Hightail it to the high desert and the Red Rock Scenic Byway
SAVOR SOME OF ARIZONA’S FAMOUS WINTER SUN
Don’t let the threat of colder weather stop you from visiting northern Arizona. Even in winter, the town of Sedona offers its own special magic. Milder temps midday are perfect for hiking and hitting the trails to swoon over vistas. The potential for a dusting of snow atop the iconic red rock formations adds a layer of pretty you’ll want to experience.
Despite January boasting an average of 4 days without sun, visiting crowds are decidedly lower this season. Come feel the energy at a local “vortex” or bounce off-road along canyons in a pink jeep tour. It’s the perfect spot for a long weekend winter break. Come see why.
- Hightail it to the high desert and the Red Rock Scenic Byway
- What to do in Sedona come winter
- Take a hike
- Other things to do around Sedona:
- Where to Eat in Sedona
- Where to Stay
Where is Sedona
First, let’s orient ourselves. Sedona is a small town in central to northern Arizona. We booked direct flights on Alaska Airlines from Portland, Oregon (PDX) to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX). From there we rented a car to drive the scenic two hours north. Located within the larger Coconino National Forest, Sedona is part of the Red Rock section south of Flagstaff. You could also book flights into Flagstaff. (Sedona is closer to Flagstaff, AZ – but we found flights not as affordable from Portland, OR.) All the spots recommended in this post are saved on the downloadable map below.
Facts about Sedona, Arizona
The possibility of Sedona snow is exactly what drew me to this place for our January getaway. We lucked out with 3 days of brilliant cloudless and blue sunny skies – perfect for hiking and being outside. But be sure to pack layers, puffers, beanies, and gloves plus your sunglasses. It does get quite cool (around freezing) in the mornings and evenings. But look at those minimal days of rain. Compared to the Pacific Northwest (or Scandinavia) this is dreamy.
|Days of Rain
|Sunrise/Set Times (ave)
|60°F | 15°C
|34° | 1°C
|7:30 am – 5:20 pm
|60°F | 15°C
|34° | 1°C
|7:27 am – 5:45 pm
|64°F | 17°C
|36° | 2°C
|7:00 am – 6:20 pm
How to get to Sedona
Rent a car from PHX Airport
It is an easy two-hour drive north of the capital Phoenix. Take I-10 west to US-17 north towards Flagstaff. Here you’ll climb out of the suburban sprawl through rolling hills covered in Saguaro cacti. At exit 298, don’t miss the turn-off for AZ-179, familiarly known as the Red Rock Scenic Byway. This pretty road will immediately immerse you in incredible scenery.
Take a shuttle from PHX Airport
Groome Transportation offers a shuttle service from the airport directly to your hotel in Sedona. Book online to secure your slot and save $5 off. Adult rides are $62 one way, and children under 10 are only $28. Roundtrip offers available.
What to do in Sedona come winter
So now that you’re here, what’s there to do? For most, the pull to these parts is the brilliant outdoors. Even in the colder months of December, January, and Feb. Bring some sturdy hiking shoes or boots if you want to tackle some serious tracks – paths can be slick, frozen, and muddy this time of year. Not out for massive elevation gains and scrambling up loose rock? Never fear, there are trails for everyone here to take in the views.
INSIDER TIP: Pros for coming in colder months? It’s off-peak for visiting crowds, and temps are milder under the intense Arizona sun. Another bonus for visiting mid-winter? Snakes, scorpions, and other creepy crawlies are sleepily hibernating underground. We saw nary a one.
Red Rock Visitor Center and Ranger Station
8375 AZ-179, Sedona, AZ 86351
Coming north from Phoenix, a good place to start is at the Red Rock Visitor Center and Ranger Station. Here you can pick up maps, and guides and ask for advice. We got a great overview of the area and some tips on nice hikes. Children of all ages will love the interactive displays that educate visitors on the flora and fauna you might meet on your visit. Lots of excellent reminders about how to be good stewards of this environment. Number one? Stay on the marked trails.
