Sedona Charms Visitors with Red Rock Vistas, Heartfelt Art and Decadent Dining, Arizona Highways

This article originally appeared in the June 2001 issue of Arizona Highways.

By Lori DeBoer

Sometimes a town charms a visitor so thoroughly that an otherwise level-headed tourist becomes a wistful interloper; given to sighing and memorizing street maps like love poems. I succumbed to such a spell during a summer weekend I spent in the comely community of Sedona with my husband and his parents. Its small-town friendliness not only resembled the cozy communities of my childhood, it included all of the culture the grownup me desires: original art, fine restaurants, eclectic shops, compelling history, technicolor scenery and enough interesting characters to fill a book.

I suppose I’m not the only one of the town’s four million visitors a year who, at trip’s end, reluctantly returns to life in a lackluster suburb. Some tourists actually act on their feelings and spend their days house hunting. The locals have a name for this behavior: Red Rock Fever.
“We lose a lot of guests because they decide to move here,” says Linda Steele, proprietor, with husband, John, of the Territorial House Inn, a bed and breakfast whose upscale cowboy décor fits guests like a pair of custom-made boots. “That is one of the problems of doing this type of business in Sedona.” One woman became a regular only to oversee the construction of her new house.

Perhaps a town named after a woman—pioneer Sedona Schnebly—can’t but break hearts. For some, Sedona’s wiles spring from its winsome vistas, a grace apparent on our initial drive through the tall red rocks that clasp the town like the setting around a jewel. I could see why movie producers filmed more than 60 Western movies here, beginning with an adaptation of Zane Grey’s novel, “Call of the Canyon,” in 1923.
Sedona’s muse is insistent. Surrealistic painter Max Ernst heard the call in 1950. In 1965, local talent founded the Cowboy Artists of America at a restaurant now dubbed the Cowboy Corral. Today, roughly 200 artists work and exhibit in Sedona. Galleries, featuring everything from traditional woven rugs to modern glass art, lined the main road into town. A larger-than-life horse, sculpted from scrap metal, nearly ambled into our path.

At one gallery, we met Robert Shields, the wunderkind mime known for the popular 1970s television show, “Shields and Yarnell.” He moved to Sedona to nurture his artistry away from the soul-sucking entertainment industry. “Being a potter, I was immediately taken with the rocks looking like pots and stuff and stoneware,” he recalled. “It took me on a wild ride.” His Sedona stores include the Robert Shields Design Studio, whose colorful inventory of jewelry, whimsical figures and paintings put me in mind of an aftermath of a paint explosion in a toy factory.

Leaving there, I committed the worst sort of nostalgia—inventing a fake childhood ritual—when I dragged my husband and in-laws into a candy store. I couldn’t help it: an intoxicating caramel and chocolate aroma wafted from the Sedona Fudge Factory, fully formed from the pages of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. Caramel-clad apples paraded like soldiers in a window, behind which a teenager stirred a bewitching brew of tan goo in a copper-clad cauldron. I stood in line behind Dale Haines of Mesa, who lamented that the women in his life–originally from the area–are sweet on the shop’s offerings.

“This is about the only thing my wife and mother-in-law talk about,” he said.

“Is the fudge good?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’ll tell you after I have some.”

He didn’t stick around to offer me a verdict, but a sugar rush is best experienced first-hand and the luscious Amaretto fudge provided an ample sweet fix. I travel with my tongue, having learned that food reveals a region’s essence and culture. In this respect, Sedona offers a treasure trove. At L’Auberge de Sedona, a French-styled restaurant and inn, we indulged in seafood, quiche and rich desserts, while we lingered on a terrace shaded by leafy oak trees and watched ducks primp in nearby Oak Creek.
Later that evening, we feasted on dinner at the Heartline Café, where owner-cum-chef Charles Cline served up entrees like Pecan-Crusted Trout (locally caught) in artful presentations that looked too good to eat.

In between eating, we shopped. If Coronado had discovered the Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, styled after a community in Mexico, he would have stopped looking for the Seven Cities of Gold. My in-laws bought us a rainbow-colored goblet at the Kuivato Gallery, which specializes in studio glass art. At the Mountain Trail Galleries, we watched artists Ken Rowe and Susan Kliewer breathe life into clay, from which they’ll cast bronze sculptures. Kliewer sculpted the bronze portrait of Sedona Schnebly that stands in front of the city library.

That evening, I wanted to catch a show—“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” by the troupe Shakespeare 2000–at the new $9 million Sedona Cultural Park, which includes an outdoor amphitheater, natural preserve and arts education center. Unfortunately, nature had other plans. Thunder and lightning drowned the musician’s warm up and the rain spattered the audience. An usher handed us paper towels to dry our chairs, but less hardy souls fled.

