Greetings from Arizona! I’m Liz, and I’ve been an official “Dweller of the Southwest” since 1994. I was born in the Midwest, and ended up in Arizona by way of Alaska, where we moved when I was in my late teens.
At first, with only the flat farmlands of Illinois and the temperate rain forest of Alaska to compare it to, the desert Southwest seemed a very curious place indeed. I soon grew to love this vast, arid, yet magically beautiful landscape, along with its intriguing places, people and history.
My favorite past-times are road tripping around the Southwest with my husband and six-year old, hiking, kayaking and snowboarding. I’m honored to be able to share with you some of my favorite places, experiences and adventures in the amazing Southwest.
“One Trip to Sedona, You’ve Seen it All”
I live in a small, distinctly Western town just outside the sprawling Phoenix metropolis. As May approaches, temps are already in the 90s, so we have been escaping just about every weekend to one of our all-time favorite destinations: Sedona.
Celebrated for its breathtaking beauty, Sedona is a town of around 10,000 people located a short 90 miles or so from Phoenix. Named after Sedona Schnebly, wife of the first postmaster, Sedona was a favorite filming location for Hollywood westerns, starting with Zane Grey’s Call of the Canyon in 1923. Today Sedona is best-known for its brilliant red sandstone rock formations, supernatural “vortexes” and upscale shops and restaurants.
In recent years, Sedona has become somewhat of an Instagram phenomenon – especially certain spots, like Devil’s Bridge, where droves of social-media savvy tourists flock to get their picture taken on a gravity-defying red stone arch suspended above a sea of green.
When I think of Sedona, a casual remark an acquaintance made years ago often comes to mind:
“We’ve been to Sedona – once you’ve been to all the shops in Uptown, you’ve pretty much seen it all.”
At the time, I had to make a concerted effort to keep my jaw from dropping, while at the same time coming to the realization that this might possibly be a point of view shared by many visitors to this popular locale.
But rest assured, I’m not here to talk about THAT Sedona. I’m here to tell you about the other Sedona: the Sedona that’s just beyond the end of the pavement, and often beyond the edge of the most well-worn trail. Mysterious, tranquil, timeless – and just waiting for you to explore.
The Other Sedona
It has existed since time immemorial. A place where the great Colorado Plateau crashes in waves of red rock onto the continent below, swirling into slickrock mounds and spiraling upwards into dizzying rock formations, some of which supposedly house supernatural vortexes where concentrated energy rises from the earth.
In this otherworldly landscape, you needn’t venture far off the beaten path to behold Mars-like landscapes, take a dip in exhilarating water holes and discover remnants of an ancient culture; wonders completely missed by those who limit their exploring to the paved roads of Uptown, or even the most popular trails, for that matter.
The first humans made their way into what is now Sedona over 13,000 years ago. Soon after, from 9,000 B.C. all the way up until 300 A.D., small bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers archaeologists dubbed the “Archaic” people traversed the land, leaving their mark in the form of rock art etched on and pecked into the cliff walls of Sedona’s lush canyons.
Around 1300 years ago, group called the Sinagua moved into the canyons and valleys of Sedona; hundreds of Sinaua sites still dot the landscape, from small rooms on the canyon floors to cliff dwellings high up in rock alcoves.
The Sinagua people lived off the land, tending small crops and relying on the bounty provided by the prolific juniper-pinon ecosystem; hunting deer, rabbits and other smaller animals to supplement the plants, nuts and seeds they gathered. I can’t help but wonder: With a focus so intensely on survival, did these early inhabitants ever gaze up with wondering eyes and marvel at the beauty around them?
Today, you can get a glimpse into the lives and ways of these prehistoric people by visiting two of the largest cliff dwellings, Palatki and Honanki, which were inhabited between roughly AD 1150 – 1350 and are currently managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
If you’re lucky, you may also stumble upon less-often viewed remnants of the past as you explore Sedona’s vast trail network and wilderness area. Note: These and all other archaeological sites are protected by the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, so be respectful and use proper etiquette. Look but don’t touch, and leave any artifacts where you find them. Disturbing, defacing and/or taking items from sites like these is punishable by hefty fines and imprisonment.
Water in the Desert
Although undeniably beautiful, at first glance the Sedona landscape appears to be bone dry. In the baking heat of the summer months, this perception can be especially discouraging. Visitors in search of water are often directed to Slide Rock State Park, a swimming hole located on an old homestead along Oak Creek with ½ mile of creek access and an 80-foot long natural rock waterslide. It’s a wonderful spot, but unfortunately, hundreds of other people think so too….
But one of the great things about Sedona is that there is always water around -– if you know where to look. And luckily, Slide Rock isn’t the only place you can cool off in Oak Creek.
One of my favorite swimming holes that’s perfect for the whole family is as difficult to get to – or as easy to get to – as you choose. If a moderate hike with a refreshing reward at the end is your jam, take a walk on the Huckaby Trail beginning at the trailhead off of Schnebly Hill road. From there, it’s a moderate 2.5-mile hike to the creek, with views of the town all along the way.
Once you reach the creek, find a spot to dip your feet in or wade along the faster-moving portion of the creek, or continue along the rock cliffs to the right of the trail to find a more tranquil, and usually private, swimming hole. For a much easier (and more family friendly) journey, park at the end of the Huckaby Trail, in the Midgley Bridge parking area, and enjoy a much shorter trek down to the water.
If a combination of heart-wrenchingly beautiful red rock scenery, ancient history and a swimming hole sounds good to you, check out the Bell Trail to Wet Beaver Creek (not to be confused with the Bell Rock Trail in Sedona proper). If heading to Sedona on the I17, go east at the Sedona exit (exit 298) rather than west into Sedona to reach this less-populated gem.
The beauty of Bell Trail is that your hike can be as short or as long as you like, with nearly immediate access to Wet Beaver Creek via multiple side trails that meander down to the water. Not far beyond the trailhead, you can also see multiple boulders that are covered with petroglyphs; rock etchings created hundreds of years ago by the ancient inhabitants of the area.
If you’re looking for a little more of a challenge, continue on the trail just past the 3.5-mile point for a real treat: The Crack; a cliff-jumping, rock-lounging sparkling water paradise.
If you have been on any of the iconic Sedona hikes (think Cathedral Rock Trail or Bell Rock Trail) you’ve experienced slickrock: The smooth, undulating brick-red slopes and dips of ancient sand dunes, which are remnants of a time Sedona was perched on the edge of a huge, ancient lake. Now, I must profess, I don’t know why it’s called “slick,” as it’s anything but. And that’s where the fun comes in.
Whether you find yourself racing your hiking companions up impossibly steep slickrock walls, enjoying the biking equivalent of a roller coaster ride or just sitting and partaking in solitude, it’s possible to spend hours playing on this sticky, sandpaper-like terrain. (I know – we’ve done it!)
My absolute favorite place to explore (and play!) on the Sedona slickrock is anywhere in the vicinity of Submarine Rock, a huge mound of slickrock that rises like its namesake to peek above the sea of jade green junipers and pinons. Submarine Rock is accessible via multiple trails; two of the best access points are the Chapel Trailhead and the Mystic Trailhead. Recently, as we frolicked on the slickrock like big kids — along with our actual child — we all agreed: Who needs Disneyland?