In case you hadn’t noticed, our sparkling Emerald City has been enveloped by the dark shadow of Mordor lately. I’m a fan of the rain, but even I’ve hit my limit. At least we had a few glimpses of the sun over the last week and I’m pretty sure at least a few sightings of the Pemco Insurance “50 degrees shirts off guy”.

After 17 years in Seattle one thing I’ve learned is that sunny winter days are quickly forgotten, probably because we get very few, and every winter sets a new gloomy statistic. On February 19, 2016 Seattle set the record for the wettest December – February. On December 7, 2015, we set a record for the darkest day in 9 years. The sad truth is that this winter isn’t necessarily worse than any other, it’s just standard Seattle.

If you need more than just a hint of sun, pack some sunscreen and running shoes and book yourself a ticket to beautiful and sunny Sedona, Arizona!

Need blue skies and sunshine and the ability to see your shadow? Go play in gorgeous Sedona!

Renowned for its vortexes and spiritual energy, Sedona exudes a special cosmic juju. What’s all this vortex stuff you ask? A vortex is a powerful energy center created by an intersection of earth’s natural electromagnetic energy. The type of energy you feel from the vortex can be influenced by how the energy moves through it. Some are calming, some energizing, and others balancing.

Think it’s all cosmic hocus pocus? That’s ok! No matter what you believe, I guarantee you’ll soak up some amazing energy in Sedona, as well as sunshine!

Last December I took a 4-day weekend to explore its magical red rocks and I came back with more than a suntan, I returned rebalanced and recharged. The energy I absorbed there was unlike anything else I’ve experienced! The trip was so amazing I vowed to make Sedona an annual winter getaway.

This wasn’t my usual  “log 100 miles in 4 days and find all the off-the-beaten-path, quiet, epic trails in the area” kind of trip. It was spur of the moment and I had little time to research. I only knew I needed sun, trails, and some relaxation!

Here are some ideas for an adventurous, relaxing, and recharging low budget 4-day weekend in Sedona that doesn’t take a lot of planning!

Black Canyon Trail

Mileage: as far as you want!

As soon as I landed in Phoenix and got my rental car, all I could think about was getting out of the city, onto a trail, and into the sun!! Sedona is about a 2 hour drive north on highway 17 so I made a pitstop near the halfway mark at exit 248, Bumble Bee Road. The 80 mile Black Canyon Trail crosses the road just a short ways off the highway and is a great place to get out, stretch your legs, check out Saguaro cactus, and enjoy the sunshine! The fact that it was 75° didn’t hurt either! You may even get lucky and see wild burros!

THIS is what a Seattleite needs in winter! Blue skies, sunshine, and Saguaro cactus! A beautiful pit stop along the Black Canyon trail on the 2-hour drive to Sedona.

Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte

5.5+ miles

When you enter the Sedona area from Highway 179, Bell Rock is one of the first large red rock formations you’ll see. The views will leave you awestruck! I stayed about 7 miles south of Sedona on the northern edge of Oak Creek which gave me incredibly easy access to the Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte trails.

My first evening in Sedona I packed a blanket, found a great spot, and enjoyed a gorgeous Arizona sunset at Courthouse Butte.

I recommend taking a few hours to hike, bike, or run the entire Courthouse Butte Loop, which encircles both formations. Although the trails are busy near the parking lot, the crowds thin as you continue around the backside of the loop. It’s gorgeous back there with lots of places to relax and several more rock formations to explore.

Once around the backside of the Courthouse Butte loop you’re treated to some magnificent views and less people!

The whole loop is about 5.5 miles with minimal elevation gain and took me about 3-3.5 hours at a casual hiking pace with a lot of little stops. If you want to explore more you can scramble up the Bell Rock trail as far as you’re comfortable  and find yourself a perch. Bell Rock is a popular place for people to climb and explore, especially around sunset.