Take a hike
The biggest draw to Sedona is the plentiful hiking. An incredible network of well-maintained and marked paths affords a trail for every ability. Signs at trailheads and crossing points show visitors route options, difficulty, and in-between distances. It is important to stay on the marked paths to protect this beautiful, but fragile environment. “Don’t bust the crust” is a reminder that what looks like just dirt houses living organisms that make this ecosystem tick. It’s also a good way to not startle any potentially dangerous critters that call this space home.
Trails are marked in a few different ways. Look out for rock cairns – mesh barrels of red rocks to direct your path. Some spots have white arrows painted directly onto the smooth rock. Signs and maps at most trailheads and intersections. Trails have different accessibility for hikers, bikers, and others. And remember to always pack out what you pack in.
How to plan for your hike
Besides researching online, the Red Rock Visitor Center (listed above) offers an excellent on-the-ground resource for where to go, how to get there, and if shuttles are necessary for the trails that you’re coveting. Parking can be hard to come by, even in winter months. And many popular hikes now require you to park in town and shuttle to the start of the trail. This is true if visiting from Thursday to Sunday.
All of the following trails (the most popular and photographable) require shuttles if visiting on the weekend:
- Cathedral Rock
- Little Horse
- Soldier Pass
- Dry Creek Vista, with access to Devil’s Bridge
GOOD TO KNOW: During days and hours when the shuttles are running, the parking lots at the Cathedral Rock and Soldier Pass Trailheads will be closed. All visitors are asked to use the shuttle to access these trailheads. Outside of shuttle hours, the trailhead parking will be open. Parking at all other trailheads will be open as determined by the National Forest Service.”Sedonashuttle.com
Use the AllTrails app
Want to have responsive trail navigation right in your pocket? Or crowd-sourced recommendations and up-to-the-minute trail conditions? How about locating a trail where you are at the moment? Or photos that hint at the awe you’ll encounter? Download the AllTrails app and join as a member. It’s not just for Arizona. In fact, there are routes in countries around the world. How about that? Search for dog-friendly, wheelchair-accessible, and even mountain biking routes via the app.
We love it for finding new hikes in our backyard. You can explore the app before your trip to save hikes that inspire you. Or download a specific path before you head out. It will track your hike as you walk it. A nice record of where you walked on your trip. Don’t want to pay the $35.99 annual fee? You can try the app free for a week.
(This is not sponsored, we just really like the app.)
Trials we hiked and recommend
Chapel Trail to Chicken Point
TIME: 1 hour and 30 minutes (with a photo stop at the top)
TRAIL: Easy to moderate
ELEVATION GAIN: 85 ft
TOTAL DISTANCE: 2.3 miles out and back
Beginning at the beautiful Chapel of the Holy Cross, built right into the rock above town – a lovely trail takes you up close and personal to some incredible red rocks. Chapel trail starts right in the parking lot and winds beneath the cliff beyond. Hang a left on the Little Horse Trail to walk up to Chicken Point for some seriously amazing views over the valley below.
You might meet off-roaders up here and wonder how they too made it up. Take the “Broken Arrow” Pink Adventure Jeep Tour to find out. (See below). This was one of our favorite hikes. Views of Bell Rock and Courthouse Bluff and a landscape that feels straight out of a Star Wars movie at the top.
Insider tip: save your walking legs for your hike and nab one of the golf cart rides to the Chapel from the lower parking lot – just bring a few bucks cash for a driver’s tip.
Courthouse Butte Loop to Bell Rock
TIME: 1.5 to 2 hours with photo stops
TRAIL: Easy to moderate
ELEVATION GAIN: 350 ft
TOTAL DISTANCE: 3.75 miles loop
Circumnavigate the monolithic Courthouse Butte for a 360° view of this iconic rock and the surrounding plateaus. In January, the trail takes you up and down a fairly easy, but rocky path. We did find some snow, ice, and mud on the shady part of the trail.
This is part of the Munds Mountain wilderness and mountain bikes are not allowed on the Courthouse Butte Loop part of the path. You may share the trail with riders on horseback, but watching them maneuver the narrow rocky path feels straight out of the old west. You could extend this hike to include a roundabout of Bell Rock and its vortex of energy said to flow all about the rock. (See more on vortexes below.)
