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SEEING RED SEDONA HAS BEAUTIFUL BACKDROPS, METAPHYSICAL SIGNIFICANCE GREAT SHOPPING...AND A LOT OF VISITORS.

Byline: Eric Noland Travel Editor

SEDONA, Ariz. - The music was ethereal. And it seemed to be emanating from the base of a cliff, just behind those trees over there. The song was being coaxed from a wood flute, and occasionally one note would sound like the wind, another the mournful cry of a bird in distress.

Greg Bressani, a Coconino National Forest ranger, was providing this impromptu concert as he stood by a wall of the Palatki Ruins. The plaintive melody beckoned us, urged us up the narrow, switch-backing path. After rounding the last bend, we beheld the crumbling remains of a cliff dwelling built by Sinagua Indians in about A.D. 1100. There were walls, windows and low doorways. Bressani provided details of their history, then made sure that the mournful tones of his flute accompanied us back down the path.

The experience served as a metaphor for the visitor's lot in Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon: Memorable encounters can be had in this wondrous region of majestic buttes and lush canyons just south of Flagstaff, but sometimes you have to go to great lengths, make a break from the crowd or be just plain lucky to find them.

It is a region of considerable appeal. The red-rock areas are not despoiled by ease of access, interlaced as they are by rough back roads and hiking trails. Oak Creek beckons, particularly in hot weather, allowing visitors to slide through a rock trough or to sun themselves like lizards on natural sandstone benches along its banks. The light of sunrise or sunset causes rock spires and buttes to fire brilliantly. The locally made arts and crafts displayed in various galleries - particularly the works of the Navajo - are exceptional. And New Agers will have you believe it is a deeply spiritual place, with the Earth's energy oozing from various vortexes ... or some such thing.

But to maximize your experience here, you have to be resourceful, flexible and adventurous. Otherwise you'll find you have a great deal of company in any endeavor you undertake.

Over the past 15 or so years, Sedona (a name that generally refers to a town, the red-rocks area and Oak Creek Canyon) has become one of the most popular destinations in the Southwest. Not only has its annual visitation climbed to about 4 million, but many folks have decided to come back and send down roots; the greater Sedona population, at 5,319 in 1980, more than tripled over the next 20 years.

Not only that, but habitation and tourist services are compressed along two highways (179 and 89A) that form a Y in the heart of the region. Only narrow strips of private land stretch out along those roads, with national forest land engulfing the remainder. Turn down a side street and you're likely to travel only a block or two before it dead-ends at rugged wilderness.

Commerce is concentrated along the highway, and at some peak times you'll find yourself looking for businesses on the side of the road in the direction you're traveling, so as not to have to cross the endless stream of oncoming traffic. When you venture out into the wilds, you might notice that the intrusive drone of sightseeing planes and helicopters overhead is a near-constant companion.

Jeep tours proliferate, and one popular company seeks to stand out by painting its vehicles hot pink. It'll stop your heart to crest a hill on a dusty back road and be confronted by one of those barreling toward you. Adventure Barbie?

Forest rangers and candid merchants will tell you that the busiest seasons of the year are March through the first part of April and mid-October to mid-November. Summer will see its share of heatstroke refugees from Phoenix (Sedona is at 4,500 feet of elevation, and the upper reaches of Oak Creek Canyon climb to about 6,400 feet), but summer is also marked by heavy thunderstorms. The quietest times are January and February, when you'll brace for daytime temperatures in the 40s or 50s.

Even if your visit coincides with a high season, there are ways to beat the crowds and enjoy the area's splendors, though. To begin with, get started early in the morning for any sightseeing trek, whether you'll be traveling by wheel or foot. And ask the rangers about some of the less heavily traveled scenic areas. Sedona's wilderness areas are crisscrossed with corduroy dirt roads, and trails link up with those, so your ability to get off on your own will be in direct proportion to the amount of back-road teeth-rattling you can endure.

We traveled seven miles on one of these roads to reach the Palatki Ruins, and even at that found plenty of company. Bressani said it's not unusual for the Forest Service to log 300 visitors per day to the ruins during spring break. Currently, visitors are allowed to crawl through the doorways and walk around in the tiny rooms of the ancient cliff dwelling, but another ranger privately revealed that the policy is being reevaluated because of the cumulative damage of this stampede.

``Parents come up here and just let their kids run wild over these ruins,'' said Bressani. ``They treat it like a jungle gym. This isn't Disneyland.''

