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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Sedona

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Just one week into our trip we had already experienced three iconic American destinations. Las Vegas, Route 66, and the Grand Canyon were all behind us but there was still so much ahead. We bounced out of Flagstaff early in order to have plenty of time for the Friday morning Sedona farmers' market before it closed at 11:30. The drive down 89A was a real treat. The winding single lane road was initially surrounded by the evergreens and limestone cliffs we already knew well from driving around the Walnut Canyon area, but these eventually gave way to our first sightings of the legendary red rocks of Sedona. The neverending variety of shapes that the weathered rocks acquired from millennia of wind erosion was even more impressive than their distinctive coloration. As we got closer to town we started to see a wild plant by the roadside that was different from any I'd ever seen. It had a tall bare stalk and then several clusters of yellow and rusty red flowers near the top that always pointed directly upward. It looked like an illustratrion from a Dr. Seuss book come to life. I learned later it is called goldenflower century plant, a type of agave.


The farmers market was in a colorful commercial center called Tlaquepaque, designed to resemble a colonial Mexican village. There was a good combination of artisanal foods, beautiful crafts, and ready-to-eat foods. There were magnificent wooden boxes with dendritic designs created by arcing electricity as well as amazing paintings on emu eggshells. We had freshly made burritos and tamales for brunch in a beautiful setting.

Once we were done with the market we spent some time exploring the extensive grounds of Tlaquepaque. It was probably the most beautiful shopping center I've ever seen, incorporating a variety of trees as well as sculpture and water features into exquisite Spanish colonial architecture. The buildings were filled with busy restaurants and high-end boutiques.

On the second floor of the main building we spent some time in a magical little toy store where I bought the kids a kit for making flying dinosaurs out of cardboard cutouts. Afterwards we joined Mei Ling who had found the showroom for a local winery that was decorated like the living room of an eccentric multimillionaire oenophile. The manager's spiel about Arizona wine, which I previously hadn't known existed, was so elaborate and enthusiastic that we had to buy a bottle even though it was four times the amount we usually spend on wine.

Sedona has an unusual layout as the expansion of residential areas is limited by the mountains and mesas. There are several separate small communities which are connected by the state roads. Uptown has much of the industry geared to tourists including accommodations, restaurants, and boutiques and is studiously avoided by many of Sedona's year-round residents. To the south along Route 179 are the Chapel area and then Oak Creek, while West Sedona is a short distance from Uptown along 89A. Almost anywhere along these roads one can expect have breathtaking views of majestic red rock formations. We wondered if the locals ever became so accustomed to their surroundings they stopped noticing them completely, or if driving around town was always accompanied by a feeling of profound satisfaction.

The Chapel area is named for the Chapel of the Holy Cross, a spectacular modernist church that looks as though it is growing from a two hundred foot pedestal of red rock in front of an imposing butte. A curving concrete walkway that seems to be suspended in air leads from the parking area to a viewing platform in front of the church. The platform provided dazzling panoramas of some of the most majestic red rock scenery in Sedona.

We still had a couple of hours before our Airbnb check-in so we headed to the local swimming hole, a segment of Oak Creek called Grasshopper Point. The attendant at the gate waved us off because the parking lot was full so we decided to head in the direction of the Airbnb in West Sedona and just explore the neighborhood. I was curious about what happened when we turned off the main road and drove to the very end of the side roads on the map. As it turned out the residential area just ended abruptly and the land behind it inclined upwards towards multicolored, striated projections of red rock. The one we chose happened to be at the beginning of a trailhead. Not the worst view to have from your backyard.

We killed the remaining time before check-in at a used bookstore attached to the public library across the street from our Airbnb. It was a convenient find because we needed to restock on books as Cleo and Ian had voraciously consumed the ones we had brought with us from home. I discovered that the gaps around the spare tire beneath the trunk made an excellent place to cache books that had been read but were too precious to dispose of. The Airbnb was a two bedroom cottage behind a family house with a comfortable living area and a well-equipped kitchen. There was a large open area between the two buildings that was perfect for the kids to fly their cardboard dinosaurs around once they had been assembled.