Someone seated behind us heckled the deserters. “The rain should stop soon, why are you so pessimistic? Your glasses are half empty!”

“Not for long,” quipped a soggy sufferer.

Our comic proved right. We receive a literal rain check for another performance and headed for a nightcap at Steaks and Sticks, a pub and pool hall, before retreating to the Sky Ranch Lodge for the night, whose mesa-top location near the Sedona airport offers a perfect place for watching both birds and planes.

On the way to breakfast the next morning, we spotted a flock of tourists scrambling up a hill off Airport Road. Our map marked this spot as the most accessible of Sedona’s natural electromagnetic centers, or vortexes, which New Age spiritualists and alternative healers believe endow the red rock region with positive energy.

We gained a unique view of Sedona’s sandstone formations on an excursion with Pink Jeep Tours—that is, during several points our noses pointed straight down at the rocks–as our jeep lurched down steep, rock staircases. Pink Jeep Tours is the oldest such touring outfit in Sedona and, in addition to the ride of a lifetime, guide Michele Jones regaled us with tidbits of information about the area’s plants and geology. We learned that the sandstone around the town is called Coconino Sandstone and the vivid color stems from iron oxides. A lighter band, called Fort Apache Limestone, indicates where the ocean floor once hung out.

“We call it the bathtub ring of Sedona, because it runs all the way around us,” said Jones. “About 240 million years ago, this was all flat, then the ocean came in and receded, leaving these rocks.”

We learned even more at the Sedona Historical Museum, built originally in 1930 as the home of Walter and Ruth Jordan. Tucked on what remains of their large apple orchard, the house’s knotty pine interior provided a cheerful backdrop and the kitchen seemed caught in a time warp. The knowledgeable assortment of volunteers each shared their “how I came to Sedona” story.

kindly whisked my in-laws on their own special tour, leaving my husband and I to stroll hand-in-hand through the galleries. We soaked up stories about life in Sedona from the1870s to the 1940s, which including filmmaking, cowboying, and apple harvesting. We reconvened with my husband’s parents in a nearby building, where Darlene Wills, president of the Sedona Historical Society, fired up the 40-foot-long apple-processing machine, which clacked along noisily as it sorted baseballs and softballs by size.

By late afternoon, we had nearly run out of weekend, but we decided to squish one more item into our itinerary even though it meant driving home at midnight. So many people had praised our rained-out-musical that we wanted to stay and see if the rain stayed away.

As a small-town girl, I’m always amazed to see people at big-city events congregate nervously in tight knots with those they already know. In contrast, when we returned to the Sedona Cultural Park for the second night in a row, several people we’d only met that weekend chatted with us. The nearness of the stage made us feel like part of the production and the actors even invited us to share their shelter when rain flurries resumed. We huddled together near the footlights, joking with strangers, before the rain subsided enough for us venture back. After the show ended, a man to my right said, “You folks are coming to our opening night party, aren’t you?”

We couldn’t stay. Our obligations propelled us home to the Valley to water plants, feed our pet and go to work. My husband squeezed my hand and smiled in sympathy. “I’m sorry we can’t move here,” he whispered. I smiled back. Maybe someday—when I write my best-selling novel—we’ll retire early and make our home among the Sedona’s enchanting red rocks. Until then, we’ll savor its spell on weekend visits.

When You Go

Location: 120 miles north of Phoenix.

Weather: Average temperature in April: high 72 degrees F; low, 42 degrees.

Lodging: The Territorial House, 65 Piki Drive; (520) 204-2737 or (800) 801-2737. Sky Ranch Lodge, Airport Rd.; (520) 282-6400 or (888) 708-6400.

Restaurants. The Heartline Café, 1610 W. Hwy 89A; (520) 282-0785. L’Auberge de Sedona, 301 L’Auberge Lane; (520) 282-1661.

Attractions: Robert Shields Design, 181 Hwy. 179, at the “Y”; (520) 204-2123. The Sedona Fudge Factory, 257 North Hwy. 89A, (520) 282-1044 or (800) 845-3303; Sedona Cultural Park, 250 Cultural Park Place; (520) 282-0747 or (800) 780-ARTS. Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, Hwy. 179 at the bridge; (520) 282-4838. Pink Jeep Tours, 204 N. Hwy. 89A; (520) 282-9000. Sedona Heritage Museum, 735 Jordan Road, Sedona Historical Park; (520) 282-7038.

Events: Sedona International Film Festival, March 2-4. Sedona Jazz on the Rocks Festival, September 21-23. For more information, call the chamber (listed below). (NOTE: BOTH CONFIRMED 2001 DATES!)

Additional Information: Sedona-Oak Creek Canyon Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 478; toll free (800) 288-7336 or (520) 282-7722.