To another faction of visitors - metaphysical pilgrims - the theme-park analogy probably fits the Sedona area. The town's Center for the New Age maintains that the region is home to four vortexes - ``swirling centers of subtle energy coming out from the surface of the Earth,'' according to its publicity materials. This energy ``resonates with and strengthens the Inner Being of each person that comes within about a quarter- to a half-mile of it.''

O ... K.

Not surprisingly, this special science attracts practitioners from a wide range of disciplines. Stop by the Crystal Castle (next door to the Center for the New Age) and peruse the bulletin board out front for a random sampling.

Kavitaa will be conducting an experiential workshop, wherein participants can experience the energy of the signs and planets while sitting in the circle of the zodiac. Ronni Hall is an animal communicator (is that licensed by the state?) who will be conducting a discussion on animal afterlife and after-death communication with your departed pets. The Sedona Drumming Circle gathers regularly to ``send our prayers for world peace into the universe on the heartbeat of the drum.''

Heretics seeking something a little more tangible should head for the shops of Sedona. There, they might find their spirits moved just as profoundly by the quality of the arts and crafts available.

As we were admiring the richly intricate wares at Garland's Navajo Rugs, an elderly Indian woman arrived holding a wrapped bundle. She was greeted warmly by the proprietor, then sat patiently until he had time to look at the blanket she had woven. A sister establishment, Garland's Indian Jewelry in Oak Creek Canyon, features a dazzling array of silver and turquoise adornments, many of them antique.

Another excellent shopping option is Tlaquepaque, a retail area built to resemble an old Spanish village - with narrow alleys, cobblestones, fountains, decorative tile and lacy wrought-ironwork. Its stores display fine arts and crafts featuring the use of metal, wood, glass, ceramics. At Eisenart Innovations, we couldn't resist an item of glass art that now hangs from a sunny window frame and casts subtle blue and green rays.

The retail enclave, which also serves up food and drink in comfortable (El Rincon, Oak Creek Brewery) and elegant (Rene) settings, is obviously aimed at visitors, but it was designed with a great deal of taste and style. Buildings were constructed around massive, mature sycamore trees, for example, which provide shade and a sense of maturity.

The most indelible memories you'll take home from Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon, however, will likely be logged a good distance from the concentrations of civilization.

That, certainly, was our experience: a glorious sunset observed from the base of Cathedral Rock, a great blue heron deliberately unfolding into flight when surprised early one morning in Oak Creek, the dramatic rock faces deep in Boynton Canyon ... and, of course, the strains of a wood flute spilling out of a cliff alcove that sustained life four centuries before Columbus set sail.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Sedona, Ariz., is a 107-mile drive north from Phoenix via Interstate 17 and Highway 179. It is 25 miles south from Flagstaff via Highway 89A.

RED ROCK COUNTRY: It's permissible to drive through the scenic areas of Coconino National Forest around Sedona, but if you plan to stop your vehicle for any duration - to take a hike, to take a picture, to eat lunch - you'll be required to display a Red Rock Pass. It costs $5 daily, $15 weekly, and is available at any of four gateway visitor centers in the region (Highway 179 in the Village of Oak Creek, Highway 89A west of Sedona, Highway 89A north of Sedona in Oak Creek Canyon, and in Uptown Sedona, near the Y formed by highways 89A and 179). Information: (928) 282-4119; www.redrockcountry.org.

INFORMATION: Details on activities, sightseeing, lodging and dining - with links to national forest and state park entities - is available at www.visitsedona.com. The Sedona-Oak Creek Canyon Chamber of Commerce can be reached at (800) 288-7336.

CAPTION(S):

7 photos, box, map

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) The Palatki Ruins archaeological site gleams in the late-afternoon sun. A bicyclist circles Bell Rock, top left.

(3 -- 4 -- color) Sedona is well-known for the quality of its retail goods - notably at Garlands's Indian Jewelry, far left - as well as its strong New Age presence, left.

(5) Visitors may walk through ancient doorways into the Palatki Ruins, but rangers, concerned about high visitor numbers, may soon declare that visitors are permitted to look but not touch.

(6) There is an abundant stock of native crafts displayed at Garland's Navajo Rugs in Sedona.

(7) A popular attraction with youngsters is Slide Rock State Park in Oak Creek Canyon, ideal for soaking up sun.

Eric Noland/Travel Editor

Box:

IF YOU GO (see text)

Map:

ARIZONA'S RED ROCK COUNTRY
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Title Annotation:Travel
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 5, 2002
Words:1686
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