Nature's splendor and spiritual sites await travelers to northern Arizona
By Alex Wilson 08/22/2013
Grand Canyon National Park and Sedona are less than a day’s drive from Ventura County, but offer a vast array of natural and cultural attractions. Arizona is known for deserts and cactus, but as my wife, Dawn, and I learned during a recent road trip, areas closer to Flagstaff than Phoenix feature pine-covered mountains and rivers rushing through spectacular red rock canyons.
We decided to camp inside the park, knowing it was visited by around 5 million people annually. We expected to share amazing vistas with throngs of summer tourists, but found a quiet tree-shaded campsite with ample distance from neighbors at Mather Campground.
We booked a site on a far edge of the large campground six months in advance because spaces fill quickly during summer. I discovered that the Pine Loop doesn’t allow recreational vehicles or generators, so people in tents, like us, could feel closer to nature. Majestic elk with huge antlers grazed nearby, and birds fluttered above.
Views from the south rim were breathtaking. Colorfully striped rock formations surrounded the Colorado River far below for countless miles. Although some walkways near hotels and gift shops were populated by people from across the globe, the park is so enormous that short strolls offered solitude and silence.
We made plans to return during a cooler time of the year for a backpacking trip or mule ride to the bottom of the canyon and back, but were content with mostly hiking along the edge this time. We also learned that a rafting trip like the one made by legendary explorer John Wesley Powell in 1869 might be one of the best ways to experience the canyon on a future adventure.
A shuttle bus provides access to many overlooks that are closed to private vehicles along Hermit Road during the summer. There are opportunities for people of any physical condition or special needs to experience the park’s grandeur using this service. We rode to the last stop at an interesting, century-old structure called Hermit’s Rest, built to resemble a miner’s cabin, and hiked back to more populated parts of the park while gazing over numerous cliffs.
The park’s museums and historic buildings, including El Tovar Hotel and Desert View Watchtower, were also well worth checking out.
A reasonably short, scenic drive to Sedona led to a unique and relaxing region, which allowed us to explore connections between spiritual consciousness and human history amid magically beautiful landscapes.
We scrambled up steep Cathedral Rock, one of Sedona’s most famous and photographed sandstone formations, and a spot promoted as a spiritual energy vortex. We spent hours in quiet meditation in the shade of a towering cliff near some cactus, and marveled at sweeping views of surrounding valleys.
Another highlight was a Pink Jeep Tour in a specially designed off-road vehicle seating nine passengers. These vehicles are frequently spotted across the region. Some excursions take hair-raising routes up and down steep terrain, but we opted for the most historic Ancient Ruins Tour, providing access to Sinaguan cliff dwellings where the first inhabitants lived hundreds of years ago.
Expert guides helped us understand numerous examples of fascinating rock art and the lives of people who lived at the Honanki Heritage Site. We also spotted interesting wildlife scurrying through the brush, including javelinas resembling wild pigs.
An uplifting end to our stay in Sedona involved a visit to Amitabha Stupa, a sacred Buddhist shrine enlightening to people of any faith. We silently walked around the 36-foot-tall structure amid crystals others had left behind as offerings.