesa Trail for a six-mile loop that winds around the rock formations of Brins Ridge and The Mitten. We opted for the loop after being completely underwhelmed with Soldier Pass, and found Brins Mesa to be not only more scenic but significantly less trafficked.

Hiking clockwise, the route takes you up Soldier Pass to Brins Mesa, then loops back to the parking area via Cibola Pass and the Jordan Trail. Like most of Sedona’s trails, the entire route is well-marked and easy to follow. The first section of trail is relatively flat (save for the short, uphill spur to the cave), then climbs gradually uphill to the top of Soldier Pass and continues uphill along Brins Mesa. It’s only about 500 feet of vertical gain from the spur to Brins Mesa’s highpoint, but it’s just enough to get significantly better views of the surrounding red rock.

Overall, Brins Mesa was a completely different world from Soldier Pass – in terms of scenery, of trail traffic, and of parking. For how anticlimactic we found it, Soldier Pass is a veritable battle ground for parking – even necessitating a park-and-ride shuttle at peak visitation – and the trail was similarly busy. With the dearth of visitors on Brins Mesa, you’d think you were a world away rather than like a half mile. It was kind of mind-boggling… and unexpectedly refreshing.

Total distance:  6.0 miles
Elevation gain:  1,220 feet

Bell Rock

If you’re looking do some easy scrambling in Sedona, Bell Rock and Cathedral Rock are two of the most accessible options. Both are short routes (just over a mile round-trip) and each is home to one of Sedona’s famed vortexes [sic]. You can’t walk to the true top of either formation, but the trails on both get you a good portion of the way up. Of the two, Cathedral Rock seems to be the favorite amongst visitors with its larger stature and roughly fifty percent more vertical gain than Bell Rock.

Once again diverging from popular opinion on Sedona’s best, we actually favored Bell Rock. It may be more stunted than Cathedral, but it is so photogenic… and the views of neighboring Courthouse Butte are absolutely incredible.

While it’s possible to simply walk to the highpoint of Bell Rock, there are a few sections were you either need to use your hands or might just feel more comfortable doing so. Coming down, there were a few sections of rock where the ‘butt scoot’ seemed to be some hikers’ method of choice. The slickrock here has pretty good grip when it’s dry, but the angle of the rock can make it look steeper or more daunting than it really is. Additionally, while there aren’t any real ‘edges,’ being able to look straight down the rock can be a little intimidating for those with a fear of heights.

We first hiked this when my friend came to visit. With a fear of both heights and edges, this was a serious psychological challenge for her. For the first half of the hike she was fine, taking in the views and enjoying the gorgeous spring weather. About halfway up the rock, however, her nerves started to get the best of her. There were a few points where I thought she might throw in the towel, but she kicked some serious ass and made it to the top. At one point, she suddenly took off on a dead sprint up the slick rock – just to get past that one moment of terror – while I stood with my mouth open staring in disbelief. I was so proud of her accomplishment. Sometimes the mental challenge is so much greater to overcome than physical, as I know full well.

Total distance: 2.9 miles
Elevation gain: 531 feet

Courthouse Butte Loop Trail

If you’re interested in going up Bell Rock but want to add some more distance, the circuit around neighboring Courthouse Butte is a pretty good one. At just over five miles (Bell Rock scramble included), the path offers nice views of the two rock formations as well as a look out to more distant Cathedral Rock.

The trail around Courthouse Butte is pretty flat, winding through thickets of juniper and prickly pear cactus, gaining most of the elevation in the ascent up Bell Rock. Though the trail is right next to the popular scramble, we found the loop portion to be comparatively lightly trafficked.

Overall, it’s a pretty hike but nothing epic… as seemed to be our feelings about most of Sedona. Check it out for yourself, though. It’s fairly quiet and you never know where you’ll find your own magic.

Total distance:  5.3 miles
Elevation gain:  751 feet

Red Rock Crossing & Cathedral Rock

Given how much everyone seems to love Cathedral Rock, we felt remiss to spend three months in northern Arizona and not check it out for ourselves. After a two-month spring closure for trail maintenance, we were finally able to check this one out toward the end of May.

Looking for something a bit longer than the quick, mile-long jaunt up the rock face, we headed to Cathedral Rock’s iconic spires via the Red Rock Crossing Trail. Beginning from the Crescent Moon Picnic Area, you have to make a wet crossing of Oak Creek to access the trail. It wasn’t quite what we were expecting before even setting foot on the trail, but hey, shoes dry.

From your preferred fording site, the trail follows the contour of Oak Creek through a shaded valley of cottonwood trees. We were surprised to see such a lush little area rife with birdsong, and it was a pleasant break from the hot, relentless sun you get with most Sedona hikes.

