View from Cathedral Rock as taken from my iPhone
Sedona rivals most of the beautiful places I have seen in my travels. The distinct, gorgeous red clay reminds of the majestic Zion National Park, which I rank near the top of my list. On the other hand, Sedona is not as big or grand as Zion. Accordingly, I thought of it as a smaller version of Zion. Nevertheless, Sedona could definitely pass as a National Park if it were designated in the past as such. Being smaller than Zion also has its advantages. While some of the top attractions at Zion require a strenuous or long hike, the hikes at Sedona are short or moderate in length. Accordingly, there is accessibility to more visitors for the best Sedona has to offer.
There are two parts of Sedona that run along two different main roads. Route 89A runs southwest to northeast and through the western section of half of Sedona, which is more of the resort side of Sedona. Route 179 runs north and south on the east side of Sedona. It is more like a suburban style towns on the north and south sandwiching two of Sedona’s most recognizable and distinct rock formations, Cathedral Rock and Bell Rock. Another popular attraction, the Chapel of the Holy Cross, is north of those rocks and provides incredible views of the east side of Sedona. Regardless, there are plenty of red rock formations and hiking on both sides.
Sedona was the first stop on a five day trip that included Phoenix then Tucson [mainly for Saguaro National Park to see the famous cacti of Arizona]. Phoenix was the most logical middle because it is an equidistant 2 hours from both cities and Phoenix has the biggest airport so more direct flights. Nonetheless, I wish I reversed the order and spent more days in Sedona because it was definitely the highlight of my Arizona trip.
- Sights For Everyone
Sedona’s hikes are generally short and visitors do not have to strain themselves to enjoy its great views. Of course, some travelers may have some physical limitations. As such, there are some spectacular places for views that are easy to get to so everyone can enjoy the beauty of Sedona.
- Chapel of the Holy Cross (780 Chapel Rd, Sedona, AZ 86336)
It is a Roman Catholic Chapel built into the buttes of Sedona. The chapel is small but features a giant statue of Jesus Christ inside. The panoramic views of the surrounding area, from the Chapel grounds, are surreal. They are some of the best anyone will see in Sedona. The views of Cathedral Rock and Bell Rock to the south are spectacular. Not surprisingly, the Chapel is one of the most popular attractions in Sedona. Try to avoid midday. Parking is limited regardless. It is like roulette whether you get a parking spot. I got lucky and parked at the bottom lot below the Chapel. It is a short but a little steep walk up to the top. If needed, just drop off anyone in your party at the top who would struggle with the walk up.
- Airport Mesa (483 Airport Rd, Sedona, AZ 86336)
In my opinion, the best views of Sedona are at the beginning of the Airport Mesa loop trail. There is a mini summit [lookout point] up some short set of stairs where visitors can stand and look at both sides of Sedona (the city to the north and west and Cathedral Rock and Bell Rock to the south and east. Accordingly, it is in the middle of the two sections. It is the best spot for sunset and sunrise. I woke up early for sunrise. On the day I went, sunrise was 6:18. However, it takes time for the sunlight to clear the surrounding mountains and other rock formations. The sight of the early morning sunrays shining a spotlight on the city and the red rocks behind it to the west was majestic and peaceful. On the other hand, the sun actually rises in the east. Accordingly, it was not till 6:52 and another 25 minutes that it actually rose above the rocks to the east. Although I watched the sun rise above the rocks, the light was blinding. It was impossible to admire it too long or take a good picture of it. Nonetheless, the experience was like a double sunrise with the splintered sunlight, from a distance, gracing the city on the west side then the sun actually rising above the rocks in the east and shining on the east side of Sedona next. Moreover, there are sunrise hot air balloon rides that take off to the south and add to the picturesque moment.
