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Saguaro National Park and Sedona in 4 Days

Guest post by dzr1107

Map tips: each color represents a different day. Click a marker to learn more about the spot, and click the star in the map header to save the entire map under Your Places in Google Maps.

Day 1: Saguaro National Park

  • Red Hills Visitor Center
  • Valley View Overlook Trail

We flew in the night before, and had a nice stay at the Phoenix Drury Inn Airport Hotel.  We woke up early and drove the hour and a half drive down I-10 to Saguaro National Park (West).  Traffic was a little heavy through the populated Tempe and Mesa, but quickly opened up into a high in a vast open plain.  The speed limit was 75 so that helped – although, oddly not a lot of people speed in Arizona.

Saguaro National Park is split into two sections. There is Saguaro National Park West on the west side of Tucson and Saguaro National Park East on the east side of Tucson.  We only visited the West NP.  Don’t rely on NP signs to lead you to the park – use your GPS or gasp, an old fashion map.

We took Kinney Road to the Red Hills Visitor Center, a very well designed building. In the courtyard, a ranger motioned us over to two rattlesnakes trying to mate on the opposite side of the retaining wall.  Hopefully this was a once in a lifetime occurrence. After visiting the great gift shop (except for apparel), reading their educational material, and deciding against Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (it’s technically in Tucson County Mountain Park – which I’m sure is nice, but it’s not a NP), we frolicked out on to their balcony and took in a sea of saguaro cactus – the classic tall cactuses with arms.  There is also a nice guided path outside of the visitor center that showcases a few different types of cacti – prickly pear, barbary fig, echinocactus grusonii, etc.

We took the unpaved (it’s a rental) Hohkam Road aka, the Scenic Bajada Loop Drive.  It’s a little narrow and a little twisty, but nothing you can’t handle.  We stopped about a third of the way in and took the Valley View Overlook Trail (1.6 miles RT).  It is an easy hike, but it was still full sunny skies and 100+ degree temperatures. It is easy to get dehydrated.  You should take water with you. We didn’t.  Don’t be us. The view is relatively 360 degrees: The valley is in front of you and a sea of cactus is behind you. On clear days, you can see the Caponera Peak 80 miles away.

After the hike, we drove 2 hours back to Phoenix, and then an additional two-hour drive on I-17 to Sedona.  We stayed at a vacation rental by owner, but there are a lot of hotels, bed & breakfasts, ranches, retreats, spas, etc. to stay.

Day 2: Sedona

  • The Hike House
  • Fay Canyon Trail
  • Bell Rock

We started the day by visiting Hike House, a great little hiking store with everything you could possibly need to hike. They also have great maps and provide hiking advice tailored to your group and what you want to see. You can also buy Red Rock passes for the forest area.  If you have a senior NP pass, this works too.  We asked about the Boynton Canyon trail, but they suggested Fay Canyon – it’s a shorter hike the next canyon over with similar scenery and is also less crowded.

Fay Canyon Hike is 2.3 miles RT and a relatively easy hike.  It’s nice because there is a little shade cover in spots, but you still get great views.  The parking lot is across the street from the trailhead and has a primitive restroom. At the end of the “maintained” trail, there is an option to climb up a few rocks.  If you are physically able, do it.  You can get part way up – above the tree line and see across the entire valley (Bell Rock is in the distance).  You can continue past the incline and walk a little further into the canyon, but the view does not significantly change.

After an extended lunch at the house, we decided to do Bell Rock as our afternoon hike.  The northern (and closer) Bell Rock parking lot was completely full, so we had to use the south parking lot.  This adds an extra 1-1.5 mile of mostly flat walking to get to Bell Rock.  Since we came up from the south, it was difficult for us to find the correct path up Bell Rock.  There were several offshoot trails that seemed promising, but would ultimately lead to a dead end.  I assume it is easier to stay on the actual trail if you use the Northern Bell Rock parking lot.  We eventually made our own path (with a little rock climbing) and went about 2/3 up the rock to what we assumed was the vortex.

Disclaimer – I’m not a big “vortex” believer, but I do believe in the healing power of nature. To visit the vortexes, I assure you if you just blow in and blow out, you will feel nothing. However, if you’re willing to take a few deep breaths, clear you mind, and marvel at the world before you.. maybe there’s a shot.

The other thing to note is that we were at the leading edge of the time zone, so in early October, it was already getting dark around 6pm.  This greatly affected our days, as we typically travel in the summer and go until 9pm.

