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Picture of Sedona from Airport Mesa Picture of Courthouse Butte with cactus and clouds Pictures of Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte with clouds Picture of Cathedral Rock from Red Rock Crossing Photo of housing tract abutting red rocks in Sedona Picture of Munds Mountain Photograph of Capitol Butte with cactus field Picture of Twin Buttes and the Mystic Mountain Trail Photograph of Cathedral Rock Trail Picture of Tlaquepaque chapel and plaza

If Sedona, Arizona were a dish served at a fine restaurant, the recipe might look something like this:

Spread ten cups of splendid red rock scenery onto a large high plateau. Sprinkle with two cups of trees. Fold in three cups of sprawling real estate development (note: increase this quantity significantly each time you prepare this recipe). Combine one cup each of private luxury resorts and motels, half a cup of schlocky tourist shopping, a quarter cup of vacation time-share hucksters, and half a cup of severe traffic congestion; add haphazardly to mixture. Carefully stir in three tablespoons of mixed New Age spiritual practitioners. Festoon with hiking trails around rock formations. Cover with a flawless blue sky and billowing white clouds. Bake under the Arizona sun until golden. Serves one family or one couple.

As this “recipe” suggests, Sedona offers plenty for both the romantic and the cynic to enjoy. It’s set 1,310 meters high on the Mogollon Rim of northern Arizona, 200 kilometers north of Phoenix (the nearest major airline gateway) and 44 kilometers south of Flagstaff (the nearest stop on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief).

The abundant beauty of the red rocks has earned Sedona a place on the “Top Destination” lists of travel publications around the world. But that creates an unfortunate paradox. The metastasizing sprawl of housing tracts, strip malls, tourists, traffic, and hawkers touting vacation time-shares threatens to destroy what makes Sedona special.

The high altitude provides a milder climate than the sunburned deserts of southern Arizona; but it’s still dry, warm, and sunny most of the year. The climate and the scenery make Sedona a coveted location for retirees. In 2003 the average age of Sedona’s 10,000 residents was 50. Perhaps the Chamber of Commerce should adopt the slogan, “Sedona: Where old age meets the New Age.”

The bulldozers and the paving machines relentlessly subdivide, stopping only when a big red rock gets in the way. The newest roads lead to tracts of unbuilt lots, each marked with a sign showing the names of the future occupants and the city and state from whence they will emigrate.

The vast Coconino National Forest surrounds Sedona. It’s federal wilderness that, at least for now, confines the sprawl. The forest boundary makes it easy to escape the congestion and experience the scenic splendor close-up on an extensive network of trails for hiking and mountain biking.

But getting close to nature in Coconino National Forest comes at a price. If you want to park your car near a trail, or anywhere in the forest, you’ll need to buy and display a Red Rock Pass or else face a stiff fine. The revenue from the sale of Red Rock Passes goes directly to protecting and maintaining the forest and its trails, and provides the rangers with a third of their budget.

At almost any time of year, the trails can get crowded with vacationing families. (Though I doubt I was the only solo traveler in Sedona, it sure felt like I was.) But enough trails cover enough area so that it’s not hard to find some wide-open space to enjoy by yourself. If that’s what you want, try just about any of the side streets off the main highways. Unfortunately, the continuing proliferation of housing tracts will make finding and getting to those trails increasingly difficult.

Sedona’s scenery has attracted artists, artisans, and photographers to set up their studios and galleries. I suspect they find the tourist traffic— and all those new houses with empty walls— at least as appealing as the scenery. Although artists sell their creations all over Sedona, the Tlaquepaque complex puts them together in— dare I say it?— an artistic setting of its own. Inspired by and named for an arts and crafts marketplace in Guadalajara, Mexico, its plazas and arcades offer a pleasant escape from the midday sun. But beware of Tlaquepaque’s “artistic” driveways. They’re paved with protruding irregular stones that make finding a parking space a bone-jarring ordeal.
Photo of a crossroads on the Bell Rock Pathway Picture of the road to Boynton Canyon Picture of Bell Rock Photos of Bell Rock Photos of Coffeepot Rock and Capitol Butte Picture along the Bell Rock Pathway

The qualities that make Sedona a lodestone for retirees, tourists, and artists have also drawn the full spectrum of New Age practitioners. You can find psychics, mystics, channelers, shamans, and everything in between. There are reputedly over 175 New Age businesses in Sedona, from holistic crystal healers and aura readers to shamanist spiritual guides who can teach you to shape-shift into your animal spirit while they cleanse your chakras. The various New Agers differ in the specifics of their beliefs and methods. But all agree that Sedona is a place of powerful energies.

New Agers have identified a number of locations around Sedona as vortexes that concentrate particular types of Earth’s mystical energy. Some liken them to the planet’s acupuncture points. Doing a prescribed ritual or meditation at an appropriate vortex is supposed to energize the soul and benefit a range of physical, mental, and spiritual afflictions. The designation of specific vortexes— New Agers seem to prefer that spelling over vortices— and their associated energies varies among practitioners. But most concur that Bell Rock, just south of Sedona proper, is an especially powerful vortex that shoots concentrated pure energy up into the universe.

While exploring Sedona I visited many of the vortexes. I can’t say I felt anything special, experienced anything “spiritual,” found answers to my life’s perplexing questions, or was healed of any afflictions. Perhaps that was because my spiritual practices there focused on the art and craft of photography. The closest I got to psychic readings were divinations of histograms on my then-new digital camera.

But I should mention that my joints and muscles weathered unaccustomed amounts of hiking without complaint while I was in Sedona. And I never once tripped or twisted an ankle. That’s rather remarkable for me, a life-long klutz, but it’s certainly nothing mystical or supernatural. It may be more than a coincidence that vortexes usually are beautiful places. That in itself is bound to have a salutary effect on anyone who visits them.
Picture of Chapel of the Holy Cross Photograph of Chapel of the Holy Cross Picture of the walkway to Chapel of the Holy Cross Picture of View from Chapel of the Holy Cross

As if to balance the New Age activities and the intrusion of sprawl into Sedona’s scenery, the Chapel of the Holy Cross artfully harmonizes with nature’s beauty and appeals to a more traditional spirituality. It’s built into a red rock 61 meters high, designed around a cross that seems to spring from a cleft in the rock.

The chapel owes its existence to Marguerite Brunswig Staude, a sculptor, pharmacy heiress, philanthropist, and devout Catholic. In 1932, when she first saw the new Empire State Building in New York, she had a vision of a skyscraper church with a giant cross soaring into heaven. When the concept proved unworkable, she abandoned it until her dying mother asked her to build that church as a “living spiritual trust.” Sedona provided the ideal location to realize the vision in a practical form. The chapel was dedicated in 1957.

Getting to the chapel requires a drive up a steep winding road to a parking area, and then a walk along a steep winding path. At the top you can pause and enjoy a view of Courthouse Butte, Bell Rock, and the surrounding forest. Pictures of rock formations near of Chapel of the Holy Cross Photograph of Chapel of the Holy Cross interior

Looking the other way, you’ll see a set of red rock formations that Staude’s religious imagination saw as the Madonna with the infant Jesus, surrounded by praying nuns. Those rocks confirmed that she had found the right place.

Straude’s church soon proved too small to serve as Sedona’s parish church, so it was left as a chapel open to visitors and pilgrims. Inside the chapel, the faithful can kneel in prayer or light votive candles. Others can enjoy the tranquility and the view through the window. Late afternoon is probably the best time to visit. Sunset illuminates the red rocks with an extra golden glow, providing a fitting end to a day in Sedona.

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