“You haven’t seen Sedona until you’ve seen Snoopy,” our 12-year-old son, Caleb, joked.
He pointed at the towering rust-colored boulders shaped like the “Peanuts” cartoon beagle snoozing on his doghouse that glowed beneath a bright blue sky. Searching for red rock landmarks among the mystical spires that define this 19-square-mile city became a theme of our trip.
We’d gone to Arizona in early January to escape the Twin Cities’ least sunny period on record since 1963. Like many Minnesotans, we found the lack of sunshine mentally tough, plus one of our kids had been especially hard hit with pneumonia. It was time to get outdoors, to rejuvenate our lungs by breathing in the dry warmth of the upper Sonoran Desert air.
And Sedona, a town of over 10,000 that swells to 3 million tourists every year, was reputed to be a place that was good for the body and the soul. New Age enthusiasts believe its four main vortexes — spots where Earth’s electromagnetic energy is said to swirl (all of Sedona itself is considered one) — bring balance and healing.
Many have claimed to have seen UFOs in its pitch-black sky (you can book cosmic night tours where you use night vision goggles to search for pulsating bright objects). At 4,500 feet above sea level, Sedona does seem the sort of place where aliens would land, like a red spire Stonehenge built for the extraterrestrial.
We didn’t see any aliens.
As for our bodies and souls? I don’t know if it was the electromagnetic swirls or the sunny warmth, but we all returned to Minnesota feeling energized.
On our first day, we hiked through Boynton Canyon’s shifting landscape, from cactus to ponderosa pine trees, northwest of town in Coconino National Forest (parking is $5 for the day or $15 for the week; fs.usda.gov/coconino). The Native Americans considered this box canyon sacred and it is home to some of their ruins, including ancient cliff dwellings.
A short detour from the main trail led us to our first vortex. Its whirling energy was supposed to strengthen the yin/yang balance within each of us. It only seemed to work on our 10-year-old daughter, Anna, who uncharacteristically decided to run much of the 6.1-mile round-trip main trail.
At the end of it, a sharp incline led us to emerge on a flat-faced rock high above the forest below. The sandstone head wall towered above, forming a dead end. We were the only people on the ledge. There was only one way out of the canyon, and that was the way we’d come in. It left us feeling like we’d hit the end of the Earth.
While my husband and I appreciated the solitude, our children’s favorite hike was the well-trafficked, 1.5-mile round-trip Cathedral Rock Trail. Going up it required problem solving as a family. We stretched over rocks like acrobats, reaching our hands and feet into cracks and fissures.
Because it’s steep, only half of the tourists who start it finish it. My 14-year-old son, Max, stopped every now and then to give me a hand up the rocks so I could be one of them. We were rewarded by a 360-degree view that left us wind-whipped and utterly awed.
On our descent, Anna and Caleb grew impatient behind a logjam of hikers searching for secure footing in a well-worn crevice. Sure-footed, they ran down the red-faced rock that sprawled before us like the State Fair’s Giant Slide. Afterward, we swung by an architectural wonder, the Chapel of the Holy Cross, which sprung to life out of the red cliffs.
Explore by Jeep
On the two-hour “Broken Arrow” tour, Anna and I huddled beneath a blanket in the back of an open-air Jeep ($110 adults; $99 kids, Pink Jeep Tours; pinkadventuretours.com). Across from us were a mother and daughter in town from Wisconsin for a wedding. Like a monster truck, our Jeep climbed up the red rocks to mind-bending plateaus like Submarine Rock and Chicken Point. Their otherworldly views gave us a glimpse of how Sedona’s geology evolved over the years, starting over 300 million years ago when it was a coastal plain surrounded by shallow seas. Iron in the sand and clay oxidized over time, turning the rocks the color of rust. That earned Sedona the moniker “Red Rock Country.”
Our driver pointed out the backcountry mountain biking thrills that Sedona had to offer, such as the death-defying cliffside White Line trail. From where we stood on the rock ledge hundreds of feet below, it looked about as conquerable as a white line of chalk with its almost vertical drop.
Going up the red rocks was one thing; going down was another. I held my breath on the sharply angled boulder stairway, aptly named the Road of No Return. It felt like our Jeep, which descended at what felt like a 45-degree angle at times, could somersault at any moment, but our driver assured us he’d been well trained in the required arts of braking and accelerating.
See the Grand Canyon
One morning, we awoke early and drove about two hours north to the 277-mile-long Grand Canyon. Elk wandered through the national park, nibbling the snow-dusted grass. From the South Rim, we gaped wide-eyed at the mile-deep canyon, awed by its peaks and gorges.
For about 6 million years, wind and water, as well as sliding rocks and mud, worked to shape the quiet world before us. Its sense of permanence left me acutely aware of my own fleetingness — and worried for those edging out onto rock faces for photos.
A fear of heights gripped me, but only when my children were around, so I declined to hike the ribbonlike Bright Angel Trail beneath the canyon rim. My husband took our kids past the first rock tunnel to see the Indian pictographs and reported that one hiker slipped and fell on an icy patch. Her scream conveyed her evolutionary, reflexive fear.
On another day, we tried to visit Montezuma Castle National Monument about a half-hour south of Sedona. Anna had been studying Native American culture at school and wanted to see the preserved five-story cliff dwellings carved into the limestone cliffs by the Sinagua Indians between 1100 and 1350 A.D. Unfortunately, the park was closed due to the government shutdown.
Experience the town
Staying at the Hyatt Residence Club Sedona, Piñon Pointe, put us close enough to the city center to explore the high-end Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village on foot. One night, sans kids, Matt and I shared buttery lobster mashed potatoes beneath a wall of windows at the Latin-inspired Mariposa, a restaurant with decor and hospitality that made us feel like guests at an exclusive party. We devoured omelets stuffed with Mexican ingredients like chorizo as well as waffles inexpensively at the family-owned Cafe José.
As Sedona limits light pollution, we used the flashlights under our kitchen sink to find our way to the heated pool. The inky darkness brought on the desired effect of resetting our circadian rhythms. Without clouds to trap the sun’s heat at night, the temperature dropped. We felt it in our lungs, and eagerly sought the cozy warmth of our beds at night.
Light, Sedona had taught us, was a dramatic storyteller. Like an artist, sunlight played with the rich colors of the layered rocks throughout the day, slowly revealing the vivid beauty that is Red Rock Country. But it was time to leave this mystical, invigorating place.
“Goodbye, Snoopy!” Anna called out.
Jennifer Jeanne Patterson lives in Edina and is the author of “52 Fights.” Find her at unplannedcooking.com.