I never knew the Southwest could be so fun -- and I very happily live right in sunny Phoenix. But I'm on a travel high, back to report on my findings and adventures following a recent trip to stunning Sedona. We even ended up setting off a day early, so three days became four (always nice to add another vacation day to the agenda). As soon as the spectacular views of the infamous red rock formations yawned into sight, we knew we'd made the right decision.
It's how we like to travel: plan, but be flexible. I had laid out our itinerary in Red Rock Nation: 3 Days Of Sedona Awesomeness. But in the end, it served as a guide for us to plan around, not a rigid game plan. With much excitement, we checked into the charming little Bell Rock Inn (with our extra night!), without a hitch.
And our adventure began. Our easy two-hour drive from Phoenix ended up serving as the calm before the storm. And as thrill-seekers, we loved every minute of it.
Bell Rock Inn
The Bell Rock Inn offers a cozy enclave set just outside of West Sedona in Oak Creek Village. I probably should have conducted more ample research, as I had thought we'd be plunked down right smack dab in the center of Sedona (and the Bell Rock website specifically lists they are in Sedona), but they are actually about 10 minutes south of it. But it was just a short drive into town.
The hotel is owned by Diamond Resorts, which offers a "Vacation for Life" plan. The trouble is, and unbeknownst to me, this is a timeshare-type resort with worldwide locations. They have a check-in counter and a "concierge" counter. Head to the wrong one, and you will be stuck in timeshare pitch hell; cheesy Sears suits and condescending candor included at no extra cost.
As we left the checkout counter, one of the concierge attendants greeted us with a smile (that matched his used car salesmen suit) and informed us that we had not entered the raffle for a grand prize of $100. I kindly informed him that we were not interested in the raffle, thinking that this would be the end of such sales-centered interruptions. But that was not the case.
To our surprise, especially for the meager price we paid, only about $110 per night, our room was rather cozy and well-outfitted. It included a kitchenette with seating for two, a couch with a pull-out sofa sleeper, large king-sized bed, a private patio, nice bathroom (with fold-out mirror, hair dryer and amenities), and a decent-sized closet. The TV, which was mounted to the wall above the fireplace, did not pull out enough for good coverage from the bed, but it was the least of our concerns. We had too much exploring to do to worry about that!
We made a quick trip to the local Chevron to stock up on guilty pleasure items: energy drinks, water, Rogue Voodoo Donut (Banana and Peanut Butter), and a Stone mix six-pack. Once situated, we knew that it was time for a run to shake off the drive, so we could get into the mix of our four-day adventure.
An Early Evening Run
To clock our run, and get a bit of red rock sightseeing in, we first drove a bit out of town, ending up at beautiful Bell Rock Park. Note the lines on these desert iron-red cliffs - they say that these lines were where the ocean waters used to lap. When the iron in the rock mixed with the salt water, it turned the rock and the mud red, hence the artistic, natural expression it is today.
After clocking a few miles out of town, we reversed trajectory, deciding instead to stay in Oak Creek and run through the clean thoroughfares there, complete with an overabundance of traffic circles that kept the traffic flow steady, but crawling at a 35 mph pace.
With time for a nice jog before the sun set, we headed back to the hotel to get our daily exercise in. After clocking the perfect up- and downhill, 1.5 mile trek, we were off. As you can see from the photo, running in Sedona (or at least its outskirts) is invigorating. Cool wind, 85 degrees (which is a nice temperature for a Phoenix dweller), and the clean streets provide you with the serenity and peace-of-mind called upon by runners seeking that special workout high.
After a quick shower, it was officially time to begin our adventure. On this evening, we enjoyed taking in the sights of the beginning of the second full moon in the month, which is actually a very rare "blue" moon, whilst on our way to the Oak Creek Brewery and Grill to try their world-famous beer. It was difficult to photograph, as there was ample cloud coverage, but we tried our best.
Blue moons are especially rare. According to Wikipedia, they are an additional full moon that appears only during subdivisions of the year. Usually, they comprise the third moon of four full moons in a season, or the second full moon that occurs in a month of the calendar that already hosts a full moon. To make this easier: when 13 moons occur in a calendar year as opposed to 12, the 13th moon is a blue moon.
Oak Creek Brewery & Grill
Our first stop was the Tlaquepaque (pronounced Tla-keh-pah-keh; try saying that three times fast!) Arts & Crafts Village, where we peeked into the famous Oak Creek Brewery and Grill to get our grub on and sample their renowned beers. Their grill features a broad American menu, of which we ultimately decided to dine on steak and mashed potatoes with salad as a starter.
