There's no denying that Sedona's landscape is larger than life. The famous red rock buttes, mesas, and hoodoos loom imperiously against the saturated blue desert sky, practically daring you to feel significant. Fortunately, Sedona in autumn offers ample compensation to mere cogs in the universe like us: crisp, juniper-scented air; glorious sunsets; and great places to lay your head after a day's trek. It's hard to lose your way, no matter what you're seeking--mystic crystal revelations, the truth that's out there, or simply peace of mind.
Where to Stay
Bed & Breakfast at Saddlerock Ranch 255 Rock Ridge Dr.; 520/282-7640; doubles from $140. On the slopes of Airport Mesa -- named for the tiny airfield just down the road -- this snug three-room retreat was built in the twenties with flagstone floors, timber-beamed ceilings, and walls made of red rock and adobe. Saddlerock has vintage Western charm and a soupçon of Hollywood glamour, too. The house turns up in some western films, and also served as digs for John Wayne and other stars working on location.
Canyon Villa Inn 125 Canyon Circle Dr.; 800/453-1166 or 520/284-1226; doubles from $145. The views of the massive Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte formations from the inn's enormous windows are practically head-on. But that startling effect is counterbalanced by the relaxed gentility of the 11 rooms. Innkeeper Marion Yadon's indulgent breakfasts are impressive creations in their own right.
Enchantment Resort 525 Boynton Canyon Rd.; 800/826-4180 or 520/282-2900; doubles from $295. This 220-room pueblo-style resort brings new meaning to the mantra "location, location, location." Surrounded by the Coconino National Forest, Enchantment lies within the walls of a red rock canyon, a setting of such extraterrestrial beauty that you almost expect to find rocket ships in the parking lot instead of SUV's. A forest ranger can provide hiking advice; there are also excellent tennis facilities and a small full-service spa. The Yavapai dining room offers amazing views to accompany your breakfast and dinner.
Graham Bed & Breakfast Inn & Adobe Village 150 Canyon Circle Dr.; 800/228-1425 or 520/284-1425; doubles from $169. Adobe Village's four casitas are the stars of this 10-room inn, each one lavishly decorated in a different theme. In the crimson and sage Lonesome Dove casita, cowpoke wannabes can curl up in front of a floor-to-ceiling red rock fireplace, then swing through the room's saloon doors for a soak in their faux-barrel whirlpool tub while a genuine potbellied stove takes the chill off the air.
L'Auberge de Sedona 301 L'Auberge Lane; 800/272-6777 or 520/280-1661; doubles from $175. You'll hear some grousing around town that the regal rooms -- all drenched in Pierre Deux fabrics -- are out of sync with Sedona's ruggedness, but try telling that to the couples who fill up this French country hideaway every weekend. The flush weekenders book one of the 37 très luxe cottages, with canopied beds and fireplaces, situated on the woodsy banks of Oak Creek.
Sky Ranch Lodge Airport Rd.; 888/708-6400 or 520/282-6400; doubles from $75. Smack on top of Airport Mesa and 500 feet above town, this quite stylish motel has 360-degree views and landscaped grounds. Pricier rooms have kitchenettes, fireplaces, and the best vistas.
Sedona is a 2 1/2-hour drive from Phoenix. Flagstaff is 27 miles to the north. U.S. Highway 89A and State Route 179 are Sedona's main drags; the busy intersection where the roads meet to form a Y is often used as a geographic reference point.
The area's scenic attractions are the ubiquitous red rock formations and the verdant 16-mile-long Oak Creek Canyon. Highway 89A between Sedona and Flagstaff follows Oak Creek, and it's a remarkable drive in autumn, even for just a few miles. New Agers have deemed Boynton Canyon, Airport Mesa, and, south of town, Bell Rock and Cathedral Rock to be vortexes of life-enhancing electromagnetic energy; UFO enthusiasts claim that the same spots are favorites on the itineraries of intergalactic visitors. At any rate, the landmarks are easy to reach and highly photogenic.
You can take in Sedona's natural wonders from your car, but the area is also threaded with trails for hikers who want a closer look. For maps and information, call the local office of the National Forest Service (520/282-4119) or the Sedona-Oak Creek Chamber of Commerce (520/282-7722). If you'd rather have someone else do the driving, several jeep tour companies will be happy to squire you around the sights and take you into Sedona's astounding backcountry. Among the best are Pink Jeep Tours (800/873-3662) and Sedona Red Rock Jeep Tours (800/848-7728); for a New Age slant, try Earth Wisdom Tours (800/482-4714).
Arizona has resisted the siren call of daylight saving time and so remains on mountain standard time year-round.
Where to Eat
L'Auberge L'Auberge de Sedona, 201 L'Auberge Lane; 520/282-1667; prix fixe dinner for two $130. With its gracious service and intimate, formal French setting -- just within earshot of burbling Oak Creek -- L'Auberge is very much the special-occasion place in Sedona. Executive chef Mark May pairs tiger shrimp with lime mayonnaise and presents venison loin in a tangy vinegar-black currant sauce.