Due to the logistics of what side the sun rises and sets over, sunset is the better experience at Airport Mesa since the sun sets behind Sedona and the rocks to the west. Of course, visitors do not have to wake up early for sunset like they do for the sunrise. Nevertheless, the sunrise is also a great experience. I would recommend both if time permits. The parking lot for the lookout point is very small. If you do not get a spot, there is a large paid parking lot at the end of Airport Road and right before Sky Lodge Ranch Resort. It is $3 to park and a 0.6 mile walk down the Sedona View Trail to the Airport Mesa. The Sedona View Trail is a little difficult to find. There is a fence and you need to spot the door to open and walk through to the trail. The door is unlocked.
3. Sedona Airport Scenic Lookout (End of Airport Road)
If you cannot get a parking spot at Airport Mesa and do not want to walk the 0.6 miles each way from the parking at the lot at the end of Airport Road, the Sedona Airport Scenic Lookout also provides magnificent views of Sedona. The lookout point is across the street from the parking lot. If you are staying at the Sky Lodge Ranch Resort, you will get the views your entire stay. The primary difference between this lookout point and Airport Mesa is that the latter also has views of the east side of Sedona.
- Airport Mesa Loop Trail (3.5 miles and 416 feet elevation change, add 1.2 miles if you need to park at the parking lot at the end of Airport Road and go down then back up the Sedona View Trail)
In addition to the Airport Mesa lookout point being the best spot for sunrise and sunset in Sedona, the Airport Mesa Loop Trail [that starts there] has arguably the best views of all of Sedona. In my opinion, this trail needs a rebrand. An “airport” loop does not sound too appealing. I hesitated to hike it because of the name but I am glad I did. A more fitting name for the trail would be something like “Sedona Skyline” trail. The loops provides a bird’s eye view of both sides of Sedona when you complete it. I hiked the loop in a clockwise direction as I saw the east side of Sedona first then returned on the loop to see the west side. On the trail that runs along the east side, it is narrow at times. Nonetheless, it is not too dangerous as long as you are paying attention. Next, there is not a clearing at the highest points in the loop. As such, snap plenty of pictures along the loop when you have good views rather than wait for a view at the top. Moreover, there are plenty of cactuses to see along the loop.
The hike is moderate difficulty. It is enough to break a sweat but not too strenuous. However, it would be a lot more difficult in the summer heat during the middle of the day because it is an exposed trail, without a lot of shade, for a lot of the loop. It took me around two hours to leisurely complete the hike and enjoy the views.
- Cathedral Rock (1.2 miles one way and 744 feet elevation change)
Why is it named Cathedral Rock? The natural rock formations look like a manmade cathedral. The hike is the most fun of the ones I went on in Sedona. I classify it as difficult because the middle of the trail is very steep and it requires legit rock scrambling on all fours to get past that section. I was also very worried about going back down on the return trip. I punted the fear on my way up because of the excitement of finishing a challenging rock scramble. When I started my way down, I thought I would regret my decision. However, the hike back down ended up not being that big of a deal. I used my butt to slide down and control the slide whenever I felt my footing was weak. For hikers who make the journey, the views at the end of the trail are spectacular. In addition, make sure to walk past the “end of trail” sign at the top for more stunning views.
Due to the legit rock scramble, I would caution hikers to be alert at all times but the hike is very doable. Another tip is to not wear white apparel. It is a mistake because your white clothes will covered by the red dust of the rocks afterwards. Moreover, bring a small bag to carry water. Again, hikers will need all four limbs for the rock scramble. I needed to leave my water bottle behind a bush at the beginning of the rock scramble and grabbed it on the way down because I did not have a free hand to carry it. However, I would have definitely needed the water if it was a hotter day. Overall, it took me under an hour and a half to finish.
Cathedral Rock also requires the “Red Rock” pass. Visitors need to purchase it at the parking lot and display it on the dashboard of the car. It is $5 for a daily pass and $15 for a weekly pass.
- Devil’s Bridge (4.2 miles and 564 feet elevation change)
It is one of the most popular places in Sedona take a picture. Erosion worked its magic and created a natural stone bridge that is Devil’s Bridge. Despite the name, the bridge is not overly dangerous. It is very wide. Of course, anything with a steep drop is dangerous if someone is reckless about it. In addition to the bridge, the surrounding area in that part of Sedona is very beautiful. Accordingly, it is a very picturesque scene for a photo. Not surprisingly, there is a line at the bridge to snap a photo. You also need to find a photographer to stand on the hiking trail, across from the bridge, to take a picture.
