“Red rock fever” is how residents of Sedona, Arizona, describe the attitude visitors have about returning to this high desert town (elevation 4,423 feet; population 10,000) two hours north of Phoenix.
The inference is that a return visit to the spectacular red rock formations surrounding the community is the only remedy. In my case, a journey back for 18 straight years has not been a cure.
I go in winter. While many “snowbirds” escape the colorless gray skies and snow with visits to warm destinations, Sedona pulls me back to the desert. A sunny, intensely deep blue cloudless sky, daily winter temperatures of about 60 degrees and single-digit humidity compliment the scenery.
The redness of the stunning array of monoliths is from deposits of iron in the rock. Saturated by water 250 million years ago when the area was under the sea, the iron “rusted.” At that time, the area was the West Coast of an emerging continent. Then, as the sea retreated, water and wind erosion sculpted the sandstone formations into the unusual shapes seen today.
Each year, more than 3 million visitors arrive to hike, mountain bike, enjoy a Jeep tour into the wilderness, golf or play tennis among the red rocks; or to take a biplane, scenic train ride or hot-air balloon adventure. For less-active tourists, short, paved trails lead to Native American ruins, scenic overlooks and several national monuments.
For me, spectacular hiking in perfect weather is the allure. A favorite is the Fey Canyon trail. Covered by a canopy of cottonwood trees, the route meanders along a dry creek bed between red, hoodoo-lined canyon walls. A side trail leads to several ruins perched high above the valley and tucked into an overhang that doubles as an arch. Native American petroglyphs decorate the walls, the panoramic view is spectacular and the trailhead is only about 20 minutes outside Sedona.
Another favorite is Sacred Mountain, an unimpressive, cactus- and mesquite-covered white mound rising alone from the desert floor without the slightest shade. Arriving at the top, there seems to be nothing of interest. But after climbing up and studying the top of the plateau, the remains of a Native American village emerge before your eyes as if it were a brain-tease puzzle. Soon an outline can be discerned of several rows of adobe dwellings and a U-shaped central courtyard, which were once a village of several hundred primitive people.
More difficult hikes can lead to long stretches along a high ledge with gorgeous views but dangerous cliffs.
To enjoy backcountry scenery without effort, take a four-hour ride on the historic Verde Canyon Railroad, which takes passengers on a 20-mile excursion into the rugged high-desert wilderness. The Verde River is ever-present alongside as the route passes through towering cliffs of red rock, while on-board guides explain area wildlife and history. Comfortable chairs, on-board snacks and open-air viewing cars allow passengers to get “up-close” without hiking.
Each evening, every hue of cloud from pink to intense red is likely to appear in the sky, but the nightly spectacle also encompasses the ground. As the sun nears the horizon, the rocks also turn vacillating shades of even deeper reds and oranges than their natural colors. A formation in shadow one moment may be brilliantly illuminated the next until the sun finally disappears. Then the colors on the mountains slowly go dark as if they were hot embers in a dying fire.
A different form of red rock fever lures New Age spiritualists, a subculture believing in meditation, holistic health and psychic experiences. Followers are attracted to Sedona’s many mystical vortexes – areas they feel are centers of concentrated magnetic energy that enhance feelings of spirituality and an appreciation of life. Most retail businesses sell guidebooks that explain the phenomenon and contain maps to the most popular vortexes.
The New Age movement, however, may not be new to Sedona. For thousands of years, Native Americans have also believed the area to have mystical qualities.
Spiritualist or not, the grandeur of the red rock scenery never fails to create a sense of awe in anyone who visits. In fact, the name of Sedona’s five-star luxury resort and spa, “Enchantment,” best summarizes a visit.