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Arizona Travel: Exploring Sedona By Jeep [Photo + Video Essay]

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The view while approaching Sedona. Even on a cloudy day it’s quite a sight!

I can’t quite recall the first time I laid eyes on a photo of Sedona’s vibrant red rocks, but I do know that it’s a place I’ve been wanting to go for years now. Interestingly, I had an uncle who had been inviting me to visit him in Phoenix, only about two hours from Sedona, but my travel schedule had yet to allow it. That is, until last week.

As I was sans car and staying with my uncle in the suburbs, I decided a Sedona Red Rock Adventure tour would be my best bet for doing the day trip (especially since the shuttle from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport costs $100 round trip alone, and the all-day tour including transportation, guide and touring costs $163.99).

The day began bright and early with a 7:45am pick-up from Phoenix. While I braced myself for two hours of listening to my iPod, journaling and reading Horns, the drive itself ended up being a highlight of the journey. Along the Black Canyon Freeway, what began as high end hotels and countless shopping centers soon transformed into a cacti-littered Sonoran Desert hugged by dark rolling hills.

Interestingly, the old and wise saguaro cactus, which lives for about 200 years, is Arizona‘s state flower. While it may sound funny to hear a cactus being called a flower, the plant really does produce a marshmallow-white flowers in late spring and red fruits in summer. Many of these desert-dwelling plants grow arms as they age, and can grow up to 40 feet tall, making them the country’s largest cactus. What I found most fascinating was their importance to the Tohono O’odham Nation Native American culture, who believe the cactus to be sacred and use its fruits to make food and ceremonial wine.

Once we pass the frost line the cacti vanish, and we’re immersed in vast prairie. This shows another side of Arizona’s beautifully diverse landscape.

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Wild desert landscapes in Sedona, Arizona.

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Who knew looking at photos of rocks could be so interesting?

When we hit Sedona the cacti are back; however, what’s interesting is that they’re literally growing from the red rock. What I learn from my guide, JR, is that the rocks get their rusty color from a high iron oxide, or, well, rust, density. Their otherworldly shapes are from erosion — water eating away at soft rock layers to form cliffs, pieces exposing in large blocks, wind beating against both soft and hard minerals — and even volcanic activity, as eruptions from millions of years ago have placed 400-foot-thick lava at the tops of the flat-topped mountains, protecting them from deterioration. Together, these natural occurrences interact with natural materials to form a naturally breathtaking work of art, created by Mother Nature herself.

These rocks allow for adrenaline rushes like hiking and climbing, although definitely don’t think about doing either if there is even a slight chance of rain. Unlike forest trails that become muddy with rain, the soft sandstone rocks and peaks in Sedona become brittle from the water, the ground beneath your feet simply washing away — while you’re standing on it.

Basically, you’d be entering the most deadly slip-and-slide of your life.

That being said, if it’s dry Sedona offers some truly energizing and view-awarding summits in the country. Actually, the world.

While I note this for a return trip, today I’ll be partaking in a different, albeit easier, kind of adventure: off-roading through the diverse and beautiful Coconino National Forest. Specifically, we’ll be traversing Munds Wagon Trail, gaining an elevation of 1,200 feet.

This video from my YouTube Channel features GoPro clips from my Jeep ride in Sedona and hiking around the Grand Canyon

For this, JR handed us over to our new guide, Sydvicious, his cowboy name.

“The only people who don’t call me ‘Sydvicious’ are my children, who call my ‘Pop,'” he said.

Despite the name, Syd was anything but vicious, a friendly man who seemed to think everything was funny, his laughter mixing with shrieks of the Jeep passengers as they bounced over rock and uneven road providing the soundtrack to my tour.

The Coconino National Forest encompasses 1.856-million acres of Ponderosa Pine, alpine tundra, woodland lakes, inspiring mountains and trails for hiking, horseback riding, camping and picnicking. Not only that, but it’s full of red rocks forming familiar shapes, from Abraham Lincoln to a snoozing Snoopy to Superman. The most famous of these rock shapes is Cathedral Rock, with a semblance unsurprisingly to a Cathedral. Interestingly, Cathedral Rock was once known as “Courthouse Butte,” until people realized it looked more like a church. What was THEN known as Cathedral Rock is now known as Courthouse Butte.

Confused? Don’t worry about it. Just stop thinking and take in the view.

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The scenery helps you forget your sore butt while off-roading.

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Hold on, it’ll be a bumpy ride!

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Exploring Sedona by Jeep

Another interesting concept to understand when exploring Sedona’s red rock country is “vortexes,” which Cathedral Rock is one of (along with Airport Mesa, Boynton Canyon and Bell Rock). Vortexes refer to places with spiritual and cleansing energies. Standing in one of these vortexes and breathing in this special air strengthens one’s inner being.

As stated on John And Micki’s Metaphysical Site, a website dedicated to Sedona’s vortexes and New Age culture, “This resonance happens because the vortex energy is very similar to the subtle energy operating in the energy centers inside each person. If you are at all a sensitive person, it is easy to feel the energy at these vortexes.”

While I’m not 100% sure I believe in vortexes, it doesn’t hurt to give it a try. If the energy funnels don’t revitalize you, taking in the landscape certainly will.

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View from Carousel Rock (Carousel Rock is the one all the way to the right that looks like, well, a carousel). Photo courtesy of Jessie on a Journey.

