Beyond the bounds of Sedona.
Dawn comes slowly to Boynton Canyon. The sky is clear, but the air is still cool, thanks to the red sandstone walls that keep the sun's rays from reaching the canyon floor for hours after morning's first light.
A trail runs through the canyon, alongside and occasionally across a creek. It's a flat and soft path, with only a few rocks scattered in the red sand - almost dust - that has eroded from the cliffsides. Every so often, if just for an instant, the temperature rises a few degrees as sun-warmed breezes blow through from above.
Boulders line the trail in places. Some are red - fallen chunks of the sandstone cliff. Others are gray limestone, frosted with sage-colored lichens. Several boulders have tumbled into a short serpentine pattern that leads the eye to a juniper, whose peeling bark of dusty violet exposes patches of mahogany-colored wood underneath. The juniper's twin trunks rise into the sky, each diverging slightly from its partner's path. And there, smack between the treetops, floats a crescent moon in a pale sky not yet ripened to high-desert cobalt.
The morning hadn't promised perfection. But there it was.
It shouldn't have been such a surprise, not in Sedona, the Arizona resort town 114 miles north of Phoenix where transcendent experiences are offered as part of the American plan. Sedona has good vibes. Literally. The area is said to be riddled with spiritually charged vortices, places with high concentrations of mystical energy that emanates from deep within the earth. These power spots have drawn people from all over the world, turning Sedona into a New Age mecca.
One would expect the place to be crawling with vortejanos, but the true believers are considerably outnumbered by pilgrims here for the day to gawk at Sedona's awesome beauty. Accordingly, and annoyingly, busloads of tourists regularly rumble through the crossroads at State Highway 179 and U.S. 89A. Known locally as the Y, it's the closest thing Sedona has to a downtown.
In fact, for all the New Age hype, what you mostly find in Sedona and the nearby Verde Valley are vortices of the Old and Ancient West, although in a few places the distinctions blur. South of town, for example, is Montezuma Well, a spot the Yavapai and the Tonto Apaches believe to be the source of life, lending a bit of credence, perhaps, to the vortex talk.
IN THE BEGINNING
Sedona's geologic history is no less compelling. Today, the desert landscape here is roughly 4,000 feet above sea level, but during the last 300 million years or so, the terrain was periodically inundated by oceans before being pushed skyward. It's easy to read all this in the eroded cliff faces. The prominent top layers are basalt from lava flows, which cap compressed deposits of marine life, revealed as whitish-gray limestone bands. Below these layers of rock is Coconino sandstone, the distinctive white strip just above the successive, and predominant, layers of red rock for which Sedona is so famous. At the foot of the cliffs is more limestone.
The first people to be awed by all this uplifting and inundation were the Native Americans, who have lived in the area for at least 10,000 years. West of Sedona off U.S. 89A are two fine cliff dwellings, called Honanki and Palatki, built between 1150 and 1300. On the ceilings you can still see the soot from fires, and in the alcoves are pictographs, though they've been marred in places by contemporary vandals. Larger sites dating from 1300 to 1400 are at Tuzigoot and Montezuma Castle national monuments.
The Montezuma references are actually misnomers, dating from a time when it was assumed that the ruins in the Southwest had been built by the Aztecs. Today the speculation is that the Sinagua - contemporaries of the Anasazi - built the monuments.
Native lore, of course, offers different explanations. The limestone sink of Montezuma Well is considered the site where the first humans emerged from the underworld. The collapsed cavern is almost perfectly round, with deep blue water at its center, and surrounded by a ring of cliffs. It's easy to see how this landmark took on a spiritual role.
In an eerie echo of the area's actual geologic history, another legend describes a great flood. According to the tale, a young girl was placed in a log to keep her from drowning. She eventually washed up in Boynton Canyon, and later in the story, her grandson slew giant monsters that lived in the area.
It is said the remains of the monsters now form the rock of Sedona. Their blood colors it red.
SECOND CHANCE IN JEROME
Blood stained the Verde Valley landscape again after gold was discovered in central Arizona in 1863. Farmers came to the rich, well-watered valley to grow food for the miners, as well as for the city slickers in the burgeoning territorial capital at Prescott.
All this activity disrupted the traditional nomadic food-gathering ways of the Yavapai and the Tonto Apaches. The Apaches in particular began raiding settlements, the army was brought in to protect the settlers, and a series of battles and massacres ended in the mid-1870s with the Native Americans forceably removed to reservations.
Gold may have fired the imagination, but copper paid the bills. About 30 miles southwest of Sedona is the 19th-century, Western equivalent of a cliff dwelling, the historic mining city of Jerome. Mining began here in the late 1870s - at the time, the strikes near Jerome were the largest finds of high-grade copper in the United States.
In 1929, the town's population had reached 15,000, but after the last mine closed, in 1953, the population plunged to a scant 100 residents. During the 1960s, hippies moved into the mostly abandoned vintage buildings, and from those counterculture roots Jerome evolved into an arts center. One of the best art stops here is the Old Mingus High School Art Center on U.S. 89A as you come into town. Other good choices include the 20,000-square-foot Anderson/Mandette Gallery and the Don Bassett Studio. Even the town's mining history has a museum. It's not New Age, just New West.
Tourism has given Jerome a second shot, but about 8 miles west of town a more traditional West survives. We find it near a trailhead into the Woodchute Wilderness, where the distinctive baying of hunting hounds breaks the silence. A late-afternoon breeze carries the scent of horses. Parked at the trailhead are three mountain-lion hunters resting up after the day's effort.