While I can't really speak in spades over the quality of the steak (as Outback, a chain restaurant, has far superior steak), the beer was really what we were there for; and it was amazing, indeed. We enjoyed a full flight that consisted of their Forty-Niner Gold Lager, Horseshoe Hefeweizen, Doc's Pale Ale, Snake Charmer IPA, Oak Creek Amber Ale and Village Nut Brown Ale, with a special Orange Blossom seasonal brew to top it off.
By and far, the Nut Brown Ale gets my winning credos here. It's got a really nice nose with a very smooth undertone, palatable aftertaste, and a very creamy top. It is easily combinable with most things that you'd ever want to ingest, and ideal for drinking on a hot summer day, when fishing, on a boat, or wherever your next adventure finds you.
A Last-Minute Plan
We decided to go out and didn't want to risk driving, but a quick Google search located a pub called PJ's that was located within walking distance. Score!
A brisk jaunt down the street, and we were at this dive bar - a cowboy-styled saloon, complete with peanut shells on the floor, western music blaring from the juke box, and tables rounded by drunken cowboys.
Yep, we were ready to get some drinks in and play a few rounds of pool. Surprisingly, although the place was dirty, and half-empty glasses and uncleaned tables surrounded us, the interior noise deafened by the hum of music on the juke box and patrons yelling in their drunkenness, the people were friendly and welcoming. A few hours spent here, and it was time to stumble back to the hotel room and get some shut-eye in so we could prepare for our initially-planned itinerary, seeing as we had arrived a day early and all.
Desert Flour Bakery
Friday morning we ate breakfast at the Desert Flower Bakery in Oak Creek Village. We dined on an American standard: eggs with cheese, toast and bacon. Everyone was on a first-name basis, and the food and coffee were great. There was even a semi-bar that offered several beers on tap - including my new favorite: Nut Brown Ale.
The ATV Adventure
After hurriedly ingesting our delightfully quaint breakfast, we quickly made our way back to the hotel room to prepare for the day's activity: Sedona ATV Rental & Off Road Adventures. They take you on an exciting (and butt-numbing) 30-mile trek through Red Rock State Park. We arrived early and were greeted by a very nice guide named George. We got lucky and were just part of a two-couple crowd: my wife and I, and a pair of happy newlyweds visiting from New York City. After about a 20-minute safety session, and a short ride around the training course with our guide, we loaded up into a large, old van and headed out for the state park.
The guided tour took us miles into Red Rock Park, where the picturesque views are truly second-to-none. With several stops along the way, there was plenty of time for photo ops, reapplication of sunscreen (thank goodness), and watering up.
A good three hours of adventuring on an ATV, which included my wife and I taking turns driving on a two-seater, and we were officially covered with dust and grime, and were ready to head back into town to enjoy the graceful welcoming of a hot shower.
Uptown & The Guided Vortex Tour Adventure
After cleaning up, we headed uptown into west Sedona to check in for a guided tour of the Vortex anomalies. Uptown is quite the place to be if you are tourist - sort of a new age version of Old Town Scottsdale, near where we live in Phoenix.
Yes, you can still buy the gaudy jewelry that beckons to tourists in Southwestern old towns - but you can also get your aura picture taken, have your future predicted, get energy work done, and just about everything else "hippie-new-age" under the sun... all for the right price of course (that's the kicker).
Uptown is a confluence of various shops, eateries, cafes, bars and tourist attractions, all laid out synchronously, leading you from one tourist destination to the other, as your wallet slowly thins along the way. It was filled with a consortium of tourists and locals alike, all who would vanish around 9pm, when the shops closed and most of the city goes quite. Welcome to Sedona.
After checking-in, we soon embarked on a fascinating guided tour of the Vortexes. Our guide informed us that crystals line the earth's crust and that electric-magnetic energy comes out of the earth, which you can sometimes feel, and that it warps the way that trees grow.
It seems really odd until you actually see it for yourself. I had to snap a picture of one tree that the guide referred to as his favorite "vortex tree," labeled as such because of the way that the limbs bend and twist unnaturally in response to the influx of this energy anomaly. It's interesting to say the least. At certain vortexes, we could definitely feel and hear the hum of something (but it may have just been our hungry tummies).
Towards the end of our guided tour, we were taken high upon on a mountain near the Sedona Airport. There, we were able to visit the Masonic lodge, which was built more than 50 years ago, but has somehow fallen into a bit of disrepair. People say that the big cross on the hill lights up at night, but they no longer light the star because people complained that it looked like a Star of David.
Odd why people would complain about one religious symbol and not another in a town that fancies itself as being so open-minded and progressive (regardless of the fact that the city code in Sedona is so strict that even the McDonald's there has turquoise arches, not by any choice of its own).