While Cathedral Rock is the most photographed formation, our best vista comes once we’ve bounced our way to the top of a steep incline, putting the Jeep in park in front of Carousel Rock. From here, the red rock monoliths intermingle with bright green trees for a Christmas-gone-wild vista that will be forever imprinted in my mind. Rolling mountains in the backdrop add a laziness to the otherwise powerful and energetic scene.

One we’ve bounded back down the mountain, we’re given some free time to explore Uptown Sedona, literally located higher up into the mountains than Downtown. While I’m not big into shopping, I do love exploring artisan shops and eateries, which luckily abound between New Age storefronts selling crystals, salves, aromatherapy, curative oils and, sometimes, spa treatments (like at Body Bliss Factory Direct).

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The sign in Body Bliss Factory Direct, one of Sedona’s many metaphysical shops and spas

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Old West-style sign in Sedona, Arizona

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A nod to the arts in Sedona, Arizona.

My first stop was Sedona Olive Oil Co, offering free samples of oils like white honey ginger balsamic, chocolate cherry aged balsamic, white truffle and garlic olive oil, and Persian lime olive oil. From there, the Sedona Candle Gallery immersed me in a world of creative (and sometimes eccentric) ball-shaped candles, while the free-to-enter Motion Picture Museum showcases black-and-white photos from the many Old Western films produced locally (Sedona was once known as “Little Hollywood”). While I didn’t spend too much time here, I recommend visiting the Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village, home to over 40 creative galleries and shops and a landmark since the 1970s.

While there were plenty of restaurants offering burgers, sandwiches and salads, as I was visiting a new place I wanted a novel dining experience. Cue the Cowboy Club & Silver Saddle Room. Along with dishes like wings coated in smokey house-made Poblano ranch, buffalo-infused chili, and raspberry plum BBQ-coated pulled pork, they served some truly quirky fare. My order: a Diamondback Rattlesnake Trio featuring bone -in rattlesnake, beer battered filet skewers and char-grilled rattlesnake sausage with a tequila prickly pear sauce, and a side of cactus fries. Needless to say it was not my typical weekday lunch back in NYC.

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The Cowboy Club menu.

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A desert-style lunch of rattlesnake and cactus.

After these savory experiences, it was time to satiate my sweet tooth, which I did at the Sedona Fudge Company. Amidst savoring free samples of chocolate cream cheese and maple walnut fudge, I watched truffles being made through a window looking into the small onsite factory.

During the final portion of the tour we were reunited with JR, who would be our guide for a local bus tour. Along with viewpoints like the Airport Mesa and Bell Rock, we also stopped at the historic Garland’s Indian Jewelry which is, according to JR, the best in Sedona for authentic Native American jewelry and turquoise pieces. Again, I’m not into shopping; however, this store was interesting as it was also a sort of museum, if you will. While on one side a display showcased different colors of turquoise — surprisingly they’re not all turquoise — and how the hues and features can tell you where the gemstones came from, another told the story of the Hopi kachina religious icons, beautifully carved by local Hopi people.

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The Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, Arizona.

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Beautiful views from the Chapel of the Holy Cross.

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These views never get old (as seen from the Chapel of the Holy Cross).

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Chapel garden

Possibly the most interesting stop on this portion of the Sedona excursion was the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a church literally built into the city’s red rock. The chapel was built by a local Frank Lloyd Wright student named Marguerite Brunswig Staude, who became inspired by the construction of the Empire State Building, a brick New York City skyscraper held together by a cross of steel. She, too, wanted to construct a building, a chapel, held together by a cross, symbolic of the Lord’s power.

It came to her exactly where this chapel should be constructed when she happened upon a Native American petroglyph (although some believe it’s actually from an even older culture), appearing like an Rx prescription symbol. Since 1956, it is in this spot the chapel has stood, with the Rx still visible underneath from the road.

The Chapel of the Holy Cross still holds mass on Sundays, possibly the most scenic religious experience one can have.

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Courthouse Butte (once known as Cathedral Rock, until the two switched names).

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View from Airport Mesa at sunset.

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Sedona’s famous Bell Rock.

Whether you explore Sedona by Jeep, bus, on foot or by climbing its red rock monoliths, a trip to this bright and colorful desert city is highly recommended for anyone who finds themselves in Arizona.

Have you visited Sedona, Arizona? What was your experience like? Please share in the comments below.

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Hi, I’m Jessie on a journey!

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5 Comments

  1. Becky on January 7, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    I loved Sedona – what a beautiful part of the country! My only regret is that I only had 1 night there…I moved on due to high expenses, but next time I’ll plan on a longer stay since there’s so much to see and do. I was pleasantly surprised with some of the restaurants there (and I ate up after long hikes!).

    • jess2716 on January 7, 2015 at 5:09 pm

      @Becky: Agree I wish I had more time there. I would love to do some more hiking on the next trip. I imagine I could spend weeks there and not get sick of the scenery 🙂

  2. Angelica @BkChickTravels on January 7, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    I haven’t been to Sedona, or Arizona at all yet. Those rocks are something else, and I could totally go for rattlesnake too. How did it taste, chewy?

    • jess2716 on January 7, 2015 at 5:08 pm

      @Angelica: It tasted sort of gamey. I liked the fried rattlesnake best, although I guess that’s not shocking because, hey, everything tastes great fried 🙂

  3. Agnes on October 26, 2016 at 8:48 am

    Wow! Love your snaps. Sedona is definitely one of the places that I fell in love to.

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