| Alex Pulaski |
ABOUT a century ago, dentist-turned-author Zane Grey first laid eyes on Oak Creek Canyon. The red-rock hallway north of Sedona packs such startling scenery into its 12 miles that it often draws comparisons to its famous Arizona cousin, the Grand Canyon.
In those days, Grey’s love of the outdoors had already propelled him to renown as the “most popular of living authors”, as one reviewer concluded.
His purple prose popularised the Arizona desert, and after Hollywood came calling in the 1920s and beyond, the landscape around Sedona – about a two-hour drive north of Phoenix – emerged as the cowboy ideal of the American West.
The resulting novel from Grey’s visit, The Call of the Canyon, is so rife with sentimentality, jingoism and sexism that it’s barely readable today, with one notable exception – the searing passages about the land itself.
Trying to describe five sunny fall days there with my wife – much of it aboard mountain bikes – I reach for words that seem drab and monochrome, deflating Sedona’s beauty. Instead, I end up rereading the passage in which Grey’s heroine first arrives in the canyon:
“The great cliffs turned gold, the creek changed to glancing silver, the green of trees vividly freshened, and in the clefts rays of sunlight burned into the blue shadows. Carley had never gazed upon a scene like this.”
In a 1924 book review in The New York Times, LH Robbins described the West’s attraction as an escape from the daily grind, and how Grey had bottled the area’s siren song in The Call of the Canyon.
“Here, scenery does more than fill space,” Robbins wrote. “Potent in its influence upon the people of the story, it is a character in itself. . . . The wild, lonely, fearfully beautiful Arizona desert has never been better done.”
Somehow, then and now, Sedona’s red rocks call us. Time to saddle up.
For as long as I can remember, Moab, Utah, has sat atop the pinnacle of the West’s mountain biking destinations.
But Sedona, with more than 200 miles of varied single-track biking trail snaking in and around the city (population: 10,300), is both a premier cycling destination and a place to discover art and food, even to replenish your soul.
Since the 1980s, after a psychic divined that the area was home to spiritual energy vortexes, seekers have descended on Sedona with healing on their minds. I was sceptical, at best, about the area’s transformative powers.
First, Joanna Yates, a guide with Hermosa Tours, met us at Over the Edge bike shop, where we had rented some high-end, fat-tyre mountain bikes with nifty gadgets such as full suspension for a smoother ride and something I hadn’t seen before – a dropper seatpost.
With the push of a button the rider can adjust seat height, something that comes in handy when you want the seat out of the way for quick downhill turns.
It must be noted that my wife and I are not accomplished cyclists. To be clear, I do own a mountain bike. But I also own a set of golf clubs and a trampoline, and claim no particular skill with them.
So Yates’s first challenge was helping a 50-something couple overcome a natural uneasiness about unknown terrain, unfamiliar bikes and unforgiving rocks.
On the drive to West Sedona, she pointed out the striking red-rock formations including Thunder Mountain, Lizard Head and Chimney Rock. Shaped by millions of years of sediment deposits and erosion, the rocks owe their red hues to a thin coating of iron oxide. Rust never sleeps.
“The terrain here is very different from what people expect,” Yates told us.
“Look around: It is rock. On Hiline and some of the other double black diamond trails, there’s a lot of exposure. Make a wrong move and you or your bike could go down the mountain.”
Perhaps sensing our rising panic, she assured us there would be no “exposure” on this ride. She noted that Sedona-area trails pack enough twists, climbs, downhills and surprises to challenge beginners, but as we mounted up to tackle the Cockscomb, Dawa and Arizona Cypress trails, she injected a final booster shot of confidence.
“Trust these bikes,” she said. “They can go over so much. It’s the riders we have to convince.”
Ninety minutes and nearly five miles later we were winded but unscathed, ready for lunch, some city exploration and another ride – or two, as it turned out – the next day.
In the morning we mounted up old-school – on horseback – for nearly two hours of desert trail riding through Verde Valley wine country near Cornville, about a half-hour drive from Sedona. The ups and downs take their toll on the hips and knees, as I discovered in a wobbly dismount.
“Now you know why John Wayne walked the way he did,” said Max Wilson, a guide with Horsin’ Around Adventures.