Open Range Grill In Uptown
Following the end of our guided Vortex tour, it was time to eat. We had friends on their way up to meet us that evening, but we were just too famished to wait for them to arrive. As we strolled through Uptown, we came across a place called the Open Range Grill, where we had a decent snack.
Our friends ended up running more than fashionably late, and we were again fighting the rumbly-tummy syndrome again. This time, we came across the Blue Moon Café, conveniently located directly across the street from our hotel. We were greeted by a live band playing on the patio and were stunned that they were able to play so loud so late without getting any flak from nearby residents or the local police department, like you would back at home.
Even though they were five minutes within closing time, we were met by a friendly host, who took our order and promptly seated us. A simple grilled chicken sandwich and fries (which were awesome fries, by the way) were perfect, washed down by a delicious glass of Nut Brown Ale from Oak Creek Brewery (I just couldn't get enough of this damned amazing beer).
PJ's & Good Company
Finally, our friend Cory and his girlfriend, Jessie, phoned us to inform us that they had checked into the hotel. It was already 11 pm, mind you, so we headed back to PJ's for a late night of pool, drinking, and socializing.
Nearby where our hotel room was situated, there was a nice picnic table atop a small, grassy knoll. There we sat and enjoyed gourmet beers and vodka, conversing until the wee hours of the morning dawned, when we all slowly made our way back to our respective rooms and bedded down.
Horseback Riding Adventure
On Saturday morning, we cooked breakfast in our room and then headed to Cottonwood, where we toured the town and enjoyed more Oak Creek beers at Stromboli's, as we waited for time to pass so we could embark on our next adventure: Horseback riding at Dead Horse Ranch State Park.
After finding a deal on Trail Horse Adventures online for a 90-minute guided horseback tour of the park, we knew we were in for a treat. Once we had selected our horses and watched a five-minute demonstration of how to ride western saddle, we were geared up and ready to go.
We crossed over 10 miles of trail and saw pioneer grave sites, old farming equipment, and crossed creeks. We had a blast. David, our guide, was a very experienced rancher and provided some viable information about various plants, some of the history of the park, and even some tips on finding new cowboy-like adventures that we could pursue in the future.
Danielle's horse, Archie, was the sweetest horse we have ever met, and she couldn't help but get a nice picture in of her droopy-eyed and affectionate horse before we departed. He was almost like a big, loveable, goofy giant, comparable at times to our sluggish English mastiff, Lilly.
At certain points during our jaunt, Archie would stop and just nuzzle Danielle's legs affectionately, bringing back fond memories of my days growing up on a horse ranch in upstate New York. Indeed, I do reminisce about those days.
All-in-all, horseback riding was interesting, but was also not without its limitations. Trail horses are rather bored creatures and will stop to graze at any chance they get along the trail - but beginners would no doubt be completely comfortable on these guys. The horse I got was also very unresponsive; regardless of kicks or prods, sometimes he would just stubbornly stand there and refuse to move.
There were periods when Danielle and the guide had to stop several times so "slow-poke" and I could catch up. It was still a great time, but it also served as a learning lesson. That lesson being: I need to go horseback riding on the open terrain where I can lope and cantor and gallop to my heart's content with a more responsive horse.
Fine Dining At Schoolhouse
After making our way back to Oak Creek Village, about an hour's journey, we briefly revisited our hotel room for a pit stop. A hot shower and a good hour of rest, and we knew that we had just enough time to grab a nice meal before we had to head out to Jerome for one of the last big adventures on our itinerary: ghost hunting.
Unsure of where to eat (and I know that I had listed restaurants like Rene and Saddle Club in my original expose, but these just were not suiting us at the time), we began exploring. Within a few minutes of driving around, we found a newer restaurant that still brandished the "Grand Opening" sign, called Schoolhouse.
We were unsure of just what to expect. It had the posh vibe of a high-class Scottsdale joint but the candor and progressiveness of the classic Sedona mindset. It was upscale and gourmet, that was for sure; an all-natural restaurant that reminded us of a few local favorites like Salty Sow that we frequent back in Paradise Valley.
After being informed that a table would take 30 minutes (and we were pressed for time), we found seating at the bar. The service was prompt and courteous, and I was able to get more of the Nut Brown Ale that I had been living on for the past three days.
While the main course was amazing, the thing that made me really gush about this restaurant was their signature Dr. Pepper fried chicken wings, which came with a spicy, creamy dip. I've had plenty of wings in my day, but these were by far the very best of the bunch (just thinking about them makes me salivate). With our tummies once again fully stuffed, it was time to embark to Jerome, about an hour's drive, to try and scare the crap out of ourselves as we attempted to hunt ghosts.
