YOU’D HAVE THOUGHT Phoenix might have grown up by now. It is, after all, the sixth-largest city in the U.S., a sprawling economic powerhouse. The population stands now at about 1.5 million, up from 100,000 in 1950. Yet this exuberant expanse of a suburb has at least three distinct “downtowns” and loses three residents for every five people who move in. Although a gawky adolescent in many ways, there’s still something liberating about the place. You can be anyone in Phoenix—or no one at all. Perhaps that’s why it keeps drawing immigrants and real-estate agents and people with dreams—anyone with a need to reinvent himself.
Author Peter Aleshire Photography Dave Lauridsen
DAY TWO / Savor fresh fruits and house-made pastries at The Café in the Biltmore; then start on your day trip to must-see Sedona, 100 miles north of Phoenix on Interstate 17. About 4 million people a year trek to this small, tourist-oriented village surrounded by 1.8 million acres of wilderness. Get an early start to allow side trips to a couple of attractions on the way. History buffs will enjoy Fort Verde State Park, the site of Gen. George Crook’s headquarters for his tactically brilliant and relentless campaign against the Yavapai and Apache Indians. Farther up along the highway awaits Montezuma Castle National Monument, the ruins of a house built into a cliff about 1,000 years ago by the Sinagua. The curving walls of Montezuma Castle fit gracefully into an alcove in a cliff face. A short additional exploration takes in Montezuma Well, an odd little lake in a crater formed by the collapse of a great limestone cavern and eroded by underground springs.
Continue north on I-17 to State Route 89A, which leads into Sedona past distinctive red sandstone buttes, a landscape imprinted on the public imagination as a result of scores of Westerns. Fossilized sand dunes were buried, fused, and then uplifted with the vast Colorado Plateau to form this fantastical scene. The 6,000-foot elevation ensures a mild year-round climate and vistas of piñon pines, juniper, and yucca. Some say that natural geophysical vortexes confer Zenlike insight and balance here, a view welcomed by a jostling vortex of tours and crystal shops.
Just as you enter town, detour up Schnebly Hill Road, a 13-mile dirt stretch that offers sweeping views of the landmark rock formations below. Hacked out in 1902 to shorten the four-day trip to Flagstaff by half, the now-popular scenic road climbs 1,800 feet.
Pause at some of the overlooks, then zigzag back down to Sedona. Stop by the jewel of Tlaquepaque, a shopping center of beautiful Spanish-style buildings snuggled into a creekside sycamore grove. Vines climb the stuccoed walls, cobbles cover the pathways, and the design of the buildings accommodates the white-boled sycamores at every turn. Explore some of the 40 shops and galleries.
You’re getting hungry, so head down the road to the Heartline Café. Enjoy a creative salad, such as tea-smoked duck with pecans and gorgonzola, and choose from a sophisticated wine list.
Now it’s time to get wet near the most photographed spot in Arizona, Red Rock Crossing. Head westward out of town toward Jerome and Cottonwood, but turn onto Upper Red Rock Loop Road (Forest Road 216) about seven miles out of town. You’re going to a U.S. Forest Service picnic ground on the banks of Oak Creek. Pay the $8 fee, park, and hike up along the creek to a series of swimming holes where photographers nab the famous shot of Cathedral Rock reflected in the waters of the prettiest creek in Arizona. Odds are, once you find a spot, you’ll feel like forgetting everything else and spending the rest of your trip right here.
Oak Creek itself has fine fishing, but you’re on a schedule, so skip the work of catching and cleaning. Return to Sedona and continue north on 89A for dinner at the Rainbow Trout Farm, where you can quickly catch a fish, have it cleaned, and eat it on site. After a fresh meal, head back to the Biltmore.