You are the beauty with too much makeup. Whispers fly — even from those who love you — of your questionable tastes and frequent babblings...

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SEDONA, Ariz. — You are the beauty with too much makeup. Whispers fly — even from those who love you — of your questionable tastes and frequent babblings of mystical import. Your skin crawls with cosmic prospectors and vehicles culled from a box of Crayolas. You are strange.

You imagine yourself metaphysical Mecca, but you’re really metaphysical Vegas: “Come one, come all, to the Greatest Show on Earth! In this ring, the wacky! In that ring, the tacky! (And over there, a little thing they call talacky-packy.) Sure, you might sweat some traffic and trip over a few real-estate agents, but listen, can I help it if people love me?”

Overappreciated! Overdeveloped! Overpriced! Over the rainbow! Ladies and Gentlemen: Elvis. Has. Left. The. Earthplane.

IT’S EASY, SOMETIMES, to forget the charm beneath all the mascara, but Sedona remains, at heart, spectacular. Two hours north of Phoenix amid the Coconino National Forest, the candy-corn sphinxes and massive red sundaes of earth towering over the city are a visual buffet, with names befitting their shapes: Coffeepot, Snoopy, Bell, Cathedral.

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John Wayne is still working the West but now is helping to promote one of the multi-hued Jeep tours of Red Rock Country.

See it all however you like — from your car, from a trolley, from a sightseeing plane or helicopter, from a falling parachute. Have a latte at the Ravenheart Cafe, whose terrace overlooking a red rock vista makes it possibly the most stunningly situated cafe in the Southwest.

For five bucks, you can get a Red Rock Pass for parking rights alongside starting points for hikes to views of stunning panoramas. “It’s hard to believe it’s real,” says Cory Nelson, a police detective from Cottage Grove, Wis., enjoying the view from atop one breezy ridge.

Sedona forms one edge of the so-called Verde Valley Loop, a recommended driving route for Arizona visitors that includes Jerome, Cottonwood, Clarkdale and the native ruins of Tuzigoot, a hilltop village built between 1125 and 1400. The winding road that traverses Oak Creek Canyon to Flagstaff, 30 miles to the northeast, was the state’s first designated scenic highway.

Three hours away: The Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Traveling with newborn son Dean, Abe and Amena Chenzaie, of Washington, D.C., have already been there, done that, so exhausted that they fell asleep this morning at the foot of one Sedona viewpoint. But they’ve seen enough for Abe to echo Sedona’s praises as “Immense. Beautiful. Unlike any other place in the world.”

Adds Amena: “We’ve traveled extensively, at least before the bandito (referring to her swaddled boy). It definitely beats the Caribbean.”

At Tuzigoot National Monument, Apache for “crooked water,” visitors tour Sinagua village ruins built between 1125 and 1400 rising above Verde Valley. There were few doors, so entry was by ladders through openings in the roofs.

These millennia-old remains of the enormous ancestral Rockies were sculpted over time by prehistoric, 300-mph winds, and the dinosaur fossils that once lay within them have since eroded away — in soil once higher than what anyone can see now. The red walls and spires, 5,000 feet above modern sea level, bear perfectly horizontal striations of limestone and sandstone, markers of ocean waters that once raged above.

At so-called Airport Vortex, small planes pass just overhead; in the distance, massive mounds of pottery-swirled rock rise over hazy horizons, regal as Icelandic islands. Here, the Earth feels simultaneously ancient, and new.

Unfathomable millennia gone by.

Just getting started.

IT WOULD SEEM THAT, with the possible exception of Baghdad, more Jeeps per capita roam Sedona than anywhere in the world, crawling over the surrounding landscape in competing, mood-ring hues.

The only wildlife visitors might see on a trip to Sedona is atop the Elks Lodge nearby in Clarksdale, just above the reserved parking spot for the “exalted ruler.”

The red Jeeps do the Old West thing, with cowboy-costumed tour guides. The dark-blue ones plumb Sedona’s spiritual side. The yellow Jeeps specialize in John Wayne terrain, sites familiar from Hollywood Westerns; the gray ones in wildlife-oriented tours featuring “critter demonstrations.”

Light-blue claims the guaranteed lowest prices, and even Humvees have barreled into the fray with “Jeep Eater” tours touting monster-truck dominance.

