Whatever the season, Sedona rewards those who love the great outdoors — and the cozy indoors
The first time someone mentioned Sedona as a getaway destination, my immediate reaction was, “Get away from what, exactly?” Sedona and the Las Vegas Valley have enough in common to be cousins: Both are in the desert. Both rely heavily on tourist dollars. Both have similar climates (we’re a little hotter in the summer; they’re a little colder in the winter). And both are known for picturesque backdrops of natural splendor, highlighted by stunning red-rock buttes and canyons that outdoor enthusiasts enjoy year-round (we have Red Rock National Conservation Area; they have Red Rock State Park).
“Why drive 4½ hours to visit Las Vegas Jr.,” I thought, “when I could be standing in the Pacific Ocean in less time?”
But as the years passed and many others raved about their Sedona sojourns, I figured the least I should do was make the 280-mile trek to see what the hype was all about. And so I did. Twice. In the span of nine months. Those two visits — the first an anniversary trip with my wife in late spring, the second a couples retreat in the dead of winter — revealed two truths: 1) My skepticism of Sedona as a unique getaway spot was wholly misguided, and 2) To appreciate this part of the upper Sonoran Desert in full requires trips at different seasonal extremes.
SPRINGING INTO ACTION
The first thing that makes Sedona an ideal getaway is the ease of the trip itself: After heading south on the numerically confusing Interstate 515/U.S. 95 (which turns into the new Interstate 11, which turns into U.S. 93), the only thing standing between you and your destination is a left turn on Interstate 40 in Kingman and a right turn on Interstate 17 in Flagstaff, exiting at Arizona State Route 89A in Sedona.
At this time of year, much of the journey lacks topographic variety — it’s only slightly less sleep-inducing than the I-15 jaunt to Southern California. That changes, however, as your elevation climb reaches nearly 7,000 feet outside of Flagstaff and hundreds of pine trees begin to dot the horizon like a massive Bob Ross painting come to life.
During the 2,500-foot elevation drop into Sedona, the pine trees fade in your rearview mirror as brilliant orange-and-red sandstone bluffs and steep canyon walls appear on your right. These formations not only surround this 107-year-old city, but they appear to hover over it. (At certain points along Route 89A, the jagged mountain faces almost seem within reach.)
Entering Sedona from the south, one of the first hotels you encounter is the Hilton Sedona at Bell Rock (hiltonsedonaresort.com), so named because of its close proximity to the Bell Rock mountain and hiking trail. The sprawling property features 221 rooms and suites (the latter include a separate sitting room with fireplace) and an array of fun indoor and outdoor activities. For instance, a family room-like setting adjacent to the hotel’s long rectangular lobby bar invites guests to relax on comfy couches and chairs, or play a game of shuffleboard or Scrabble on a giant magnetic wall board. Or you can step outside on the large patio and lounge by one of several fire pits, play a game of foosball, ping-pong, or cornhole, or swim in one of two pools.
While you could easily while away an entire weekend without leaving the hotel’s grounds (there’s also a spa, as well as the adjacent Sedona Golf Resort that winds around the red rocks), Sedona in late spring is all about exploring the natural surroundings. Translation: Unpack your hiking shoes and tackle nearby Bell Rock’s 3.5-mile hiking trail that loops the base of the butte. Or head some four miles northeast to Broken Arrow, where a 3.6-mile round-trip trail gives walkers/hikers an up-close look at the spectacular red-rock cliffs and canyons of Munds Mountain Wilderness.
Bell Rock and Broken Arrow are among dozens of formations that are easily accessible via trails that cover the spectrum of difficulty levels (though most — like Bell Rock and Broken Arrow — fall into the “easy-to-moderate” category). One thing to remember when hiking these trails during the warmer months: While Sedona’s temperatures from late spring through early fall run five to 15 degrees cooler than Las Vegas, this is still the desert, so the ideal time for hiking is early morning and pre-sundown. And not just for safety reasons, but because the angle at which the sun strikes the buttes at both ends of the day yields fantastic (and Insta-worthy) backdrops.
The good news is there’s much to do in and around Sedona during those off hours. Consider starting the day with breakfast at the Coffee Pot (coffeepotsedona.com), which lies in the shadows of the Coffee Pot rock formation. The old-fashioned, family-owned diner has been a favorite of locals and tourists for nearly three decades, with a menu highlighted by 101 (not a typo!) omelet creations. (Omelet #101? A peanut butter/jelly/banana version concocted in honor of you-know-who.)