Huckaby Vista Trail to Oak Creek
TIME: 45 minutes with photo stops
TRAIL: Easy (down to the creek, but steepish back up)
ELEVATION GAIN: 100 ft
TOTAL DISTANCE: >1 mile out and back
This was a spontaneous hike find – via the AllTrails app. (Read more about the app above.) We wanted to see the scenic span Midgely Bridge north of Upper Sedona town on N State Route 89. Park at the Wilson Mountain Trail parking directly to the left of the bridge as you drive north. Walk down under the bridge for views up the canyon to Oak Creek all to the backdrop of snow-dusted peaks. (In January). The Huckaby trail down to the creek itself is bordered by a high desert lush. Take in the beautiful prickly pear cactus, agave, and juniper trees that abound. Bonus? We basically had the trail to ourselves. And no shuttle required.
Yavapai Vista Trail to Slim Shady Loop
Right off the main Red Rock Scenic Byway (AZ-179) is the parking lot for Yavapai Vista. So-called for the local indigenous Yavapai tribe – their name directly translates to “People of the Sun.” Take the Vista trail up to a mesa with epic views of the surrounding land. Follow the white arrows painted on the rocks to trail markers and rock cairns that loop you at the top via the Slim Shady trail back to the parking lot. Extend your hike with other longer options branching off from this spot.
TIME: 30+ minutes with photo stops
TRAIL: Easy to moderate
ELEVATION GAIN: 82 ft
TOTAL DISTANCE: .6 mile loop
Other things to do around Sedona:
Explore the rocky canyons on a Pink Jeep Tour
Rest your legs, but maybe not your back on a bumpy but fun jeep ride to different parts of the Sedona canyons. Pink Adventure Tours has been running tours here since 1960 and is the OG Sedona jeep tour company. They offer several diverse tours to choose from. On their website, you can sort the routes by rugged rides to mild. The most popular is the “Broken Arrow” tour (that takes up to Chicken Point.)
We chose the “Coyote Canyon” tour at sunset (from 4:00 – 6:00 pm) and were quite happy with our journey. Not the roughest, but you will definitely get jostled – buckle up and hold on tight. Our guide Andrew was entertaining and funny and we felt safe – even when bouncing up and down, side to side, bums off our seats. Bring warm layers – they even recommend a blanket for your legs. The ride back to town from Dry Creek Canyon was brisk in January after the sun went down.
Pink Jeep Adventure Tours
204 N State Rte 89A, Sedona, AZ 86336
Pricing varies depending on the tour
Coyote Canyons 2-hour tour | $84 per adult, $79 per child
Sunset views of Sedona Airport Mesa
While you can enjoy the sunset from any vantage looking west, Airport Mesa draws the biggest crowds. Two reasons: parking is accessible and the views are epic. From up here you get a 180-degree view over the town as the sun dips behind mesas and throws pink skies over red rock peaks. Plan ahead and book a table at the nearby Mesa Grill for eats before or after. (See more below.) Parking is $3/car in the huge lot across the street.
Airport Mesa Viewpoint
483 Airport Rd, Sedona, AZ 86336
Feel the special energy at a “Vortex”
Sedona is famous for holding special energy. There is said to be something beneath, within, and around these monolithic red rocks that has drawn spiritual connections for centuries. It’s not just for new age crystal touting gurus who will sell you a photograph of your aura (it’s true, lots of shops here do) – but all sorts of people claim to have felt the pull of a Vortex. Whether you believe it or think it’s all hocus pocus – I will admit that the few vortex points we visited had vistas that filled with us awe at the minimum.
What is a Vortex?– VisitSedona.com
Vortexes are enhanced energy sites that facilitate prayer, meditation, mind-body healing, and
creative thinking. The Vortexes are NOT electric or magnetic. Those labels were meant
How to know if you’re near a Vortex energy spot? Locals say it makes the juniper trees twist and turn as they grow. We definitely witnessed those. Especially at the Airport Mesa Vortex spot.
