The Most Beautiful Place in America

Sedona Arizona

By —— Bio and Archives--January 29, 2010

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imageAs things go in a subjective world, the editors of USA Weekend Magazine might have hit the nail on the head when they named Sedona the most beautiful place in America. But this crowning was no doubt a bittersweet accolade for some of the 16,000 residents of this picturesque Arizona town who probably let out a collective groan at the prospect of even more tourists descending on their squeaky-clean fair haven.


You can’t really blame the throngs who are drawn from around the globe to this southwest mecca of superlatives. Sedona IS beautiful beyond words. The town brims with class and wealth, the flat-topped adobe-style architecture is handsome and orderly, the galleries are packed with some of the world’s finest art, crafts and photography, the resorts and spas are luxurious and decadent, and the dining and wining is sophisticated and sumptuous.

As for the natural landscape, you’d be hard-pressed to find any town located in a more attractive setting. It’s surrounded by sculpted red sandstone monoliths and lone spires, sweeping walls of red, pink and white accented with streaks of black nestled in an ancient forest of freshly-scented pinion pine and juniper trees. Here you will find a very special place, and at some point in your life you’ve probably seen the Sedona of old in some of the 140 Hollywood movies filmed in these parts like “Broken Arrow” (1950) with Jimmy Stewart, or “Drum Beat” (1954) starring Alan Ladd and Charles Bronson.

So be prepared for a rousing good time, but be careful. The place might seduce you with its endearing spell and draw you and your wallet back year after year.

Cliff Dwellings, Back Roads, Dry Camping and Lots of Hot Air

imageFor those inclined, Sedona is a tantalizing playground for outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes. At an elevation of roughly 4,500 feet, recreational activities run the usual gamut. You can ride a bike or ride a horse or climb a rock or hike any number of countless trails that meander through the towers of red stone. There’s tennis and golf, naturally, or you can just drive around in circles all day long on the dirt and gravel byways that crisscross the hinterlands, weather permitting.

While you’re driving about, make it a point to visit the 800-year-old Honanki and Palatki cliff dwellings and pictographs northwest of town. Long before the white man began growing apples and peaches in Oak Creek Canyon in the early 1900s the Hohokam and Sinaguan Indians, and later the Tonto Apaches, discovered the Verde Valley and made it their home.

No doubt relief from the extremes of weather during summer and winter enticed these Native Americans to the area. Sedona sits at the foot of the famous Mogollon Rim, a 200-mile-long, 2,500’ high escarpment that runs in a general northwest-southeast direction across the northern half of Arizona at an elevation of around 7,000 feet. “Rim Country” they call it, a vast dense forest of Ponderosa pines that marks the southern boundary of the Colorado Plateau. When it’s hot in Sedona, and it gets hot, a short 30 mile drive up 89A through winding and spectacular Oak Creek Canyon will lead to the shade and relief at Flagstaff. Conversely, when it snows up there you can drop down off the Rim at a moment’s notice and escape to the arid semi-desert environment of the Verde Valley. It’s very convenient even today.

Off-Road Adventuring

imageNot everyone arrives in a 4x4 off-road vehicle, but fear not, the extremely popular Jeep and Hummer tours abound, and for a modest price they’ll take you just about anywhere. They’ll even throw in a rambling commentary over their loud speakers that echoes for miles. Tours range from the bumpy casual to the teeth-jarring extreme, some hauling you through rough, dry creek beds, and others up near the top of the Mogollon Rim for outstanding views of Red Rock country and the broad and spacious Verde Valley below.

To be perfectly honest, Sedona and it’s surrounding environs isn’t exactly RV friendly, and I get the impression they like it that way since accommodating campgrounds are limited. Maybe that’s a good thing given the army of RV enthusiasts that invade the Southwest every year. You don’t want them everywhere. Backcountry camping is also restricted if you’re seeking to evade the hordes, especially during the peak seasons of fall and spring. Large swaths of public lands have an outright camping ban, which again might be justified in light of the sheer numbers that pass through every year, and the specter of forest fires that ravage Arizona every now and then, caused by the careless and inconsiderate.

Unusual for the National Forests, and an insidious un-American trend I’ve noticed on our public lands recently, is the mandatory purchase of a Red Rock Pass if you come to visit the area around Sedona. Put simply, anywhere you park on your public lands you pay, or else. Just so you know.

The Bird’s-Eye View

imageNot that there isn’t any good free-camping to be found beyond the large no-camp zone, but you have to search it out. We found a few good spots, quiet and completely isolated with broad views north to the red walls, a welcome reprieve after navigating the traffic through the ant hill along Highway 89 that bisects town.

I’ll never forget one early spring morning out there where the weather was delicious and mild and the sun was just then peeking over the red horizon and we were all alone. Half awake and groggy from the fresh air, I was wandering with my steaming cup of French Roast through the prickly pear when I heard voices - some giggling followed by a mighty roar. Looking up I saw directly above me, not more than a hundred feet away, three hot air balloons floating by over the junipers and open rocky meadows in a westerly direction toward Jerome, the occupants having the time of their lives.

Tracking these lofty migrations has now become a morning ritual that rousts me out of bed, camera in hand, waiting and watching as massive towering red, green and yellow balloons drift casually and silently over the rolling terrain for long distances, way up high or dangerously low to the ground, the silence punctuated by the rush and roar of large yellow flames that heat the air which fills the balloon that lifts the basket and gently carries its giddy occupants over the ridge and out of sight.