Also close to the trail is the smaller and less busy Baby Bell Rock. It’s an easy casual scramble to its flat top and from there you can enjoy views of the area. It was such a beautiful quiet spot I went there twice to sit and channel all of Sedona’s powerful energy.

Relaxing on the top of Baby Bell Rock, Courthouse Butte to the left and Bell Rock to the right. Boy I sure could use some of that sunshine right about now!

Courthouse Butte and Bell Rock Loop (GPS)

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Cathedral Rock Loop

12 mile “Tour of Sedona!”

On my first full day I stuffed my trail running pack with lots of goodies and took off for what I called a 12 mile “Tour of Sedona!” fast packing adventure. My sightseeing tour started from my hotel in Oak Creek and took me all the way around Cathedral Rock and back. I started on the Slim Shady Trail, which climbs up the west side of Highway 179 and has increasingly fabulous views over to Courthouse Butte and Sedona in the distance.

Taking a top on the Slim Shady Trail to check out the views! This is trail running heaven!

After about 1.5 miles I turned onto the Hiline Trail, a narrow, slightly more technical trail that climbs along the cliff edge until it reaches a fantastic plateau with sweeping views of Cathedral Rock. It’s a popular mountain biking trail and since it’s mostly uphill to the plateau, most bikers won’t be moving fast, but be sure to keep an eye out for them.

Running along the narrow Hiline Trail towards the plateau. Fantastic views! This photo makes it look narrower than it really is, though on a mountain bike I’d be a little nervous!

From the top, the trail descends the other side and has a long stretch of slick rock as well as several steep chutes to navigate. I admit that I slid down a few sections on my butt! It can be a bit easy to get off trail in the slick rock if you’re not paying attention, so be sure to look for painted arrows that mark the way. If you’re thinking of taking a bike on this trail, you better be a VERY skilled biker!

Gorgeous trail heading out to Cathedral Rock. I could run here all day!

At the trail junction with the Baldwin Trail, I turned right and took a detour over to the Red Red Crossing of Oak Creek for a unique view of Cathedral Rock. After a little break enjoying the creek, I hooked back up to the Templeton Trail and continued to loop around. My plan was to climb to the top of Cathedral Rock but I have to admit that not only was I running out of daylight but also leg power as well! I scrambled up a bit and realized I’d have to save Cathedral for another day.

Nice views from Oak Creek, and the water was refreshing!

If you decide to scramble to the top of Cathedral Rock, wear shoes with good grip and be prepared to slide on your butt in a few sections. It can be a steep, slick climb in places. Give yourself plenty of time!

I continued on the Templeton Trail all the way to the Highway 179 underpass back over to Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte, taking a relaxing sunset break from the top of Baby Bell Rock. I absolutely loved this trail loop because of its variety—fabulous red rock views, open terrain, cliff edges, greenery, and even a creek! Aside from near Bell and Cathedral rocks, I saw only a handful of people. I spent about 5 hours on the loop, sometimes running, sometimes hiking, stopping frequently for snacks and breaks and enjoying all the breathtaking scenery. And most importantly, SUNSHINE!!!

Slick rock on the Templeton Trail near the junction to Cathedral Rock. This is looking towards Courthouse Butte and Bell Rock where I started. This 12 mile loop was amazing!

Cathedral Rock Loop (GPS)

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Airport Mesa Loop

3.5 – 5.5 miles

Airport Mesa near downtown Sedona is one of the major 4 vortex centers in the area. The other three are Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Boynton Canyon. The mesa is an incredible spot to watch the sunrise or sunset and has panoramic views of the entire Sedona area, with a few caveats. There is a small parking lot off Airport Road that fits about 10 cars and allows quick and easy access to the Mini-Mesa vortex site. The lot fills quickly though and if parking is unavailable, you’ll have to drive up to the top of the mesa where there is a large lot for a $3 parking fee.

Enjoying pre-sunset from the Mini-Mesa vortex.