But the granddaddy of them all, wheeling across red rock since 1958, is Pink Jeep Tours, whose most popular route is the $65 “Broken Arrow” tour. As five of us climb into No. 33 of the company’s 58-Jeep fleet, driver Dennis Raden warns: “You’ll want to fasten your seatbelt. This ain’t no ordinary Jeep ride.”

The early March weather is overcast and cold, so we drape ourselves with the Mexican blankets issued when we got in. The Broken Arrow tour is named after a Jimmy Stewart movie filmed here in the 1950s, and residential street names en route still bear reminders of that time — Columbia, Universal, Paramount.

Raden, a retired insurance guy from Long Beach, Calif., seems nice enough. But as he vaults the Barbie-toned vehicle over the route’s introductory hump — engineered to keep out anything less rugged than a similarly modified Jeep — it becomes clear that he’s part taxi driver, part medieval dungeon master.

“Whew!” says passenger Laura Payne, of Poway, Calif. “I left my seat on that one.”

Deadpans Raden: “I love my job. I get to abuse you for the better part of two hours.”

And he does: As he negotiates the Jeep bounce by bounce over mean, mahogany mud trails, we’re jostled and tossed like a human stir-fry, whipped into chiropractic fodder. Still, in moments of calm, we snare glimpses of stunning scenery — bulges of rock jutting from brush-painted hillsides.

The grand, marbled mesa in the distance is the southern rim of the Colorado Plateau, the second-largest in the world, nearly the size of Montana. Its fiery red walls shimmer like curtains on the horizon as we lurch across the scattershot landscape. Around us, scraggly dead cypress reach from the earth like spindly black fingers grasping for life.

Amena Chenzaie, of Washington, D.C., snuggles with newborn son Dean by a mural of a Mexican village market while visiting Tlaquepaque, Sedona’s best known hub of shops and art galleries.

THOUGH TOURS LIKE THIS are now commonplace, white folks didn’t start burrowing in here until the late 1800s. One of them, according to the city chamber, was Missouri’s T.C. Schnebly, who petitioned the government for a post office after locals complained about slow and spotty mail service. But what to call it: Red Rock Crossing? Hmmm, too long. Schnebly? Luckily, T.C.’s brother suggested naming it after T.C.’s wife. And so the town of Sedona was born.

Terry Allred remembers watching 8mm footage shot by his dad in 1948, when Sedona barely had anything worth calling a downtown. Back in the ’60s, he says, the place would shut down in winter, but now, visitors are here all the time.

He should know. A retired car dealer, he mans a main-street booth for Krazy Kyote, which sells discounted tours paired with local timeshare visits. “You can’t stop the growth, so you have to control it,” he says. “And so far, they’ve done a real good job of controlling it.”

Sedona’s resident population hovers near 10,000, but the city entertains more than 4 million visitors a year, mostly in early spring and fall. Much of its service industry commutes in from its outskirts, from places like Cornville and Cottonwood.

Sedona is an artsy kind of town, birthplace of the Cowboy Artists of America, with one art gallery for every 300 residents. Many of those galleries dot Sedona’s theme-park-perfect main tourist thoroughfare, a sort of Carmel-by-the-Red-Rocks, where shops selling Western wear and Native American handiwork glitter under low-slung awnings.

Outside, bronze sculptures, quaint benches and carefully tended flowers decorate the stone-paved promenades. A few minutes drive away is the city’s artsy centerpiece — Tlaquepaque, an Old World village of shops modeled after the eponymous artists’ marketplace in Guadalajara.

If the tourism figures are to be believed, an average 10,000-plus people pass through Sedona daily; where does the town put them all? Still, it’s early March, barely the dawn of high season, and already it’s getting hard to find a parking space; already, on a Monday night, customers at restaurants like Javelina Cantina — featuring salmon tostadas and tilapia fajitas — are finding themselves on wait lists.

SEDONA’S REPUTATION as New Age center flowered in the 1980s after a local psychic pronounced it a perfect place to glean the planet’s natural energies. Since then, millions have come to expand their minds at the city’s four energy vortexes, to connect with other dimensions, to take inner excursions into the past. “Awaken your ancestral memories,” one tour beckons, offering $20-per-hour drumming ceremonies and guides with moony monikers like Jeru, Tarenta and Blue Evening Star.

Mountain bikers Pat Phillips, of Flagstaff, Ariz., and Erin Cooper, of Moab, Utah, stop at Chicken Point atop the Red Rocks to savor the view.