In total, the hike is moderate difficulty. It is steep near the end of the hike with three set of stairs. It is not easy at that point of the hike but not a complete rock scramble either. In other words, the height between each step is higher than normal. Of course, be patient at that point. The trailhead is heavily trafficked. Hikers are generally more careful on the way down. Those two factors create a bottleneck.
The actual trailhead starts on Vultee Arch Road. However, it is an unpaved road meant for off-roading. There are significant and intermittent bumps [3-4 foot drops] along the road. A jeep or truck is needed to drive down it. A lot of visitors also take the “Pink Jeep” tours to bypass that part of the hike. Most vehicles need to park in the lot at the beginning of Vultee Arch Road. However, it fills up quick so most visitors are forced to park on Dry Creek Road, which is the main and paved road in Sedona, that Vultee Arch Road connects to. On foot, the start of the trailhead is about a 25 minute walk on the dirt road. At the beginning of the trail, there is also a parking lot for any vehicles and the Pink Jeeps that are able to make the drive down the road. The hike took me 2 hours but approximately 15 minutes each way was to get from where I parked to and from the parking lot at the beginning of Vultee Arch Road.
Despite the awesome payoff, the hike is a bit boring till the end. Accordingly, I do not consider the trail a must do if you are only in Sedona for a short trip and need to allocate your time accordingly. On the other hand, it is worth the hike if you do have the time.
- Bell Rock (3.5 miles and 700 feet elevation change)
South of Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock is the other famous rock formation on the East side of Sedona. Cathedral Rock looks like a cathedral. As such, Bell Rock naturally looks like a bell. It is also a lot easier to hike up Bell Rock than Cathedral Rock because it is a much more gradual ascent and a little less elevation change. I did not go to the end of the hike because I already had a good viewpoint of the surrounding area to the North after hiking up Bell Rock for 20 minutes. Moreover, the trail became less defined at that point of my hike. Hikers made their own paths as they “climbed” [mostly rock scramble] further up the rock.
Bell Rock is also a solid, secondary spot for sunset [Again, Airport Mesa is clearly the top choice]. It was actually mostly cloudy when I was there for sunset. Fortunately, the skies opened up for a few minutes right at sunset. It looked like the sun painted the rocks to the north of Bell Rock with the afterglow of the day’s last light. It was a fleeting yet majestic and peaceful moment.
Parking at Bell Rock also requires a recreational pass. I used the same daily pass I bought at Cathedral Rock for $5 (Again, $15 for a weekly). Moreover, there are various trails that connect to the Bell Rock trailhead. If you want to walk around the valley floor of Sedona and see interesting rock formations from a ground-level view, the connecting trails (e.g. the Courthouse Butte loop) are good additions to the Bell Rock hike.
- West Fork (6 miles round trip)
I did not hear about West Fork until a couple of fellow travelers told me they were taking a day trip and driving two hours north up to the trailhead to hike it. When I looked it up, it was noted as one of the best hikes in Arizona and a top 10 hike in the United States. I was only in Sedona a day so I would not have had time to drive an additional 2 hours each way to do it. Nonetheless, it is worth researching if you have a multi-day trip to Sedona.
- Elote Cafe (771 AZ-179, Sedona, AZ 86336, USA)
It has been ranked as high as the second best Mexican Restaurant in the United States. Moreover, it only serves dinner. Accordingly, the line is epic. Diners start showing up at 4 to get in line. Once the first wave gets in, it is a hard 2 hour wait. Once it opens, it is even difficult to get a parking space to start to wait in line. I arrived 15-20 minutes after the restaurant opened and the parking lot was full. I went to see another part of Sedona instead before returning a couple hours later. Of course, a lot of guests hear the wait time then leave. For the diners who brave the wait, there is a bar and an outside seating area for them to drink and enjoy themselves while they wait. Luckily for me, I was traveling solo and snuck in at the bar after an hour.
