Driving south through the Navajo reservation on Highway U.S. 89, our anticipation heightens as the San Francisco Peaks come into view. While my wife and I have made this journey many times, we still marvel at the magnetic pull that draws us to northern Arizona each year.
At Flagstaff we turn south on I-17, and drive through the Ponderosa pine forests of the Mogollon Plateau before exiting at Highway 179. Approaching Sedona, the now familiar monoliths named Bell Rock, Courthouse Butte and Cathedral Rock come into view. We’ve learned to be careful driving here with the tourists gazing at the scenery rather than attending to the traffic. Fortunately, many turnoffs are provided for those who wish to stop and photograph the wonderful landscapes.
A few minutes later, the winding highway deposits us in the heart of Sedona. From the “Y” intersection with Highway 89A, one may turn to the right to visit uptown Sedona, or left to visit West Sedona. Either direction will reward the visitor with various types of accommodations, restaurants, gift shops and art galleries. Did I mention art galleries?
We settle into the Arroyo Roblé Resort, an older uptown timeshare condominium complex located next to the rushing waters of Oak Creek. The two-bedroom townhouse units of this resort are surrounded by huge sycamore and cottonwood trees, which provide a lovely and private environment. Sitting out on our patio in the evening, listening to the creek flowing past and the rhythmic sounds of cicadas in the trees, we feel very relaxed. Late one evening on a previous visit, we saw a family of javelina snacking along the grassy banks of the creek.
Awakening in the morning chill, we find the patio sun-filled; we sit outside to enjoy the warmth of our fresh-brewed coffees. Later, we meander up on Airport Mesa to breakfast at the airport’s cafe overlooking the single runway. It’s here, while heartily consuming chili verde omelets, we spy roadrunners jogging along the taxiway.
The scenic views from any place in Sedona are always exciting. As a photographer, I often find myself staring at the nearby red rock vistas. The changing light and shadows are constantly drawing my attention. The anticipation of being here and of making photographs of the red landscapes are overwhelming.
Our midday hours are often spent visiting Sedona’s many wonderful shops and art galleries. The array of Native American art and jewelry is astonishing. We can spend an entire afternoon admiring, listening, and learning about American Indian culture and heritage as we browse through the local shops. We always devote at least one afternoon to wander the courtyards and shops of Tlaquepaque (Tuh-lah-key-pah-key), a shopping village designed after the Mexican town of the same name.
As sunset draws near, we look for opportunities to make landscape photographs. Within just a few minutes of the hustle and bustle of Sedona, we can be out in the red rocks, completely alone, save for each other, in the solitude of nature. Our small, high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle allows us safe access to many unpaved back country roads.
Sitting high on a red rock outcropping, surrounded by nature’s most beautiful spires and hoodoos, the only sound we hear is the faint caw of a nearby raven looking for its evening meal. As the sun slowly moves toward the horizon, the light turns golden, the shadows become longer, and my photographs record the scenes as I see them. It is a rich and wonderful opportunity to be in this natural place – free for everyone to enjoy.
Sometimes we find ourselves along Schnebly Hill Road before sunrise, driving north from Sedona up into the mountains to select a spot to photograph the first light as it falls on the ridges of the Mogollon Rim. There are many trails in the Coconino National Forest that provide foot-access into the Munds Mountain Wilderness. Hikers should be prepared and carry extra water with them.
Lunch at Shugrue’s Grill in Sedona’s Hillside Plaza always provides us an opportunity to gaze at the nearby red rock mountains while savoring some of Sedona’s southwestern cuisine. Later, we enjoy wandering the adjacent shops and galleries. Up the street from Hillside one finds Exposures, a stand-alone gallery containing museum-quality art. Exposures is a great experience for those who appreciate fine art in all its mediums.
Taking the Lower Loop Road from Highway 89A west of town, one will find Crescent Moon Ranch State Park where access may be gained to the famed “Red Rock Crossing” site along Oak Creek. From this location, the changing views of Cathedral Rock can be captured. Sunrise, sunset, stormy, clear, rushing creek or placid stream – this icon of Sedona is here for those with patience and skill.
During our week’s stay, yet another early morning outing takes us through uptown Sedona along Highway 89A into Oak Creek Canyon, one of the most scenic red rock canyons in the West. Driving past Slide Rock State Park, we’ll stop at the parking area for the West Fork trailhead, where the ranger will assess a nominal fee. Hiking in the West Fork of Oak Creek Canyon is easily managed by most people, especially those who like to ford streams by hopping from one rock to the next. Bring lots of memory for your camera as the scenery along this trail is exquisite.
Whether you spend a week or a few days in Sedona, the town and its red rock surroundings will surely captivate you. You too will likely return – again and again.
Lee Robinson is a freelance writer, photographer and business owner living in Sandy, Utah with his wife and two retired racing greyhounds. You can see more of Lee's photography on his blog.