After a light, energising lunch at the ultra-fresh, relaxing ChocolaTree restaurant (it bills itself as an “organic oasis”) we saddled up again with Yates for more mountain biking – this time starting on pavement in the thick of town.
We quickly got onto rock and dirt and followed Soldier Pass Trail to the Seven Sacred Pools (pretty, but not as impressive as the Maui version), then a long haul over the Adobe Jack Trail back to civilisation.
Along the ups and downs, Yates continually shouted encouragement (“You can do this!” or “Go, girl, trust the bike!”) and though we did on occasion walk the bikes for short stretches, we began to find confidence and occasionally even courage.
Which was a good thing, considering that for the next two days we planned to tackle the trails on our own. Enormously helpful were both a detailed trail map and some helpful phone advice from both Over the Edge and another shop we rented from, Absolute Bikes. They were like friendly captains helping us sail strange seas.
On those unaccompanied days, as I rocketed down a steep stretch of the Templeton Trail or tackled slick rock around Cathedral Rock’s base, I heard the echoes of Yates’s steady encouragement ringing in my ears, just as loud, seemingly, as my adrenaline-fired “woohoo” at the bottom of the hill.
“You can do this. Trust the bike.”
Make no mistake: Sedona holds much to do and see that doesn’t involve two-wheeled adventure. But we were glad of the exercise to help work off calories from some spectacular dinners, notably at the elegant Mariposa Latin Inspired Grill, the romantic Cress on Oak Creek and the family-style Gerardo’s Italian Kitchen.
The accommodations run the gamut from the charmingly retro Red Agave Adventure Resort (where stunning vistas and trails wait right outside your door) to the comfortable Amara Resort and Spa to the luxurious L’Auberge de Sedona.
We frequented galleries and shops at the sycamore-shaded Tlaquepaque arts and crafts village. One afternoon we even created our own works of art (a couple of candy dishes) at the Melting Point glassblowing hot shop, thanks to some patient, good-humoured help from wizards Austin Littenberg and Jordan Ford.
We traced the area’s history – particularly as a Western movie location – through a visit to the Sedona Heritage Museum.
The Call of the Canyon, filmed in 1923, was the first movie shot in Sedona, but later some of Hollywood’s biggest names – the Duke, Jimmy Stewart, Barbara Stanwyck – starred here.
“The movies became the area’s industry,” said Janeen Trevillyan, the museum’s historian.
“Then a lot of people started to see the beauty of the place in the movies. When America hit the road in the 1950s, Route 66 was right up the road through Flagstaff.
“Most of us have come here from somewhere else; they visit, fall in love with the place and by the end of the day have bought a house. And lots and lots of people come here and say, ‘Can you feel this?’”
“This”, of course, is that undefinable allure of the red rocks, whether attributable to vortexes, New Age mysticism or simply natural beauty.
My wife and I did a little soul searching of our own, hiking Teacup Trail one afternoon with Paul Sequoia Rauch. He’s a guide with Sedona Soul Adventures, which combines Sedona’s outdoor beauty (and perceived healing powers) with Socratic-like attention from a spiritual guide or healer.
Each customised retreat is different, with the focus predetermined by the participants. We walked in stretches, then sat and talked, identifying old wounds and resolving communication barriers.
I’d been afraid we’d start channeling or chanting or whatever it is that vortex-seekers do. Instead, he helped us expose some very old scars. And as we sat and stood and faced one another, it felt very much as if a healing had begun.
I don’t know yet if we were transformed, but we definitely ended that walk feeling as if something had shifted inside.
We weren’t the only ones. Over the course of our visit, we met no fewer than a dozen people who spoke in hushed tones of how Sedona’s red rocks had soothed their souls to varying degrees.
Much as Grey’s war-damaged hero of The Call of the Canyon wrote home to his New York fiancee about the healing powers of vast spaces and sweet silence.
“I never understood anything of the meaning of nature,” he penned, “until I lived under these looming stone walls and whispering pines.”
As a rental-car shuttle bus ferried us to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport for the flight home, some passengers near us bandied superlatives about their Sedona experiences: the splendid art, the incredible food, the incomparable views.
One man, though, described how his search for a vortex ended in disappointment for lack of a parking spot.
I guess some of us fail to encounter what we seek in Sedona. Maybe it’s just a question of slowing down, mounting up and finding yourself comfortable and confident in the saddle.
