October 2020. I visited Zion National Park for the first time. When I reached the town of Springdale and the Zion canyon wall appeared before my eyes, it was a sight I’ll never forget. I thought: surely this is the most majestic of all red rocks in the country, other than maybe the Grand Canyon?
Less a month later, after spending 4 days in Sedona, a new thought emerged: THIS is the gold standard for red rocks – and the freedom to enjoy them.
Sedona with its vast open space was a sanctuary during Covid. It’s also a great destination during normal times. I wanted to share what made me fall in love with it, and why I can’t wait to go back (for the 4th time).
Like many before me, I made the 2 hour drive from Phoenix. While there was some view on Highway 17, in no way do they compare to the visual feast that is Sedona itself, which only starts to unfold in the last 10 minutes on AZ-89A en route to my hotel – Sedona Rouge. The last 5 minutes of the drive had me gasping for air, as I entered the new world before me, a world surrounded in all directions by spectacular red rocks rising from the ground. As fate would have it, the perfect music accompanied me into this enchanting world (start at 2:10):
A Magical Place
The beauty of Sedona cannot be overstated. It’s all about the nature, and the towering red rocks are at the center of it. There was no shortage of places that made my heart sing with their vista and sheer beauty. Places like the Broken Arrow Trail:
One of the views from Hangover Trail – one of the MANY less visited but just as spectacular hikes.
And no mention of Sedona would be complete without Cathedral Rock, arguably the defining structure of this magical place, reached by a short but strenuous climb:
There’s sweeping views during the climb:
Fall is especially a lovely time to visit Oak Creek Canyon. In late October, I saw some of the best foliage I’ve ever seen in West Fork, just 10 miles north of Sedona.
Sedona is also a Dark Sky community and a great place to stargaze, especially on an evening with small moon and no cloud. My go-to place for stargazing is the Thunder Mountain Trailhead parking lot. I always had the place to myself after dark, and it’s close to town yet hidden from all the lights.
ALL of this (and much more) is within a 20min drive (except on weekends, more on that below). The abundance of beauty concentrated around Sedona is almost overwhelming.
Sedona isn’t just beautiful – there’s plenty of it for everyone to enjoy. Despite its popularity, it’s EASY to get off the beaten path and have a little piece of heaven to yourself. Because it’s SO. VAST. I barely scratched the surface after 10 days of exploring.
Unlike Zion, where the main canyon requires taking a bus most of the year (busy during normal times, uneasy during Covid), all of Sedona’s magnificence is yours for the taking. Sure, the 2 small parking lots at the Cathedral Rock Trailhead are a pain, but I got a spot for sunset after waiting 15min, and there are countless alternatives.
If you know anything about Sedona, chances are you’ve seen pictures of Devil’s Bridge and Cathedral Rock. They’re great, but you’ll be there with a thousand other people. Here are some less known places to consider:
- Bear Mountain Trail – hard but stunning views reminiscent of Zion’s Observation Point!
- Thunder Mountain, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Teacup trails – scenic and quiet trails near Sedona Rouge.
- Hogs Loop – covers 4 trails (3.5mi): Broken Arrow, High on the Hog, Hog Heaven and Hog Wash.
- Hiline Trail – start at Baldwin Trail, see the backside of Cathedral Rock.
- Munds Wagon and Hangover trails – a 7 hour loop including some steep climbs for sweeping views at the top. Hardly anyone in the middle part.
Because of the vast network of trails and places to explore, Sedona is one of the places I see myself returning to often. If you do want a slight change of scenery, Grand Canyon south rim is yours with a 2 hour drive.
While Sedona is beyond stunning, not everything is rosy. Restaurants are busy. Really busy. Finding a spot at the reservation-only Elote was harder than finding an award night at Waldorf Astoria Ithaafushi, and it took 1.5 hours for a takeout of 2 items at a Thai restaurant on a Tuesday. Furthermore, I generally wasn’t impressed with the restaurant food we had given the prices. For my next trip of 4 days, I’m planning to bring some takeout from Phoenix (like the authentic Sichuan food from Old Town Taste – you won’t find any in Sedona), get some frozen entree and rotisserie chicken from the grocery store, and eat out maybe 1/3 of the time.
Another issue to be aware of is the weekend traffic. From Bell Rock to the main roundabout in town normally takes 15 minutes. On the weekend (Fri – Sun), it can take an hour. So load up some podcasts and enjoy the grand views while you’re stuck. Sadly, the best views are before the worst of the traffic. Couldn’t they at least time that right? (ha).
Lastly, lodging is expensive in Sedona. 4 star hotels routinely cost over $300 between March and October. I wish Sedona Rouge were still 15k Wyndham points per night – I used the sweet spot once, and what a sweet spot it was! I’ll have a follow up review on the Hilton, where I stayed most recently.
In a Nutshell
Sedona was my favorite place that I visited in 2020, a year of domestic travels due to Covid. I love the vast open space, the relaxing atmosphere, and of course the soul-stirring red rocks rising out of the earth. It’s a great place to rejuvenate the soul, to disconnect from the hustle and bustle of life, maybe even do some soul searching. Just bring some food from home/Phoenix if you’re staying for a while, or make reservations early.