Blazing Arizona

By Julian Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 21, 2005

I'm not exactly sure what a vortex is, but at 11 on a late July morning near Sedona, Ariz., this one is broiling hot.

Here in Boynton Canyon, five miles northwest of town, my girlfriend, Laura, and I have hiked to a set of rust-colored sandstone pinnacles considered to be one of the half-dozen or so "energy points" in the region. Sedona's vortexes are said to enhance relaxation, amplifying any emotions and bringing about unexpected insights.

I do feel a bit mellow lying in the shade, but it's too hot to be running around the desert. We agree that it's time to cool off, and down we go.

Almost exactly halfway between Phoenix and the Grand Canyon, Sedona is one of the most popular destinations in Arizona. With its dazzling scenery of red rock towers and pine-covered hillsides, as well as a New Agey vibe that makes palm readers and spirit guides seem as common as waiters and landscapers, this city of 10,000 draws millions of visitors every year.

This being Arizona, it does get hot in the summer -- particularly this year, with records being set across the state. In Phoenix, only two hours away, the temperature has hit 110 degrees on 11 of the past 14 days. Tucson recorded its hottest July ever, with 25 consecutive days above 103.

Although it sits at 4,400 feet, Sedona can get toasty (it reached 110 degrees here in 1995, and the record-high temps for most July days are in the neighborhood of 105), even after the late-summer monsoons have started to drench the place nearly every afternoon. The number of visitors drops significantly from June through September, so if you know how to beat the heat, you can beat the crowds as well.

Our first stop is West Fork, a tributary to lush Oak Creek Canyon. Feeling adventurous, we park a few minutes up the road from the Coconino National Forest entrance gate and wade back down Oak Creek. It's shady under the trees, and the rocks are like greased bowling balls under our Tevas.

"Don't drop your camera," Laura says as I slosh about and snap photos.

"I'm going in before this thing does," I say, cradling my digital baby.

Cliffs of Coconino sandstone rise hundreds of feet on either side of the narrow West Fork. On a sandy beach under a curved stone overhang, an older couple plays with their black Lab, which splashes after sticks with a fanatical intensity. Even a hand fake draws a headfirst plunge.

An Indian family arrives, full of gleeful children and matrons in saris. Cottonwood leaves rustle in the breeze, and the air carries the light spice of the desert in the sun.

After a dip and a rest, we walk back to our car on pavement shimmering in the heat. Back in town, it's already 93 degrees at 1 p.m.

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