Hideaway Restaurant Country Square, Hwy. 179; 520/282-4204; lunch for two $20. Pizzas, pasta, salads, and other satisfying lunchtime fare, reasonably priced and served with Western geniality. Ask for a table on the outdoor deck, which commands a view of both Oak Creek and sun-drenched red rocks.
Shugrue's Hillside Grill 671 Hwy. 179; 520/282-5300; dinner for two $55. A menu of contemporary favorites -- rosemary chicken, Pacific crab cakes, oysters -- prepared with aplomb and just enough culinary twists to keep things interesting. Seafood dominates; try the seared ruby-red ahi grilled in a five-pepper spice crust and served with wasabi.
Judi's Restaurant & Lounge 40 Soldier Pass Rd., La Pasada Plaza, Hwy. 89A; 520/282-4449; lunch for two $25. The meat loaf and chicken potpie specials at this gemütlich spot are such a hit that Judi phones her regulars to let them know when she's making their favorites.
Jimmie Jean's Sedona Coffee Roasters 2155 Hwy. 89A; 520/282-0282. As of press time, Sedona is a Starbucks-free zone. But even if a branch does open, this unassuming coffeehouse, which roasts beans on-site, should offer some stiff competition. Try a cup of the house special Red Rock Blend while you pore over your Forest Service maps.
Watching the sun sink is a major spectator sport in Sedona, where the combination of fading light and red rocks makes for some potent viewing. Here are some of the best spots to catch it.
Airport Mesa 3 1/2 stars It's a vortex, a vista, a scene, and the most popular vantage point in Sedona at dusk. The mood tends toward boisterous instead of reverential.
Yavapai Restaurant 4 stars Enchantment Resort; 520/282-2900. Cocktail hour on Mars. You don't see the actual sunset, but rather its reflection on the walls of Boynton Canyon. Jockeying for a good table on the terrace can be an intriguing test of the social contract.
Crescent Moon Red Rock Crossing 4 stars Coconino National Forest (520/282-4119) is Sedona's most photographed spot. Picture this: Cathedral Rock so red from the day's last light that it looks as if it were igniting for takeoff.
There's the Rub
Perhaps the only travelers who should give Sedona a pass are the massage-phobic. While there's no official census, massage therapists seem to outnumber the red rocks, and in-room treatments are as standard an amenity as fluffy towels.
"A lot of people come here on vacation to find healing and peace, and massage fits into that package," says Laura Aronson, who heads up the Sedona Massage Association, a group of 26 veteran freelance therapists. "They are convinced there's a heightened energy in Sedona, and massage can help put them in touch with that."
Since a standard Swedish may leave some clients feeling that they haven't gotten their fair share energy-wise, many Sedona therapists make massage just part of an overall aura tune-up. A treatment may incorporate not only therapeutic modalities, but also crystals, aromatherapy, chakra balancing, and other kinds of energy work. One therapist advertises "acupressure with feather dusting." Another ad carries this endorsement: "When Candace touches me, everything about me shifts."
In 1993 physical therapist John Barnes recognized Sedona's potential as a massage mecca and opened Therapy on the Rocks (676 N. Hwy. 89A; 520/282-3002), now one of three centers in the country devoted to his Myofascial Release technique. Barnes believes that the fasciae, a fishnet-like system of connective tissue that permeates the body from head to toe, can be at the root of problems ranging from temporomandibular joint pain to chronic fatigue syndrome. A Myofascial Release practitioner feels for spots -- referred to as holding patterns -- where the fasciae have supposedly tightened, and gently stretches and applies pressure to elongate them again.
Being on the receiving end of Myofascial Release takes some getting used to. The therapist doesn't make continuous motions across the skin, so there are few of the rhythms and sensations usually associated with massage. I was a little alarmed when the therapist placed vinyl-covered wedges at either side of my pelvis to realign it, another hallmark of the technique. I can't confirm whether there was new spring in my fasciae, but I did enjoy the novelty of the process, and rose from the massage table feeling somewhat invigorated. Besides, you can't beat the setting: Therapy on the Rocks is on a cliff overlooking Oak Creek, and its outdoor treatment deck is near a 50-foot waterfall (the sound of which I initially mistook, somewhat petulantly, for that of an exhaust fan).
What I liked best about Therapy on the Rocks was the receipt for my $120 hour-long treatment. This wasn't one of those vague accountings you get from a spa. It was thoroughly itemized ("Neuromuscular Reeducation, $20") and printed on that tissuey pink carbon paper that many doctor's offices still use. Walking out with it in my hand was almost as empowering as the massage itself. This was no mere indulgence, I told myself. I needed it.
Given a choice of stretching my legs at a McDonald's or at an Italian visionary's prototype for the urban community of the future, I'll pick the latter any day. That's why I stopped at Arcosanti, about halfway between Phoenix and Sedona.
Arcosanti is the realization of urban design concepts developed by architect and Taliesin West alum Paolo Soleri. In 1970, appalled by the environmental, social, and aesthetic consequences of suburban sprawl, Soleri and his Scottsdale-based Cosanti Foundation broke ground on a model community. The site is on a mesa overlooking the Agua Fria River, near Cordes Junction. Arcosanti was to be solar-powered and self-sufficient, a test-case school for urban studies that embodied what Soleri called "arcology" -- the ideal marriage of architecture and ecology.