There are four main vortexes in Sedona:
- Airport Mesa (see photos below)
- Bell Rock
- Boynton Canyon
- Cathedral Rock
Local history and culture in Camp Verde
Those interested in the pre-settler cultures that resided around here can get up close to ruins and art from the Sinagua tribe that lived in this part of Arizona between 900-1400 CE. In the area around Camp Verde, you can see cliff dwellings and a massive collection of well-preserved petroglyphs. Sinagua comes from the Spanish words sin agua – meaning without water. At the Montezuma Castle visitor center, you can learn more about the pre-Columbian culture and see artifacts excavated from the impressive cliff dwelling at this site. (The Aztec leader Montezuma has no connection besides the name of this place.)
Montezuma Castle National Monument
2800 Montezuma Castle Rd, Camp Verde, AZ 86322
Forest Service Road 618, Rimrock, AZ 86335
Not far from the castle, is a natural phenomenon – 15 million gallons of water in a hole in the landscape. Evidence shows that people have lived in this valley for 10,000 years. Many of the local tribes, like the Yavapai and Apache have creation stories that connect with the well and these rocks. The cliff dwellings you’ll spy here are more recent – researchers date them to the 1100s CE.
Walk around the Well rim path and down to the creek where you see the irrigation canals developed to aid in growing crops. The pool itself has such a high content of dissolved carbon dioxide that very few creatures can exist in the water. Apparently well adapted are water scorpions and leaches. Best to stay on the marked path.
V Bar V Ranch and Heritage Site
More evidence from former Sinaguan residents can be found at the V Bar B Ranch and heritage site. A short walk through a peaceful meadow brings you to the largest collection of petroglyphs in the Camp Verde region. Over 1000 distinct images are carved on the walls here. A volunteer on-site will help to interpret what researchers know of their meanings. Connections to a solar calendar and local animals are easily spottable.
Amitabha Stupa and Peace Park
Another spiritual stop for your Sedona winter wanderings, the Stupa and Peace Park is a Buddhist garden for contemplation and meditation. This non-denominational space is meant for everyone free of charge and is open every day. Sculptures and benches to inspire throughout. Look for the Native American medicine wheel meant to represent the Circle of Life.”
Amitabha Stupa and Peace Park
2650 Pueblo Dr, Sedona, AZ 86336
Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village
Tlaquepaque Arts & Shopping Village
336 AZ-179, Sedona, AZ 86336
Quaint collection of shops and restaurants in an outdoor Mexican village.
Do a day trip beyond Sedona
We felt there was enough to do around Sedona for 3 days and didn’t venture further afield. But If you’re looking to add to your trip, here are some locally endorsed suggestions:
Grand Canyon South Rim
The south rim of the Grand Canyon is only two hours north of Sedona. Head towards Flagstaff then west on I-40 and north on Arizona 64. Pink Jeep tours offer an 8-hour express Grand Canyon excursion and tour from their headquarters in town.
The haunted mining town of Jerome, AZ
Only 30 minutes from Sedona, Jerome is a historic copper mining town with a rugged checkered past. Dubbed the “wickedest town in the west,” some claim it’s still haunted. Nowadays, little Jerome – home to 450 residents – is a charming artist hub and tourism center. Ghost Town Tours offers the local insider scoop for those interested in spectral visitors.
Verde Canyon Railroad
300 N Broadway, Clarkdale, AZ 86324
On the way to Jerome, you can stop in Clarkdale for a trip on the Verde Canyon Railroad. The four-hour train tour offers a step back in history set against beautiful scenery. Food and drinks are available onboard.
Wine Tasting in Cottonwood
Where to Eat in Sedona
Tamaliza (our favorite!)
1155 W State Rte 89A, Sedona, AZ 86336
Tamaliza is a charming and colorful little Mexican cafe specializing in tamales. It was our favorite meal in Sedona and probably the best tamale I’ve ever eaten. All ingredients are fresh, organic, and non-GMO. Try one of tamale supremo – a tamale of your choice topped with fresh spinach, black beans, avocado, cheese, avocado salsa, a radish relish, and sour cream – sooo tasty. My husband had chicken enchiladas with mole sauce plus beans and rice – also delicious.