Of course, I had to order and try the elote as the restaurant is named after the dish. It is a creamed corn with a kick. The corn is cut fresh and very crispy. A light amount of cheese is layered on top. It was the first time I tried an elote and I liked it a lot. I was actually full from the elote but found room for an entree and was glad I did. I went with the carne asada. It was definitely the best carne asada and ranks among the best steaks I have ever eaten. The meat was a perfect medium rare: extremely tender and chewy. Jalapenos also gave the dish a kick. I did not care for the chunk of cheese but I simply moved it to the side.
Is Elote Cafe worth the two hour wait [or lining up early at 4 to avoid it]? Yes and no. It is definitely great Mexican food. If you are spending at least a few days and have time to spare one night, you could justify the time spent as you will either be lounging at a hotel after dinner or having a few drinks before enjoying a later but amazing dinner at Elote Cafe. If you are on a short trip and fitting Elote Cafe would replace seeing something beautiful in Sedona, then I would absolutely say no. Sedona is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited so there is no dining experience good enough to rationalize not seeing something in Sedona you really wanted to see (e.g. a sunset). In addition, I would never fault someone for not wanting to wait 2 hours just to eat despite how good it may be.
- Indians Gardens Cafe & Market (3951 N State Rte 89A, Sedona, AZ 86336, USA)
It is the one spot in Sedona I would note as a must eat. Unlike Elote Cafe, there is minimal wait. It is a casual spot where you order at the counter then find an open seat and wait for your food. Indian Gardens Cafe & Market is phenomenal for brunch and lunch. I highly recommend the Egg Sammie. One word popped into my mind after I took a bite: “Wow”. The eggs were cooked perfectly. It had the ideal amount of cheese [I hate slobs of it on food]. The cheese complements the dish instead of overpowering it. Arugula added an additional crunch to the Sammie while salsa gave it a kick. Next, the side of potatoes were good but nothing out of the ordinary. I also ordered a smoked trout rilette toast. It was definitely a letdown compared to the Sammie. While the trout was fresh, it was a little too salty and the sourdough bread was a little too hard. Nonetheless, definitely dine at Indian Gardens Cafe. The Sammie is amazing and most of the other dishes looked great too.
- Red Rock Cafe (100 Verde Valley School Rd #107, Sedona, AZ 86351, USA)
It is another great spot for breakfast and located on the east side of Sedona just south of Bell Rock. I ordered the country fried steak and it was great. The fried skin was very crispy while the beef was chewy inside. The gravy was very flavorful. The side of hash browns was excellent. I also liked that they had a low amount of salt. The dish also came with eggs and French Toast. The eggs were eggs. The French Toast was solid. They were a tad sweet with a taste of cinnamon. Moreover, the portions were generous. I had to doggy bag the toast. It was way too much food for one person.
- Creekside Coffee (251 AZ-179, Sedona, AZ 86336, USA)
It is located in one of the suites on the second floor of the Creekside Plaza. I usually lower my expectations for coffee when I leave the big cities. Nonetheless, my latte was acceptable. The latte art was shaky but it was a case of substance over form. Moreover, the cafe ran out of mugs so the barista’s motion for the art might have been thrown off by a different sized cup. Overall, the latte tasted rich and smooth with no hint of bitterness. Nevertheless, I would recommend the cold brew over the latte. It was stellar: rich, strong, and smooth.
I also ordered an avocado toast, which was the last one for the day at 9:30 AM. It was good but nothing spectacular. Accordingly, I would not make any special effort to get there early to order it before it sells out. If it is available, it is a fine choice for breakfast.
Not surprisingly, it is not cheap to stay overnight in Sedona. I decided to drive 25 minutes south and stay at a Best Western in Cottonwood. For me, it was worth a quick drive for a much more cost effective accommodation. Nonetheless, the prices in Sedona are not crazy for multiple travelers who are splitting. The Sky Lodge Resort at the end of airport road, with views overlooking the city, would probably be one of the first places I would look at if I were staying in the city.
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