A short drive from the Coffee Pot is Sedona’s “Main Street.” Known to locals as Upper Sedona (sedonamainstreet.com), this walkable outdoor district on both sides of State Route 89A has it all: a variety of shops, restaurants/cafés, galleries, museums, historical landmarks, sculptures, and multiple patios/courtyards from which you can enjoy a cup of gelato or some freshly popped popcorn while taking in a panoramic view of another striking (and selfie-friendly) sandstone butte that hugs the east side of the district.
“Main Street” is also where you’ll find multiple tour companies (the most popular being Pink Jeep Tours) ready to take you on off-road and guided-hike adventures deep into northern Arizona’s Verde Valley. Tours generally range from two hours to all day and explore everything from national forests to ancient ruins. Or perhaps your idea of “adventure” involves chasing spirits. About a 40-minute drive southwest of Sedona is Jerome (jerome.az.gov), a onetime copper-mining boomtown that’s now known for being the “largest ghost town in America.” The quaint city (pop. 455) packs a lot into a 550-acre footprint, from dozens of restaurants and shops (including the world’s largest kaleidoscope store) to the Mine Museum and the Jerome Winery.
Back in Sedona, dinner options abound, but given the temperate evening weather that’s common in late spring, now is the time to dine al fresco. Two of the better options are Creekside American Bistro (creeksidesedona.com), where a patio overlooks the trickling Oak Creek, and The Hudson (thehudsonsedona.com), which sits atop a hillside. Both provide stunning red-rock views, perfect for pre-dinner handcrafted cocktails and inspired twists on American cuisine.
As dusk gives way to darkness, gaze upward at the stars that illuminate the desert sky on clear nights. While this celestial show is on display year-round, it’s most enjoyable from late May through September when no jacket is required. Come winter? Prepare to bundle up.
JUST CHILLIN’ OUT
Except for taking a dip in the pool, all the outdoor activities that lure tourists to Sedona in the warmer months — hiking, biking, sightseeing, golfing, off-road adventuring, shopping, and dining — can be enjoyed even when winter rolls around. You just need to layer up, particularly after sundown, when temperatures from December through February can dip below freezing.
This explains why fireplaces are common in Sedona’s finer resort properties, from the Hilton Sedona at Bell Rock to L’Auberge de Sedona (lauberge.com). Situated on the banks of the flowing Oak Creek and in the shadows of the majestic red rocks, L’Auberge is where nature, luxury, and romance intersect in a resort that features 62 cottages (many of which include wood-burning fireplaces), 21 lodge-style guest rooms, a nature spa, and three restaurants.
Wherever you choose to stay, spending a winter weekend in northern Arizona is still mostly about outdoor exploration. While Sedona does get an occasional dusting of snow that adds another layer of beauty to its sandstone bluffs and canyon walls, most of the white powder (and the fun that it brings) lands in Flagstaff, where snow falls at an average of just over 100 inches annually. If you happen to be a winter-sports enthusiast, consider a trip up to the Arizona Snowbowl (snowbowl.ski), an alpine ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks a few miles north of Flagstaff.
Prefer a little more warmth? Drive a half-hour west to Clarkdale and hop aboard a fully restored vintage train that gives passengers close-up views of the area’s natural habitat during a four-hour, 20-mile journey along the Verde Canyon Railroad. Another option for warmth: the Verde Valley Wine Trail (vvwinetrail.com), which encompasses 23 wineries spread across four northern Arizona regions: Sedona, Page Springs, Cottonwood, and Jerome/Clarkdale. The most walkable “trail” is http://steakhouse89.comCottonwood, which sits between Sedona and Jerome, and features six tasting rooms clustered within one-tenth of a mile.
Winter is the ideal time for cozying up to fine dining, and Sedona is home to a range of such restaurants across a variety of cuisine types. That includes Mariposa Latin Inspired Grill (mariposasedona.com), which serves South American dishes in a dining room where floor-to-ceiling windows provide every table with a panoramic view of the red rocks. Less than two miles away, Elote Cafe (elotecafe.com) consistently draws large crowds with a menu that blends southern Mexico with the American southwest (not to mention top-shelf tequila and mescal).
In a more carnivorous mood? Try Steakhouse 89 (steakhouse89.com), where cuts of beef are as flavorful as they are tender — so tender that they’re brought to the table sans steak knife. If you ask for that usually vital tool, the waitstaff will insist that a butter knife will suffice. You’ll be skeptical — until you make that first cut.
It’s the same lesson I learned with Sedona: Sometimes, you can believe the hype.