I do think the Mesa is a great sunset spot; however, the parking lot at the top is quite unphotogenic with buildings and power lines obscuring most of the views. There is a viewing platform near the road but it only looks one direction and is jammed with people. I recommend hiking the Airport Mesa Loop trail, which is easy to find at the north end of the parking lot.

In one mile you’ll reach the Mini-Mesa vortex and though it does attract people, it’s much less crowded than the parking lot area. Sit a while and enjoy the views and the fantastic energy or hike the whole Airport Mesa Loop trail over to Table Top for even more panoramic views and significantly less people.

Sedona sunset from the Airport Loop trail. Once you hike around towards Table Top the views are incredible!

The whole loop with visits to the vortex and Table Top will be about 5.5 miles. I highly recommend Table Top, you’ll get a big variety of views with far less people! If you make it a sunset hike don’t forget to pack a headlamp so you can take your time getting back!

Airport Mesa Loop (GPS)

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Explore downtown Sedona!

All of the surrounding red rocks make downtown Sedona a great place to walk and explore. The Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village, pronounced T-lockey-pockey, offers some amazing Old Mexico ambience as well as exceptional galleries and specialty shops. If you’re into new age shops, you’ll find plenty in Sedona as well as some fantastic viewpoints!

Amazing full moon from downtown Sedona.

Montezuma’s Castle

Montezuma’s Castle National Monument is conveniently located right off Highway 17 near the halfway point between Phoenix Sky Harbor and Sedona. Though it’s a very small park and you can walk the main loop trail in 15-20 minutes, it offers an opportunity to see a well-preserved Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling. Historians believe it was built sometime between 1100 and 1425 AD and housed anywhere from 30-50 people in about 20 rooms.

I stopped here on my way back home and it was a great historical site to see!

Montezuma’s Castle is an impressive piece of history to see!

Travel to Sedona is especially enjoyable March – May when flowers are in bloom and temps are comfortable. September – November is another great window, though both times tend to attract more visitors. There are so many trails and open spaces though that there’s plenty of room to find your own little corner! Summer in Sedona can be hot, but higher altitude keeps it from being scorching and is the quietest time to go, along with the December – February window when snow may dust its red rocks.

Getting There

Although Flagstaff is 40 minutes from Sedona by car, airline rates to Phoenix tend to be much cheaper. The drive is about 2 hours and there are some great stops along the way like Black Canyon and Montezuma’s Castle! With about two weeks notice I was able to book a $200 round trip flight from Seattle for a Thursday departure and Monday return. I also snagged a cheap rental car for $100 for 4 days. If you want to save a few bucks and forego the car, there is a shuttle service from Sky Harbor airport that arranges pick up and drop off at all the major stops and hotels in the Sedona area for about $53 each way.

Where to Stay

For my trip I chose to stay 7 miles south of downtown Sedona in Oak Creek, where I found lodging and food a tad cheaper. I got a great deal at the Bell Rock Inn, which is a Diamond resort property. That means you have to say no to the whole “spend a morning in our seminar and we’ll give you free dinner” spiel. Well, only if you want to! Resorts aren’t my typical style but I couldn’t pass up the rate, the proximity to the huge trail system around Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte and a really comfortable bed and full kitchen! Since I could walk to the trailheads, I saved myself a $5/day trail pass.

Trail Passes

A Red Rock pass is required on National Forest Land around Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon, which means trailheads for Bell Rock, Courthouse Butte, and most in the area. If you have an Interagency National Parks Pass, you can use that in lieu of a Red Rock pass, so don’t forget to bring it with you! The Red Rock pass is $5/day or $15/week. If you’re planning more than one trip to Sedona for the year, get a yearly pass for $20!

Ready to pack your bags and get some sunshine? Check out the official Visit Sedona website for more information on places to see and things to do! I guarantee you won’t regret a trip to this magical place with LOTS of sunshine!

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