Where to stay
L’Auberge de Sedona
301 L’Auberge Lane
Understated luxury – like having your own custom cabin set in a wooded garden just footsteps from scenic Oak Creek. Plush robes, mountains of pillows, a real wood fireplace popping and crackling as juniper logs go up in smoke.
Amara Resort and Spa
100 Amara Lane
Conveniently located in the heart of uptown Sedona, this friendly, casual hotel has modern conveniences and a lovely courtyard and infinity pool overlooking Oak Creek.
Red Agave Adventure Resort
120 Canyon Circle D
Cute A-frame chalets (kitchen and living area, sleeping room for five) channel a Route 66 vibe at this completely renovated and utterly charming family spot with unbelievable views of Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte. Hiking and cycling trails wait right outside the property’s courtyard.
Where to eat
Sound Bites Grill
101 North State Route 89A
Live music most nights is a big part of the draw, but the food – a generous cheese board, seafood chowder and grilled portobello mushroom or baby back ribs – more than holds its own.
2245 West State Route 89A
Cozy, modern and casual location for thin-crust pizza and a Greca salad or tomato bisque after a long ride. Grab a gelato on your way out the door.
Cress on Oak Creek (at L’Auberge de Sedona)
301 L’Auberge Lane
A special-occasion place: Think candlelight, white tablecloths and impeccable service. Savour a fall salad of brined kale and caramelised pecans and a perfectly finished beef tenderloin.
1595 West State Route 89A
If Sedona really is a healing place, then this is its food vortex, especially on a sunny afternoon on the soothing outdoor patio.
The organic, vegetarian and gluten-free menu is vibrant and varied: start with a tahini hummus, pico de gallo and guacamole, move on to a corn chowder and wrap up with the Sedona 2012 enchilada – a wrap filled with sweet potato, basmati rice, three-bean chili and more.
During the meal or after, you will want to sample the variety of on-site-made chocolates – what co-owner David Warr calls “the most potent super food on the planet”.
Gerardo’s Italian Kitchen
2675 West State Route 89A
Michigan native Gerardo Moceri channels his Sicilian background into some incredible concoctions, like braised bison over fresh pappardelle pasta, or a linguine primavera. Preserve room for dessert: citrus olive oil cake with fresh berries, homemade tiramisu or cannoli.
Mariposa Latin Inspired Grill
700 West State Route 89A
Sheer elegance, starting with the setting: a huge patio and a wall of windows embracing the surrounding desert.
Choreographed service. Chef and owner Lisa Dahl says she imagined a place with the “freshest, most natural wood-fired cuisine”, and it succeeds at every turn, from flaky empanadas to a centre-cut filet mignon to bone-in lamb lollipops dripping with roasted yellow pepper coulis and a cilantro-mint pesto.
What to do
Over the Edge
1695 West State Route 89A
Features a central location, wide range of bikes, gear and attire, and staff willing to take the time to pore over a trail map with you.
6101 Highway 179, Suite D
Full-service bike shop with locations in Sedona and Flagstaff. Friendly, knowledgeable staff will take your phone calls and help you pick trails that fit your skills.
1695 West State Route 89A
Guide Joanna Yates introduced us to the terrain, patiently answered our questions and boosted our confidence mightily.
Half-day guided mountain biking tours for two people include transportation.
The Melting Point
1449 West State Route 89A, Suite 1
From picking colours to heating, shaping and blowing glass, this fun and interesting micro-class leaves you with a keepsake ornament or dish to remember the experience.
Horsin’ Around Adventures
2650 North Dancing Apache Road, Cornville
Clamber onto a well-trained horse for a leisurely guided trail ride through prickly pear, yucca and spindly ocotillo in Verde Valley.
Slide Rock State Park
6871 North State Route 89A
This one-time apple farm set in Oak Creek Canyon is home to a glorious swimming hole and stunning views.
Sedona Heritage Museum
735 Jordan Road
This former homestead provides a look back in time to an orchard operation and area pioneers as well as a replica telegraph office that showcases the dozens of Western movies filmed near Sedona.
Sedona Soul Adventures
My wife and I hiked Teacup Trail with guide Paul Sequoia Rauch for a few hours, talked, hugged, laughed, cried and came back feeling brand new. Customised spiritual retreats with a guide typically range from three to five days (up to five hours per day). – Text and Photos by The Washington Post