It's a brief but politically charged conversation, packed with the wiles of the mountain lion, the ways of Californians, and the whys of hunting. The hunters have had no luck, but warn of signs of mountain lions, up ahead on the trail. "Look big. And don't run away," they advise.
The trail climbs for about a mile to a broad overlook on a knoll. The view from this 7,600-foot perch takes in the barren high-desert slopes to the southwest, the broad Verde Valley to the southeast, and the Mogollon Rim, which forms a great black-rock wall to the east.
Even though the overlook offers spectacular late-afternoon views to the west, from here look east to best experience the sunset, watching it color the valley and the cliffsides in ever-deepening shades of red. And the hunters were right. Fresh mountain-lion tracks press cleanly into the dirt. If there are power spots, then this is one.
RELATED ARTICLE: SEDONA SOJOURNS
The drive up Oak Creek Canyon (U.S. Highway 89A) toward Flagstaff is a natural, as are the vortex sites of Airport Mesa, Bell Rock, and Cathedral Rock. We've concentrated our explorations, though, on natural features that don't get as much attention (or traffic). Area code is 520 unless otherwise specified.
WHERE TO STAY & EAT
Downtown Sedona, such as it is, ain't no Santa Fe, and all the red-rock-colored McDonald's in the world (with teal green arches, no less) won't change that. Still, Sedona is the logical base for exploring the roads to Camp Verde, Jerome, and points red.
Precisely 3 1/2 miles north of the Y on U.S. 89A is Briar Patch Inn (282-2342). Some of its rustic cabins are right along the creek. Breakfast buffet only; rooms from $135 to $225. The larger L'Auberge de Sedona (301 L'Auberge Lane; 800/272-6777) offers both creekside cottages and a main lodge. Rates from $130 to $385. Enchantment Resort (525 Boynton Canyon Rd.; 800/826-4180), is at the mouth of Boynton Canyon; rates from $225 to $565.
Even if you don't plan to stay at L'Auberge, you should eat at one of its three restaurants. Men must wear jackets at dinner at L'Auberge Restaurant, but Terrace on the Creek is less formal (282-1667 for both).
SOUTH OF SEDONA
Your first landmark as you drive toward Sedona up Interstate 17 from Phoenix is Camp Verde, home to Fort Verde State Historic Park (567-3275). A few miles north is Montezuma Castle National Monument ($2 admission; 567-3322). Its centerpiece is a well-preserved Sinagua cliff dwelling. More impressive, and less visited, is the limestone sink-hole at Montezuma Well, II miles to the north of Camp Verde.
One of the classic Sedona experiences is to drive up the dirt Schnebly Hill Road off State 179.
As for hiking, there's an embarrassment of choices. Many of the trailheads to the best hikes are reached by dirt roads, but road conditions vary, so call the forest service at 282-4119 before heading out.
Three of the easiest trails are off paved Dry Creek Road (Forest Road, or FR, 152C), which runs north of U.S. 89A about 3 miles west of the Y. To reach Boynton Canyon, follow Dry Creek for about 4 1/2 miles to a T-junction, then turn right to the parking area and trailhead.
For Fay Canyon, follow the same directions but turn left at the T, and drive about 1/2 mile to a parking area. The trail goes about 3/4 mile to the canyon head.
The trail to Vultee Arch is more difficult to reach. Drive about 2 miles up Dry Creek, then turn right up dirt FR 152, and go another 4 1/3 miles to the trailhead. The 3.4-mile round trip leads to a sandstone bench, with views toward the natural arch.
THE ROAD TO JEROME
About 9 1/2 miles west of the Y, on the way to Jerome, you'll pass turnoffs for Honanki and Palatki, two important Sinagua sites. To reach Honanki, follow FR 525 north from U.S. 89A for about 9 1/4 bumpy miles. You'll pass a sign and cattle guard at Loy Canyon about 3/4 mile before you reach the trail to Honanki, which is not marked. Honanki is on the right, less than 1/2 mile from the road.
For Palatki, drive up FR 525 for 6 miles to FR 795, and turn right. Drive another 1 3/4 miles to reach the parking area and trailhead for the short walk to the 800-year-old ruins.
Farther west, at Cottonwood, take Historic Highway 89A. This route goes to Clarkdale, home base for one of this part of Arizona's great attractions, a 4-hour ride on the Verde River Canyon Railroad. Tickets start at $34.95 for adults. For reservations, call (800) 293-7245.
Between Cottonwood and Clarkdale is Tuzigoot National Monument ($2; 634-5564), another large Sinagua pueblo.
About 8 miles west of Jerome off U.S. 89A is Potato Patch Campground, site of a trailhead into the Woodchute Wilderness. Just 1/4 mile into the campground, turn left, and drive to the right side of the parking lot and a gate, beyond which is a dirt road. Park, and walk up the road for about a mile, passing a restored meadow area, until you see a sign for the trailhead on the right. Squeeze around the fence and you're on the trail. An overlook is about a mile away, and the top of Woodchute Mountain is 2 miles past that.
At The Worm Book & Music Store (207 N. Highway 89A; 282-3471), pick up Stephan M. Block's concise Seven Spectacular Hikes (Kokopelli Press, Sedona, 1991; $3.95), Next door is the Sedona-Oak Creek Canyon Chamber of Commerce (800/288-7336). You can also get information on-line at http://www.sedona.net.