After about a mile, the trail exits the valley and begins climbing gently as it switchbacks toward Cathedral Rock. The landscape here turns to desert scrub brush, with prickly pear and ocotillo now lining the path. After another half mile or so, the Red Rock Crossing Trail meets up with the Cathedral Rock Trail (#170).

From here, it’s just over half a mile to the highpoint where the trail ends. As the north face of Cathedral Rock comes into view, the path quickly fades and the large rock cairns characteristic of Sedona’s trails guide the rest of the way up the slickrock. In terms of scrambling, it’s a pretty easy and straightforward walk up, though there are a few places where you do have to use your hands to climb up a short section of rock. If you’re afraid of heights or uncomfortable clambering up some rock with your hands, you may find it a bit challenging. We did come across several visitors who chose to stop at those ‘stuck spots’ and wait for their hiking companions to return down.

After the short ascent, the trail dead-ends atop a west-facing saddle with Cathedral Rock’s giant spires rising on either side. It’s quite a pretty spot, and you feel almost enveloped by the glowing red sandstone.

Total distance:  4.4 miles
Elevation gain:  1,170 feet

Sedona’s shuttle service

If you plan on hiking, this is a super important ‘know before you go.’ Sedona has recently implemented a free trailhead shuttle service that, during peak visitation times, is the only way to access the three most popular trailheads: Cathedral Rock, Soldier Pass, and Dry Creek Vista (starting point for Devil’s Bridge). If the shuttle is running, parking at these trailheads will be closed.

The Sedona Shuttle is an attempt to ease the pain of parking on residents and guests alike. The new service runs seven days a week during peak hours and seasons from two park and ride lots. During off-peak seasons, the shuttle runs Thursday through Sunday (7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.), the busiest days of the week. There doesn’t seem to be a clear definition of peak vs. off-peak dates, so make sure you check the shuttle’s website for the most current information before visiting. Sedona Shuttle also has an app you can download to check real-time information and schedules.

Additionally, while Soldier Pass, Cathedral Rock, and Devil’s Bridge are all dog-friendly trails (leashed, of course), dogs are not allowed on the shuttles. If you plan to hike with your pup, you’ll need to come up with an alternative plan. Luckily, all three of these trails can be accessed via a variety of alternate parking lots and connector trails. You just have to be willing to extend each route a bit (e.g. Jordan Road parking for Soldier Pass; Crescent Moon or Baldwin Trailhead for Cathedral Rock).

When we visited, we had no idea the shuttle was the only way to reach Cathedral Rock trailhead. Consequently, we twice found ourselves in a gridlock of traffic only to arrive at a closed parking lot. To say we were frustrated would be an understatement. The signage at the trailhead said nothing to the effect of ‘shuttle access only,’ and we initially struggled to find any information online. While the system is certainly a good idea, I think it still needs some fine tuning.

Hopefully, this knowledge will save you the massive headaches and wasted time we endured. Frankly, this whole overcrowding/overuse thing was one of the main reasons we just didn’t love Sedona. For more information, check out the Sedona Shuttle’s FAQ page.

Pro tips for hiking:

  • If you want to hike Bell Rock, park at the southern lot (the Courthouse Loop South Trailhead) and hike north via the Bell Rock Trail. In our experience, it was significantly more difficult to find parking at the smaller and more popular northern parking area (Bell Rock Trailhead). Parking at the southern lot adds a small amount of distance your trip, but it’s virtually flat and offers better views of both Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte (in our opinion).
  • For a longer hike to Cathedral Rock, you can begin from either the Crescent Moon Picnic Site or the Baldwin Trailhead. There are a few of disadvantages to parking at Crescent Moon: (1) there is an $11 day use fee, (2) the lot fills up quickly after lunchtime, and (3) you have to make a wet creek crossing at the very beginning of the hike to access the Red Rock Crossing Trail. To save money, avoid a full lot, and keep your feet dry, we’d recommend parking at the Baldwin Trailhead. From there, you can hike the Baldwin Trail to the junction with Red Rock Crossing, then head east toward Cathedral Rock. It’s about the same distance as hiking from Crescent Moon. We would have totally opted for this if we weren’t already at Crescent Moon. While the Baldwin Trail is less than a half mile south as the crow flies, you can’t drive there from Crescent Moon (there’s no road over Oak creek). Instead, it’s a 40-minute drive all the way back through Sedona’s hellacious traffic.
  • There is very limited parking around town as well as at the trailheads. The community is super strict (rightfully so) about parking randomly along the streets, especially near trailheads. Be mindful of that, as you will get ticketed or towed.
  • If you skipped over the shuttle section above, here it is one more time: The Cathedral Rock, Soldier Pass & Dry Creek Vista (Devil’s Bridge) trailheads are closed to parking on peak days and in peak seasons. You’ll have to take the shuttle to hike these trails.
  • Sedona accepts either the Red Rock or America the Beautiful Pass. The Red Rock Pass can be purchased with a daily, weekly, or annual option for $5, $15, or $20, respectively. The America the Beautiful Pass is an interagency pass that can be used at 2,000 federal recreation sites across the country, including all national parks. This annual pass costs $80, with discounted rates for seniors and military.

