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Sedona, Arizona: A How-To Guide for Camping, Hiking, and Surviving the Crowds

This beautiful town has seen a lot of change since we last visited just 5 years ago. Overall we still recommend a trip to Sedona; but after our last visit earlier this month, we've found there are a few things to note in order to make the most of this popular destination.

But first - Some history!

Did you know - the red rocks of Sedona were caused by natural weathering exposure of the hematite, or iron oxide (aka rust!) in the rock layers that stains the sandstone? Additionally, the famous Oak Creek Canyon was carved and created not only by the Oak Creek itself, but also the Oak Creek Fault where tectonic forces caused upward shifts and beautifully exposed geological layers.

During our hikes we were able to spot plenty of beautiful rocks in the canyon including agate, chert, chalcedony, basalt, and fossils! This place is basically a rock-lover's dream. Be sure to appreciate both the rocks above you and below you when you're visiting.

Now for the nitty gritty:

  1. Plan Ahead - Unfortunately, this trip will not be one of those romantic spur-of-the-moment or go-with-the-flow excursions. Instead, be sure to:

  • Book your campground a least a few weeks in advance. The spots surrounding Sedona fill up fast, especially the more affordable ones. If you're able, we suggest planning a trip for as many week days as possible. Weekend crowds are heavy and make driving/parking and almost every other activity more difficult.

  • Do your research ahead of time! Most campgrounds/RV parks have limited to no cell reception. This means you need to research your activities/hiking trails/restaurants etc. ahead of time and get to know the area! The roads are simple and highways are marked with direction, but a basic understanding of north-south east-west will be helpful when trying to get anywhere without cell service.

2. Early is Key - If you can't avoid a weekend, you MUST avoid peak trail time!

  • Get to trail heads as early as possible to beat the crowds. We liked aiming for sunrise, though some trail heads state that they don't "open" until 8am. We found this to be more of a deterrent than anything, as we were able to show up around 7:30 am with plenty of other cars already and no quarrels. Plus, mornings in the desert are cool and pleasant, and you'll likely finish your hike before the harsh noon sun.

  • Due to its popularity, some of the trails surrounding Sedona now require Parking Passes or Permits. For some trailheads this may look like a kiosk in the parking lot that charges you maybe $5 to park (that is, if you can find a spot!). Others require passes acquired and printed ahead of time to then be displayed in your dashboard. So, plan your hiking schedule ahead of time!

3. Avoid 'Sedona' Proper - The town itself is beautiful to drive through, find resources, and check out artist galleries. Beyond that - total tourist trap. Trust us, we gave it a chance!

  • If you are looking for authentic Native American art in Sedona, be sure to inquire about the origins to assure authenticity. We're concerned the upward trajectory of real estate prices in downtown Sedona has inherently caused most artists, including native artists, to lack access to sales platforms in the area.

  • When it comes to lodging, provisions, or restaurants you'll want to avoid Sedona at all costs. We gave it a shot; the restaurants, the grocery stores, the breweries... They only place we enjoyed was a simple service dive bar at the south end of town called The Sundowner: a cash-only diamond in the rough! But, beyond the town dive-bar? There are plenty of great small towns close by that could use your economic input:

- Page Springs: Beautifully setting with a selection of great wineries, right on Oak Creek, just 20 mins from downtown Sedona

- Cornville: Just south of Page Springs, along Oak Creek, some great down to earth restaurants with good service & a small-town experience

- Cottonwood: Along the Verde River (with some great paddle access routes for kayaking/canoeing), west of Cornville with a larger selection of restaurants and attractions including close proximity to the haunted destination of Jeroma, AZ

- Camp Verde: The furthest south of Sedona of them all, but great access to a variety of trails, wineries, food stops and more! A bigger town for those interested in more of a selection

Saturday’s are best spent avoiding town as traffic is unbearable, and be sure to take a trash bag on any hike as not everyone respects the space as much as they should.


More Hot Tips:

  • Get a National Park's Pass - these are great to avoid most pay-to-park spots & we were able to simply hang ours in our truck from the rear-view mirror.

  • BYOFood *Picnicing is easier, cheaper, and a better experience that 99% of Sedona restaurants. TRUST ME.

  • Talk to locals! They always know the best trails, restaurants, and places to explore with tips and tricks for avoiding the crowds.

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