Before dinner we drove up to Airport Mesa for the famed view of the sunset. It's not exactly a secret so we had to jockey for position with dozens of other oglers, but fortunately it was easy to get unobstructed views. The star of the show is Capitol Butte, one of the tallest formations that stands out dramatically in the valley. It's one of the best places to see the layering of white Coconino sandstone over the iron-containing red Schnebly Hill sandstone. The softer, younger white sandstone is much more vulnerable to erosion than the red which results in fascinating shapes such as Bell Rock on the western end of the butte and Coffee Pot Rock on the eastern end. We didn't have time to wait for the sun to drop below the rocks but it was very rewarding to see the views and the changing illumination of the stone as the light broke through gaps in the clouds.

We returned to TlaquePaque for dinner at René, which was very atmospheric but didn't live up to the stellar reviews in terms of the food. Nothing was really off, but for the prices we expected a little more than sides of string beans and mashed potatoes with every entree. The kids had never seen an artichoke served whole before and it was entertaining to teach them how to drag the edible part off the end of the leaf with their teeth. I was reminded of a case from our home town of Miami a few years back where a diner sued a restaurant after developing a bowel obstruction from devouring the indigestible leaves of an artichoke he had been served, apparently without being provided instructions on how to consume it.

After a respite from the heat in northern Arizona we were back to dealing with three digit highs in Sedona. I was determined that we would do our first hike among the red rocks, but the trail had to be chosen carefully. Fortunately the ladies at the bookstore had recommended the Fay Canyon Trail which was already on my list of options. They advised me it was relatively short and shady but still recommended we be back at our car by eight in the morning. I knew that wasn't going to be feasible but I figured if we got started at eight we could be back before ten when the temperature was still in the low nineties. The parking lot at the trailhead was already three quarters full at a quarter to eight. The outward walk was comfortable and fairly shady, and the cliffs and striated formations surrounding us were amazing.

After about a mile the trail ended at an overhang of red rock that looked like it had been hacked into a half-moon shape with a giant axe. We climbed about halfway up the rock and basked in the satisfaction of completing the outward leg of the hike. I followed some other hikers around the back of the formation and I could see it was possible to penetrate deeper into the canyon, but the official trail had ended and I didn't want to scramble with the kids around the base of the rock surrounded by dense thickets of prickly pear. It was clear that the heat was on its way to becoming intense and we still had to retrace our steps a mile back to the parking lot.

We had a really solid lunch at a restaurant in Uptown called Cowboy Club which served exotic meats like rattlesnake sausages and elk chops. Afterwards we took another shot at the swimming hole and once again were turned away at the parking lot. It seemed that some planning would be needed if we ever wanted to take a swim in Sedona. We decided to escape the midday heat instead at the Sedona Arts Center. A large gallery displayed the work of several local artists and we found a lot of it very appealing, especially the pottery. Even Mei Ling who complains a lot about my art purchases insisted on buying a colorful ceramic vessel which had to be carefully packaged and stored carefully in the trunk of our SUV.

We were turned away once again on our third attempt to park at Grasshopper Point, so it was clear we had to change strategy. There was parking along the side of 89A in stretches but there was only the side of the highway to walk along and the cars were rounding the curves way too fast for the kids to be safe. I dropped Mei Ling and the kids off at the parking lot and drove off to try my luck at the roadside. I actually found a perfectly sized space not too far off fairly quickly and I was already beginning my walk when Mei Ling called. A spot had opened up in the lot and she'd convinced the attendant to save it for me. Have I mentioned yet that Mei Ling is a Jedi? By that point I almost preferred to walk the rest of the way rather than get back in the car again, but then we would have had to split up again at the end while I retrieved the car. So I abandoned my excellent parking spot and met my family at the lot.

On one side of the creek was a jumble of dirt and boulders that people were relaxing and eating on as best they could. On the other was a tall red rock cliff with natural shelves created by uneven erosion of the different layers. People were climbing up on the rock shelves and jumping or diving into water that didn't look particularly deep. Some of the more reckless folks seemed to be trying to one up each other by jumping from higher and higher shelves, sometimes barely clearing the rocky projections underneath them. Hopefully they had experience with that spot and it wasn't as dangerous as it looked, although we watched one small boy who clearly couldn't swim nearly drown right in front of his mother after taking his jump. Cleo was urging me to take her to the cliff and I had no problem answering her with a hard no. They still had fun playing in the shallows although it was quite uncomfortable walking on the boulders on the creek bed in bare feet.

