Blazing Arizona
In Sedona, The Hiking Runs Hot and Cold

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.

The Chapel of the Holy Cross -- another energy vortex, supposedly -- sits 200 feet above the Sedona valley. Its unmistakable facade is a 90-foot cross rising from two sandstone crags. Artist and philanthropist Marguerite Brunswig Staude, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed and built the chapel in 1956.

Inside it's cool and quiet, with hundreds of candles flickering in red glass holders. The wall behind the altar is glass, overlooking scenery that some feel is the most beautiful in the country. Giving a sermon here must be tough -- how can you compete with that view?

Seven miles north of town, homesteader Frank Pendley settled in what is now Slide Rock State Park in 1907. Pendley devised a clever irrigation system to water his apple farm that's still in use today, and he eventually built rustic cabins for visitors along Oak Creek Canyon, even before the road was paved. Westerns such as "Broken Arrow" and "Gun Fury" were filmed here in the 1950s.

Most visitors aren't here for a history lesson, however. The center of activity is the slick stretch of stone that gives the park its name.

Children squeal down natural waterslides as their mothers sun on the multicolored rock ledges and admonish them to be careful. "It's always a madhouse here in the summer," says ranger Brian Boggs. "We get thousands of people a day from all over the world -- Europe, Asia, Mexico." In high season, he adds, when the parking lot fills up, the park can only let in a car once another vehicle leaves.

Walk-ins, however, are welcome, and we enter to find a day at the beach, high-desert style, complete with folding chairs, coolers and towels lining the water. There's as much Spanish being spoken as English, with snatches of Japanese and German as well.

"Come on, man, do it!" says a tattooed teenager, goading a friend into leaping off a cliff along a deeper section of the creek. The resulting splash almost drenches Teresa Rosas, a college student up from Tempe, Ariz., for the weekend with some friends.

"It's just ridiculous down there now," she says, referring to the heat. "This place is such a relief." They've also come to shop and spend an afternoon at one of Sedona's many spas.

We're having too much fun sliding down the rocks into pools to notice the sky until it's almost too late. Dark clouds sneak up the canyon and unleash a biblical torrent with thunder and lightning. The canyon empties like a sinking boat, and dozens of muddy cascades turn the creek brown with runoff.

It's a 15-minute walk back to our car along the rain-slick highway. By the time we get there, the sweltering afternoon is a distant memory, and we scramble inside, shivering. As we drive back to our hotel, I reach forward and do what I hope I never will again. On a late July afternoon in Sedona, I turn on the heater.

Julian Smith last wrote for Travel on the Grand Canyon.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company