Day 3: Sedona

  • Cathedral Rock Trail
  • Templeton Trail
  • Chapel of the Holy Cross
  • Airport Mesa

We woke up early with the grand ambition to climb to the top of the Cathedral Rock spires.  It was good to go early and during the week to limit the crowds.  This hike was fun. By fun, I mean foot holds in rocks, and scurrying up rock faces with the vague concern of “I don’t know how I’m ever going to get down.”  Actually, there’s only one really questionable bit – and that’s when you’re in the crevice between two rocks at a steep angle, trying to climb up.  Aside from that, if you’re in decent shape, have at it.

Oh, well, the other pre-req for this hike is that you aren’t scared of heights.  Once you reach the top, there’s about a 4-5 foot landing between the side you just climbed up, and a significant downfall on the other side.  We passed a few people who refused to stand up and were sitting clinging to the earth in fear.  If this won’t bother you, now, have at it.

End of the Cathedral Rock Trail

The other cool thing – beyond the amateur rock climbing and amazing views – is that if you go to the left on the landing, and then to the right behind a spire, there is a path that takes you between the other spires.  Several people were meditating and relaxing, most likely for the Cathedral Rock vortex.

Coming down isn’t as bad as you think going up.

After we got to the base of Cathedral Rock, we decided to hike part of the Templeton Trail towards the Baldwin Trail. We were originally going to hike to the river, but ended up hiking all the way to Red Rock Crossing.  The trail is flat, has several switchbacks, and then is flat the entire way. If you have time, take the trail until the Baldwin intersection. You will get a great picture looking at the backside of Cathedral Rock.  Also, you might see “wildlife” as we stumbled across a rattlesnake AND a desert tarantula.  Otherwise, there was nothing to write home about.

After our hike, we stopped at the Chapel of the Holy Cross. There is off the street parking once you past the gate; however you then have to walk up the rest of the driveway.  You can also risk it and try to find parking further up the drive.  The chapel itself is small – you walk into the room and see the amazing view out into the valley.  There is a small gift store down the stairs to the left.

Chapel of the Holy Cross

After getting cleaned up, we then went into downtown Sedona to shop.  There are several stores ranging from upscale to touristy, with an emphasis on crystals and vortex-y things.  We poked around a few stores, drove up to Garland’s Indian Jewelry (appropriately named), and tried to find parking at the Airport Mesa.

We drove up by the mesa about 4 different times on our trip to find an open parking spot right at the vortex, but never did have any luck.  Fortunately, you can drive up and turn around at the airport.  There is also a small pay parking lot at the top, which is popular if you want to hike the mile or so down to the vortex using the Sedona View Trail, hike around the airport on the Airport Loop Trail, or watch a sunset.  The sunset view from Airport Mesa is heavily hyped.  We did not do it, however talked to quite a few people who did and were underwhelmed.  While the view of Sedona is great from the Mesa, typically, an amazing sunset requires a few clouds.  Sedona does not often have clouds.  I’m a snob, whatever.

Day 4: Montezuma Castle and back to Phoenix

  • Montezuma Castle National Monument
  • Drury Inn & Suites Phoenix Airport

One traveler in the group decided to fulfill a bucket list item, and have us all go on a hot air balloon.  This was a first for all of us, and had mixed anticipation beforehand – fear of heights, security of a wicker basket, the landing, etc.  We arranged to meet Northern Lights in a parking lot (they do limited pick ups at hotels) early in the morning.  All balloon companies lift off at sunrise, so your time will vary throughout the year.  They fly about 320 days a year – as long as the wind speed is less than 8 mph to let the balloon stand upright. Once you’re in the air, it feels the same no matter the windspeed. Apparently.

There were quite a few people at our launch site – which varies based on wind (they have to avoid the airport airspace). Our company launched 4 different balloons, each holding 12 people.  We waited and could volunteer to help get the balloons filled.  Pro tip, it’s fun to film a time lapse video of them filling the balloon.  It will eat your battery, but it’s worth it.

Our balloon “driver” was very experienced and the balloon industry is highly regulated, so any concerns we had quickly dissipated.  It was an amazing experience, and I recommend everyone does it at least once – especially in a scenic area.  After we landed, they got the group together and fed us pastries and mimosas while they got the balloons loaded back into the chase vehicles.

After our adventure, we started the drive back to Phoenix.  We did make one stop at Montezuma Castle, a small version of Mesa Verde NP. It was pretty amazing to see the ruins of a village in the side of a hill.  There were several more sites tied to the Verde Valley settlement, but we did not visit them.  Montezuma is close to the interstate and worth a 30-45 minute detour.

Once back in Phoenix, we stayed again at the Drury Hotel by the airport. I feel it’s worth mentioning since they have a happy hour from 5:30 to 7pm, and any hotel that gives me three free alcoholic drinks and free food, is a win.

Traveled in October 2017

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