Scenic Sedona, vicinity an oasis in the desert

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SEDONA, Ariz. -- Agents typically advise clients planning trips to the western U.S. to include Arizona in their itineraries, and for good reason.

The state is home to some of North Americas most astounding natural wonders, from the colossal chasms of the Grand Canyon to the intricately carved monoliths of Monument Valley and the radiant red rocks of Sedona.

While best known for its vast expanses of desert terrain, depending on where one travels across the state, its possible to encounter snow-covered peaks, emerald forests, raging rivers and azure lakes.

Arizonas abundance of sensory stimuli is combined with superb outdoor sports and recreation, and the states cultural diversity revolves around influential populations of Native Americans and Hispanics and strong links to cowboy culture.

Among the most popular places to visit for FITs, groups and motorcoach tours is Sedona, a resort town of 17,000 situated two hours north of Phoenix.

Blessed with a mild, four-season climate, it sits on high desert terrain (altitude 4,200 feet) in a valley surrounded by a series of surreal rock formations with names such as Coffeepot, Snoopy, Bell and Cathedral.

Each formation bears a striking resemblance to its description, and Cathedral Rock is most closely identified with Sedona, as this mammoth natural landmark -- one of the most photographed sites in the state -- looms high above the town.

Sedona also is known for spectacular sunsets, and last year USA Weekends Annual Travel Report rated Sedonas Red Rock Country as the most beautiful place in America. 

Likely to surpass 4 million visitors in 2004, it has been a tourist draw since the 1920s when it became the backdrop for many Hollywood films.

I recently spent several days exploring Sedona and vicinity, during which I also took a couple of day trips to nearby attractions.

With its scenery, restaurants, art galleries and shopping, Sedona is a destination in itself as well as a base from which to explore the surroundings.   

Back to nature

The bouncy, two-hour Broken Arrow Jeep tour through the backcountry is a good introduction to the area. A Jeep is the perfect vehicle to negotiate the rocky terrain, and at times it felt like a roller-coaster ride as we jostled over boulders and up and down sheer rock faces.

Lovers of outdoor sports flock to Sedona year-round due to its full spectrum of recreational activities. Especially popular are hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding along the network of trails that crisscross Oak Creek Canyon just north of town; other favorite pursuits are golf (two 18 hole championship courses) and tennis.

In the winter, there is skiing and snowboarding a half-hour away at San Francisco Peaks where Mount Humphrey, Arizonas tallest mountain (12,600 feet), rises above a winter sports mecca known as the Arizona Snow Bowl.

Sedona is also adjacent to the Coconino National Forest, which puts on one of Arizonas most brilliant autumn displays. Another major draw is the art scene, as more than 200 artists live and work in Sedona. It now rivals Santa Fe, N.M., as an art center with a full calendar of openings, artist receptions, demonstrations and workshops year-round.

The New Age movement is also very much alive and well in Sedona, as spiritual seekers have found it to be a fine location for healing and emotional rejuvenation. In the mid-1970s, New Agers claimed to have discovered four major electromagnetic energy sources here called vortexes, and today a thriving community of alternative-healing practitioners offer a year-round schedule of workshops and events. There is also a Tibetan Buddhist Center, which is open 24 hours a day, and insomniac visitors are welcome to meditate at 3 a.m.

Day Trips

Several attractions are within an easy days roundtrip drive from Sedona, and among the best are the Verde Canyon Railroad and the former mining town of Jerome. A half-hour from Sedona is Clarkdale, departure point for the Verde Canyon Railroad, which transports passengers on a four-hour ride into the remote wilderness of the Verde River Canyon, past towering basalt, granite and red rock cliffs.

Following this trip, I took another excursion to Jerome, which boomed in the early years of the 20th century when copper was discovered in the hills outside town. By 1920, the population had swelled to 15,000, but eventually boom went to bust and, after the last mine closed in 1953, it became a virtual ghost town.

However, due to the towns magnificent location and rock-bottom real estate values, groups of artists and craftspeople began moving in again in the 1960s. Today the town is prospering as an artists colony, and many of the century-old buildings have been restored.

For more information on Sedona, call (800) 288-7336 or visit www.visitsedona.com.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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