If you’ve never taken a ride in one of those things, give it a try. It’s a blast and will probably be the highlight of your outdoor adventure in Sedona.

Arts and Crafts

imageI love fine art, especially those pretty Van Gogh finger paintings. And if you’re like me, you’ll revel in Sedona’s arts and crafts scene. It’s like a sprawling museum without the cover charge, though it takes energy and patience to do the galleries justice. There is so much art to be viewed, the creative imagination seems infinite.

You’ll find expressions by Picasso and Dali and myriads of contemporary and classic masterpieces from regional and international artisans, all catered to the most discriminating of tastes. On display are kinetic chimes, breathtaking landscapes, bronzes ranging from the whimsical to the austere, and mind-blowing sculptures that seem to come alive in your presence.

There’s furniture and fountains, vessels and ceramics both functional and frivolous, mixed media, Southwestern themes, Native American motifs, lithographs, weavings, kaleidoscopes, brilliant turquoise jewelry, hand-blown glass and hand-painted silk and stunning large-format landscape photographs of the American West. Great art is one of those things you just have to see to understand, though some of those million-dollar splotches will never be understood even if you cock your head sideways.

Whatever you do, don’t forget to visit the internationally acclaimed Arts and Crafts Village at Tlaquepaque located on the banks of Oak Creek under the shade of tall sycamores. It’s a large traditional Mexican-themed village with archways, cobblestone walkways and vine-covered white stucco walls. It’s like stepping into another world with four restaurants at last count and over 40 specialty shops and exclusive art galleries. It’s well worth the visit.

Life in the Lap of Luxury

imageIf you want to get exfoliated like you’ve never been exfoliated before, hop on over to one of the high-end spas in one of those high-end resorts. The list of body treatments reads like a restaurant menu. Here you go, try this one for relaxation. Lie down naked on a table, bottom-side up, please, and for a low, low price of $155 let them pile a bunch of really hot polished basalt lava stones on your back. It’s supposed to balance your meridian, whatever that is. Or, get your face acupunctured, a sure-fire guarantee to rejuvenate your spirit and restore your energy. Or better yet, why not dip your hands and feet in a steaming-hot pot of paraffin wax.

No, no, this one’s even better. Dip your face in a batter of lime-green facial cream, then slide down into a warm mud bath and top it all off with a garnish of sliced cucumbers over your eyes. Then after you’re finished and they’ve hosed you down, don’t forget your nails, cuticles and calluses. You don’t want to be seen in Sedona with unseemly nails, cuticles and calluses. They’ll snip and file and polish and buff and paint them to your heart’s delight.

Honestly, now, I don’t mean to make fun of these people, it’s just that I’m not that kind of a guy. I prefer my cucumbers next to my tomatoes smothered in blue cheese dressing. I’m usually half-covered in mud anyway on account of spending so much time outdoors, and as for my fingernails and toenails, I manage just fine gnawing them off with my teeth like I’ve always done.

imageSpeaking of food, you won’t go hungry in Sedona, and you’ll end up taking your palate places it has never dreamed of. Your mouth will have an identity crisis when it gets its first taste of pan-seared Sea Bass and/or Tasmanian crab, heirloom tomatoes and mache salad with a lemon lavender vinaigrette. They serve that up at the Yavapai restaurant. Rene’s down at Tlaquepaque can start you off with some escargots (snails) or seared ostrich (big chicken) topped with béarnaise, King crab and asparagus followed by an entree of Seitan Tofu Wellington, better known as “layers of seitan, tofu, herb pesto and mushroom duxelles, wrapped in a flaky puff pastry with vegetarian bordelaise.”

Or, you can do like some of the locals. Swing by Burger King and pick up a Whopper Jr. for a buck and use your savings to pay off the mortgage. Sedona isn’t as one-dimensional as I might have portrayed it. It’s not just the rich and beautiful who come to visit or call it home, like Senator John McCain and his family, but there’s also an army of regular folk employed to clean up after them and keep the place running. You’ll find modest, clean and comfortable neighborhoods all over town, and good, decent hard-working people living here who know a good thing when they see it.

Spirituality Run Amuck

imageSedona is also a powerful magnet for things spiritual. I’m not talking about the traditional Catholic and Reformed churches, but the New Age spiritual movements that are drawn to this spiritual center of gravity. I think what sucks them initially in are the supposedly sacred, magical and mystical funnel-shaped energy beams called vortexes that are emitted from the ground and are, I’m told, everywhere. Really. I’m not kidding. People travel great distances for the vortex tours to have their inner being strengthened and their yin, not to mention their yang, properly balanced and enhanced.

But spiritual experimentation doesn’t end with vortexes. At your peril you can dabble with Japanese psychic-numerology, shamanic journeys, aura photography, astrological readings, phobia clearings, the clairvoyant, clairaudient and clairsentient (say what?), sacred soul journeys and dream analysis. And let’s not forget your run-of-the-mill hocus-pocus like palm reading, tarot cards and ouija boards.

Finally, many desperate to transform their lives and live a balanced harmonic existence turn to rocks, the power of clear quartz crystals about the size of a skinny kumquat. Now, I’m not sure exactly where you’re supposed to stick these little stones to make them work properly, but I have a pretty good idea, and it ain’t pretty.


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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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