Two people hiking at Chicken Point, in Arizona

Sedona Is Arizona's 'It' Destination — but Where Does It Go From Here?

With attention growing from Instagrammers, New Agers, and all sorts of city slickers, some residents of this Arizona town are taking a step back — and envisioning a more sustainable future.

I'm not known for my hiking endurance, so trekking the southern face of Sedona's Mescal Mountain was arguably an inopportune time to conduct an interview. My husband, Wyatt, and I had joined trail guide George Miraval at golden hour for the six-mile out-and-back hike, motivated by the promise of an eagle-eye view of the surrounding peaks. But as the trail rose steadily it became difficult for me to get any words out, let alone the stream of questions I had.

Miraval recently helped open Trail House, the striking new outdoors center at Enchantment Resort (doubles from $825). Wyatt and I had driven in from Los Angeles for a long weekend, and I was curious to hear Miraval's take on how Sedona — a once sleepy, sparsely populated place near the Grand Canyon — had changed since he arrived 33 years ago. Today, it attracts some 3 million visitors each year, who bring with them $1 billion in tourism revenue.

As we continued, boots kicking up red dust in front of us, Miraval told us the shift in Sedona could be summed up in five words: It's all social media's fault.

It turns out this is a common refrain. The previous day, I'd asked the same question of hotelier Colleen Tebrake, who is preparing to open Ambiente, a Landscape Hotel (doubles from $1,500) — a collection of cube-shaped glass suites with 360-degree Sedona views — at the end of May. What was the origin of the growing hype? She replied: "Instagram."

Their conclusions are not unfounded. Miraval had taken us to an out-of-the-way trail where we encountered just three other hikers and a rather chatty owl. But four miles east, an hour-long line was forming at Devil's Bridge, a rock formation where hundreds of Instagrammers gather each evening in hopes of nabbing the perfect sunset shot. Things are so bad that Sedona has implemented a new sustainable tourism plan that aims for "the end of tourism as we know it." Visitors are encouraged to sign the Sedona Cares Pledge, which outlines ways to be safe and respectful to the land and community.

One of Miraval's goals at Trail House is to show the many other sides of Sedona, weaving in lessons on how best to protect this enclave and its outdoors. That goes beyond just encouraging visitors to leave no trace on the trail; it also means learning about cultural and geological history and about the flora and fauna along the route. As we took in the panorama of sunset-tinted red rocks, he wondered aloud, "Do you want to go somewhere this beautiful and wait in line?"

Two photos from Enchantment Resort in Sedona, showing an overview of the resort in the national forest, and the exterior of the resort's outdoor center
From left: Enchantment Resort sits at the base of Boynton Canyon, in Arizona’s Coconino National Forest; Trail House, the new outdoors center at Enchantment Resort. Kyle RM Johnson

Wyatt and I had journeyed 470 miles to escape smog, traffic, and crowds, so the obvious answer was no. But lines are now inevitable in Sedona. There is one main road, Highway 89A, that runs through the 19-square-mile city. The views as you drive it are incomparable: reds, oranges, yellows, and purples illuminate the rocks as mountain after mountain unfolds in front of you. But even the most awe-inspiring scenery couldn't distract me from the standstill traffic when, after overhydrating on a morning trail run, I leaped from the car feeling certain I could walk back to the hotel faster than Wyatt could drive there.

When Miraval moved to Sedona, the traffic was nonexistent — as were most of the hiking trails. An avid outdoorsman, he started trail-running and mountain biking in the hills above town. Ironically, some of the routes he helped carve out are now the ones packed by hikers, whose cars now pack the roads. The problem, many residents say, is that those visitors seem less interested in understanding the place itself and more in what the place can do for them. "It's degrading the very thing everyone wants: to feel the solitude and spirit of the land," Miraval said.

Another Sedona fixture is chef Lisa Dahl, who arrived 27 years ago from Marin County, California. She also values the land above all else — but unlike our solitude-seeking trail guide, she doesn't think that necessarily means keeping this former cowboy town a secret. "This place is so beautiful," she told me. "When I got here I thought it could be another Aspen in the making."

Two photos from Mariposa restaurant, including a portrait of Chef Owner Lisa Dahl, and an assortment of seafood dishes
From left: Lisa Dahl, the chef and owner of Mariposa; grilled octopus, roasted shellfish, and other dishes. Kyle RM Johnson

Dahl loves nature, but she had surveyed the outdoor destinations in the western U.S. and saw one regrettable common denominator: bad food. "You come back from the Grand Canyon and you're starving," she lamented, laughing. Dahl helped pioneer fine dining in Sedona, opening the celebrated Italian restaurantDahl & DiLuca (entrées $24–$44) in 1995. Within a year, it drew a Phoenix New Times food critic — a first for the city — and landed a rave review.

The chef now runs six restaurants in Sedona; her most popular spot, the Latin-inspired Mariposa (entrées $28–$48), has one of the area's most coveted views. Some restaurants, she notes, might use a million-dollar panorama as an excuse to phone it in when it comes to the menu — but the grill is a consistent favorite for its potent margaritas, skirt steak with chimichurri, and impressive wine list.

Dahl's success has paved the way for a burgeoning restaurant scene, which has an increasing emphasis on sense of place: another way to both celebrate and preserve the natural environment. On a terrace set on the banks of a sycamore-lined stream, Cress on Oak Creek (entrées $24–$39), at L'Auberge de Sedona, offers tasting menus that incorporate foraged ingredients. At Amara Resort & Spa, SaltRock Southwest Kitchen (entrées $31–$58) serves a menu primarily sourced from the surrounding Verde Valley. Former Amara chef Lindsey Dale will continue the emphasis on local ingredients at Forty1, the forthcoming restaurant at Ambiente.

Two photos from L'Auberge de Sedona, showing a creek running through the grounds, and the interior of the Cress on Oak Creek restaurant
From left: Cress on Oak Creek, the restaurant at L'Auberge de Sedona, is named for the creek that runs through the grounds; the restaurant's main dining room. Kyle RM Johnson

More hotels and restaurants mean more tourists, but there is an inevitable stopping point: very little vacant land within Sedona remains available for commercial development. When it opens, Ambiente will occupy three of the final acres. But Tebrake hopes that the hotel, perhaps counterintuitively, will help mitigate overtourism. She and her sister, Jennifer May, who own and run it, borrowed the Scandinavian concept of a "landscape hotel" to create a property defined by low-impact architecture and other sustainable choices.

The sisters told me that Ambiente's 40 stand-alone accommodations, which they call "atriums," are designed to integrate into the environment without interrupting its ecosystem. Each one has a fire pit, a rooftop lounge, and floor-to-ceiling windows that create an IMAX-like effect: as the sun sets against the red rocks, it's like watching a light show on a 9-by-24-foot screen. The cubes are propped up on stilts — a stream runs underneath them, following an ancient waterway that a landscape architecture firm helped resuscitate. "It's a recirculating system, so the water is just going to loop around and keep going," May explained. The hotel also plans to introduce small electric vehicles that guests can drive around town in the bike lane. "We hope that people will be able to come in, park their car, and not get back into it the entire time they're here," May said.

A glass-walled guest room at Ambiente Landscape Hotel in Sedona, Arizona
At Ambiente, a Landscape Hotel, guests stay in glass cubes raised above the forest floor. Kyle RM Johnson

And you don't have to drive to find some of the best hiking in the area. A short path leads to an on-site trailhead, which feeds into the Adobe Jack Trail system — far less trafficked than Devil's Bridge, though with equally impressive views. Because even in Sedona, there are trails that are just beginning.

A version of this story first appeared in the May 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Sedona's Second Act.

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