Good eats

Catering to outdoor enthusiasts, artists, and spiritual seekers from all walks of life, Sedona and neighboring West Sedona are meccas of small cafes, galleries, craft shops, and all things metaphysical. It’s a desert oasis that certainly does have something for everyone.

As one might expect with all that crunchy eclecticism, Sedona offers a number of vegan-centric restaurants. The two I really enjoyed were Chocola Tree Organic Eatery and Conscious Meals, both over in West Sedona. Less enthused with my vegan eateries and eager to try something new, we also made a quick trip down to Camp Verde so Stephan could try some traditional Native American fry bread. Our thoughts:

Chocola Tree Organic Eatery

Chocola Tree is a little slice of heaven tucked into a small building right along Hwy 89A. The owners are truly environmentally-minded, and all their foods are 100% organic and either vegan or vegetarian. All are also gluten-free. Their menu items can be enjoyed in their indoor space or outdoor garden, and can also be ordered for take-away. In addition to their food items, they offer specialty coffee, teas, cold-pressed juices, smoothies and desserts.

When we visited for lunch, I ordered a cold-pressed carrot, ginger and grapefruit juice that was out of this friggin’ world. I also selected their popular vegan bean burrito – a massive pile of chili beans, mashed potato, pico de gallo, red pepper chutney and guac rolled in a dosa wrap. It was seriously amazing. Stephan was lucky enough to try a bite and even he said he could probably eat it every day. If you do one thing in Sedona, order this burrito.

In addition to their delicious food, Chocola Tree is also known for their artisan-crafted raw chocolates, made with fair-trade cacao sourced from small farms in Ecuador. Their handmade confections are sweetened with either maple syrup (vegan) or honey (non-vegan), and are super flavorful works of art. If you pop in for lunch or an early dinner, make sure you grab a handful of truffles for the road.

Conscious Meals

Just up the street from Chocola Tree, you’ll find Conscious Meals. It’s a smaller, grab-and-go joint but with similar fare. The menu is entirely vegan, gluten-free and soy-free, and offers a variety of wraps, salads, bowls and ‘burgers.’ The shop also offers juices, smoothies and an assortment of desserts.

Stephan and I sampled a few of their menu items, including the falafel bowl, Mexican bowl, and jackfruit wrap. While the bowls were both good, the jackfruit wrap was the clear winner. The southwest-style jackfruit was well-spiced, and I was in love with the raw flax-veggie wraps that they use. It was like eating a piece of vibrant, green cardboard. It may not sound particularly appealing but, trust me, it was. It was exactly the kind of wrap I wish I could find in the supermarket.

Yavapai Apache Fry Bread and Jewelry

About half an hour south of Sedona sits a humble, roadside stand selling traditional Native American fry bread. It’s located in Camp Verde, on the Yavapai-Apache Nation Indian Reservation, and run by a gentleman who has been making and selling fry bread with his family at this same spot since the 1980s.

The small kiosk is nothing but a few PVC pipes joined with electrical tape, with a tarp strung between them for shade. A piece of pegboard is adorned with some red tape, stitched together to spell out ‘FRYBREAD’ in large letters. Beneath the makeshift tent sit a couple of folding tables and chairs.

As you’d expect from such a humble kitchen, the choices here are few: fry bread topped with either cinnamon sugar, honey, powdered sugar, or salt. If the simpler versions don’t appeal to you, you can also order a fry bread ‘taco’ topped with refried beans, lettuce, tomato, cheese, onions and green chilis.

This humble dough may be made from just a few ingredients, but the gentleman at the helm crafts the bread with utmost precision. When he had to make a fresh batch of dough for our order, he wouldn’t even consider working it until the absolute second his proofing timer sounded. It was a level of compulsiveness I both respected and found highly relatable.

As if one paper plate-sized portion wasn’t enough, Stephan had to order a cinnamon sugar as well as the taco. Go big or go home, right? While he enjoyed both, he preferred the sweeter version. Sanchez seemed equally impressed with both styles, and was clearly wondering where fry bread had been her whole life. As for me? I was just impressed that Stephan managed to finish both breads with only minor help from a beseeching street dog.

Sedona: Final thoughts

While Sedona was far from one of our favorite places, it’s scenic, it’s unique, and it has a lot to offer. It’s really a shame that it’s gotten so crowded, as it could be a nice little town to explore. For us, though, the crowds just weren’t worth the effort… even outside of peak season. If it’s a place you’ve always wanted to visit, it might be worth your while. Our opinion is just one. If possible, try to swing a stay in the cooler, off-season when it’s a little less packed. Just remember, if you do decide to visit, don’t leave without one of those killer Chocola Tree burritos!

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