In the afternoon we spent some time exploring the roads that connect the different areas of Sedona. On Highway 179 we saw a turnoff to a promising overlook. We made the short climb up the hill and found ourselves alone with beautiful views of a famous formation called Cathedral Rock. Neither one of us is particularly mystical but it was easy to see from the majestic symmetry of the formation why many consider it to be a spiritual vortex.

We stopped off back at the Airbnb to get changed for dinner and met our host filling up his pool. He was originally from Colombia and had three small kids of his own. We chatted for a while about our visit to Cartagena when Mei Ling was pregnant with Cleo and the kids got to know each other. One of the things I like best about Airbnb is how it brings us closer to the local community than a hotel in a commercial district.

We had made a dinner reservation in a nearby town called Jerome that was famous for copper and gold mining and bawdy nightlife a century ago and then became a ghost town once the metal deposits were exhausted. In recent years it has been reborn as an artists community and subsequently developed a small tourist industry of boutiques, wine bars and restaurants. I wasn't expecting anything particularly memorable but it would be a change from the Sedona vibe that we had become well-accustomed to. The red rocks soon disappeared and for most of the way it was an ordinary highway drive with the typical flat Arizona landscape. Suddenly 89A took a sharp turn and we embarked on a series of hairpin loops up a steep hillside. We entered a town full of interesting, historical houses and colorful storefronts with signs advertising galleries and wine tastings. This was clearly no average small town. I didn't want to go straight to the restaurant at the top of the mountain and miss out on seeing the town so we found a small lot to park in. We were immediately struck by Jerome's unique atmosphere. It was far from the first redeveloped frontier town that we'd seen but the most distinctive aspect was the way it spilled down a steep hillside like a southern European city. The place I was immediately reminded of was Taormina, Sicily although it was obviously a completely different culture. Main Street passed right along the edge of the mountain and provided excellent opportunities to take in the view of the surrounding countryside.

Jerome packs a huge amount of historic boutique hotels, art and antique galleries, and stylish homes into just a few blocks at the center of town. It was a very enjoyable place to explore before we began the climb up to the Jerome Grand Hotel for dinner. The town was full of captivating little oddities such as decayed and ruined buildings that had been converted into art installations. At one spot we could look down at the basement of a building that no longer existed where bathroom fixtures and an old outhouse were now inexplicably displayed. The floor glittered with coins that had been tossed towards two toilet bowls, most of them missing the mark.

Fortunately there were a couple of pedestrian shortcuts that reduced the distance to the hotel but it was still a solid walk. We took a short break at a very pleasant playground and admired some beautifully-landscaped homes before we finally arrived.

The restaurant at the Jerome Grand Hotel is named Asylum as the entire building was once a hospital that also included what was then known as a lunatic asylum. A steep, cracked outside staircase ascended to the second floor of the hotel where an elegant and spacious dining room overlooked the mountainside from an ever higher vantage point than we had experienced previously. The food was the best we had tasted since Mizumi in Las Vegas a week earlier and the kids insisted on having their new favorite vegetable, a boiled artichoke, for the second night in a row. We ordered two chocolate desserts and were overwhelmed when each was double the size we had expected. The excellent meal together with the remarkable and picturesque town had made this the most enjoyable and memorable evening so far, and I still look back on Jerome as one of the top experiences of the entire journey.

We stopped once more in the playground on the way back down to the car for the kids to burn off some chocolate energy on the tall slide. On the way back we detoured through another well-regarded small town called Cottonwood. A few blocks on Main Street were packed with busy restaurants and bars but there was no compelling reason to stop after we'd already stuffed ourselves. Cottonwood was quite flat in contrast to the three-dimensional Jerome and we felt certain we had chosen the superior destination to explore. Jerome had been a fitting conclusion to an amazing two day stay in Sedona.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:37 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip sedona family_travel jerome tony_friedman family_travel_blog grasshopper_point sedona_arts_center fay_canyon_trail

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