Coffee Pot Sedona
2050 W State Rte 89A, Sedona, AZ 86336
Another place that came highly recommended. So if your accommodations don’t include breakfast – this is your spot. The Coffee Pot is known for having 101 omelets, but you’ll find waffles, pancakes, and other brunch classics. Take note – they are only open until 2 pm.
Colt Grill BBQ & Spirits Village in Oak Creek
6101 AZ-179, Sedona, AZ 86351
Not far from the Bell Rock Vista in the smaller village of Oak Creek is some of the best BBQ around. You can smell the smoker as you drive past. But step inside for a diverse menu of sandwiches, smoked meat and amazing sides. Don’t miss the smoked mac-n-cheese, ranch beans, and jalapeno cornbread with honey butter (my favorite.) The beef brisket was tender and delicious and with a range of sauces – to please all regional BBQ traditionalists. The pulled pork sandwich with crispy tangy slaw is also a hit.
Cowboy Club & Grill
241 N State Rte 89A, Sedona, AZ 86336
Formerly known as the Oak Creek Tavern, the Cowboy Club has been a Sedona institution since 1946. Sit in the same warm wood-walled space as Western movie stars of the past. Serving up “high desert” cuisine – think flat-iron steaks and local game. Insider tip – ask for a table in the mural room in the back or by the fireplace mid-winter.
Plan ahead to enjoy this upscale Mexican restaurant. Elote was recommended by everyone we asked. Unfortunately, we were unable to procure a slot this time around. Hopefully, you can check it out.
Note: Reservations are required, Elote is not accepting walk-ins at this time. Booking out up to 60 days in advance.
Mesa Grill Sedona
1185 Airport Rd, Sedona, AZ 86336
Book a table by the window for sunset and enjoy the sky turning pink over the surrounding mesa. This spot sits right next to the small Sedona airport. Enjoy the views and stay warm with the firepit while you wait. Featuring “new Sedona cuisine” – you’ll find American dishes with a local flavor. The blackberry margaritas plus their chips and guac come highly recommended.
PJ’s Village Pub
40 W Cortez Dr, Sedona, AZ 86351
Need a spot to watch the game? PJ’s Village Pub in Oak Creek has so many big screens to serve you. Kitschy and fun with friendly service. Try the “Bloody Larry” or local craft beer on tap. The patty melt with crispy fries was definitely worthy.
The Chai Spot in Tlaquepaque Arts Village
36 AZ-179 Suite B201, Sedona, AZ 86636
A cozy, colorful cafe that is super insta-worthy also serves up authentic spiced chai in Sedona, Arizona. Feel good about your purchase as 50% of the profits go to programs that support women and children in Pakistan, where one of the owners hails from.
671 AZ-179 ste d, Sedona, AZ 86336
Another splurge-worthy place to book ahead, The Hudson also affords views of the stunning scenery. High-end American cuisine in a family-friendly setting.
The Vault Uptown
361 Forest Rd, Sedona, AZ 86336
Right in town near the Pink Jeep tour end and beginning, The Vault Uptown sits up the hill with more great views, a fun tiled bar, and an interesting menu. Try the “trashcan nachos” at happy hour, I’ve been told.
Tii Gavo (at The Enchantments Resort)
525 Boynton Canyon Road, Tii Gavo, Sedona, AZ 86336
Can’t afford a casita, suite, or room at The Enchantments Resort? You can still enjoy the experience of this elevated space – book a table or do drinks at Tii Gavo Mexican restaurant on site. You don’t need to be staying at the hotel to swoon over their views and enjoy the food.
Where to Stay
We stayed in the Village of Oak Creek, which felt a little quieter and less busy than Sedona proper, and only 10 minutes south. We chose the Penrose B&B with balcony views of Bell Rock and Courthouse Bluff. Breakfast was filling and snacks were available all day and night. The only issue? It was maybe just a little TOO quiet. Here are the views from the Mariposa Suite, where we stayed for 3 nights. The balcony was perfect to set up my camera and practice some astral photography from the comfort and warmth of the room.
The Penrose Bed & Breakfast
250 Red Butte Dr, Sedona, AZ 86351
But don’t let bundling up prevent you from enjoying a Sedona winter. Come to Northern Arizona, she said. And I’ll say it again. We had a wonderful long winter weekend away.
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