If you have never been to Jerome, know that this town has a truly dark history. Located at the top of Cleopatra Hill (about 5,200 feet up), the trek is narrow and winding, as you drive on curvy roads at 20 mph (don't exceed the speed limit because the cops will pull you right over to generate more funds for this tourist town that has no other economy to speak of).
Now Jerome is a trip in and of itself. It's eerie from the moment you park and start walking up the sloped roadways. There, we met up with Cory and Jessie at the Ghost Town Tours, where our guide, Scott, provided us with EVP tracking devices and spirit boxes, as we set out on a four-hour guided tour of the town.
Little did we know that an estimated 50,000 people had died in Jerome over the years. Nor were we aware that it was once the richest mining town in the world. Back in the day, businesses would host their actual business on the second floor to circumvent odd taxation laws. As a result, numerous buildings had fielded countless fatalities over the past century, namely from unexplained fires.
In the olden times, the undocumented citizens would often have their corpses dumped in the copper smelter to avoid having to pay for a costly burial. Indeed, life was cruel and unusually harsh for those who grew up and lived in this mining town. As our guide took us to different haunted places, our EVP meters lit up, our memories soaked in the terrifying history of this spooky place.
At one point, we were peering into the old jail, which is inaccessible to the public. There we saw several floating apparitions, including a lady in a white dress who was crying in the jail cell. She would rattle the door and scream out as a shade that appeared to be a jailor paced back and forth.
We were able to communicate with dozens of ghosts by using the spirit boxes and walking around to different haunted locations. Our cameras clicking, we even caught some truly spooky specimens on film that still freak us out to this day. Indeed, Jerome turned out to be an amazingly creepy, haunted adventure. As a result, Danielle and I are looking forward to doing some serious ghost hunting on future adventures abroad.
We ended our evening by grabbing a few beers at a local spot called Paul & Jerrys Saloon. It was filled with friendly townsfolk who were busy drinking it up on a Saturday evening. About the time that midnight crept around, we knew that it was time to head back to our hotel and call it a night.
An Uninvited Guest
Saturday night came and went, and come Sunday morning, it was time to pack up and prepare for the drive home. As we collected our things, before grabbing a quick breakfast, we talked about the amazing adventures we had enjoyed over the past four days and how they were truly unique.
I do feel like I can't finish our story without mentioning one freak-out moment. We found a large, black spider hanging out on our bedding that morning - the little bastard had apparently nestled up with us all night long. We didn't suffer any bites and are unsure of what type of creepy-crawler it was. But you can decide for yourself based upon the provided picture. Ah, the Southwest!
Of other interest was the hotel's repeated attempts to sell us on a time-share package. Our red light on the phone beeped with three messages from the "concierge" regarding a "special offer," "important paperwork I had forgotten to sign at the front desk," and a "prize."
Not caring, I never phoned back to receive the time-share marketing pitch. They even went as far as to tape their time-share ad to the door following our express checkout. Notably, however, everything else about this hotel was magnificent. Just ease up on the pitch, guys!
Hiking Bell Rock
Our trip would yield one final adventure before we called it quits. Not truly satisfied with our Vortex jeep tour, we decided to visit the Bell Rock Vortex ourselves and do some hiking. About a mile in, we started secretly following a hippie, who had ventured off the main path and onto a hidden path. We kept going, hoping that he would lead us to Vortex gold. And he ultimately did.
We came across the same Vortex trees and a special spot at the base of the mountain where the view was spectacular, and the energy seeping off the Vortex was omnipresent. Stacked rock art was strewn about, perhaps laid by other visitors or a creation stemming from previously hosted, pot-infused, drum circle gatherings.
We enjoyed a good 30 minutes of solitary meditation as we took in the clean air and breathtaking views, and absorbed the energy of this anomaly, which you can literally feel from your toes to your nose. Knowing that the time had finally arrived for us to depart, we solemnly hiked back to our car and began the trip home. This had been a truly exceptional adventure. But like all good things, it did eventually have to come to an end.
Coming Up Next...
Our Southwest adventures are just beginning! Next up: a cowboy adventure at Hideout Ranch on the Arizona, New Mexico border. They provide an all-inclusive luxury cabin with as much food and drink (including beer) as you can muster. We'll be donning full western gear with authentic replica weapons, camping, hunting, riding, and trekking, as we explore the historic trails and hunt for ghosts in some of the most famous ghost towns in the Wild West-esque Southwest.
We'll keep you posted!
This article was graciously edited by a very patient Abby Tegnelia.