Another 150-minute tour runs $111/person and expertise “based on … more than 10 years of extensive studies of Earth energies.” Meanwhile, local seers offer “psychic surgery” and a chance to reach those “who have left the earthplane.”

Choose four two-tone bottles and “discover your soul purpose” at Wonder Full Things. Stop for a reading at Tlaquepaque’s Cards of Illumination. And don’t forget to ask for your free vortex map at Crystal Castle, which has been selling stones, tarot sets, fetishes, flutes and incense since 1986.

So many choices. Maybe you’re not sure who to call. Then try Cosmic Concierges, the self-dubbed “premiere directory of professional healers, practitioners and metaphysical services.”

As tackiness goes, Sedona has its share, even beyond a constant rash of crystalitis. On Highway 179 leading into town, just past the chapel turnoff, you’ll pass Silver Son West, a kitschy splash of metal vintage store and road signs as visually offensive against its earthy backdrop as graffiti. Schlockepaque, as it were.

You’ll still be reeling from the shock when one of the city’s many art plazas appears, its grounds marked by a garden of colossal, outdoor art imaginable in Italian villas or Vegas facades — but here?

MAYBE THE MOST magical of all of Sedona’s vortexes is the Crescent Moon. A flat fee per carload, then we park in the lot; a short walk later we’re along a rolling creek, atop a stretch of smooth red rock that seems to have been spread on with a knife.

At dusk, the lights of the Star Motel sign rise above Sedona and the town’s famous Red Rock background.

Meek evergreens rise to either side, but then we realize they’re mere sentries at the doorway of Cathedral Rock, gazing down in solemn silence. Just ahead, we notice the oddest thing amid the wisps of leafless trees — a sprouting of carefully constructed cairns, teetering rock pagodas enjoying the constant symphony of rushing water.

Closer, but carefully: The tiny hobbit village, its miniature towers 6 inches small to 2 feet tall, is camouflaged against the bed of glistening, stream-hugging rock.

Why are they here? Who built them? Everybody, it seems: Rocks populi. We add our own Lilliputian creations.

When we look up again, a spaceship has touched ground. Its inhabitants waddle toward us in delicate disarray against the bright light but as it all becomes clearer, it turns out to be a busload of mostly elderly Korean and Japanese tourists from California, pouring onto the flat plank of sandstone adjoining the creek. They sit, meditation-style, sponging up the quiet; some lie flat against the rock in silence; one woman walks to water’s edge and stretches her arms out toward Cathedral Rock, as if in offering.

“Do you know what is happening?” says Richard An, of San Diego. Headaches, inner turmoil, spiritual unrest — all cleansed by forces that exit the earth here, he explains. “You lay down,” he explains, pulling his palms toward his chest, “and the energy comes in.”

Nearby, Zin Metheny, of Snohomish, here with husband Wayne and Tom and Mary Fiers, of Wolf Creek, Mont., have been taking the town in. “We’re blown away every time we turn a corner,” she says. Although they’re not much into New Age stuff, they wanted to see a vortex after a bout of brew-pubbing in Flagstaff.

What else are they doing during their Sedona visit? Blank stares.

“Drinking beer,” Zin finally answers. “That seems to be our vortex.”

BACK IN RADEN’S JEEP, the adventure continues: There’s Mushroom Rock, a small knob of stone atop a bowl-shaped ridge which we skirt at unnerving speed, and a perilous staircase of rock down which the Jeep rocks and bucks with each falling step. Fillings shake loose from our teeth, or at least it feels like it.

Barreling down one throughway, we suddenly swerve onto a steep incline, leaving us at what feels like a 50-degree angle. “I have to do this,” Raden says, “because it’s on the brochure.”

At Submarine Rock, a long stretch of curvaceous rock unfurling into a pottery-molded dome, the temple-like rock surroundings and pockmarked, puddled-out rolls of sandstone clay provide a setting for souvenir self-portraits.

At so-called Chicken Point, we hop out onto a lilypad formation of rock. Massive swirls of sandstone form an overlook: Close in, to our right, a grand canvas of rock; to the left are hills of maroon, with the titanic Colorado Plateau beyond. Behind us, in the distance, is the early-evening glitter of Sedona, far from this transcendent beauty on which its reputation has been built.

Admires visitor Darius Joshi,, an Ann Arbor, Mich., a physician taking it all in: “Nature has its charm.”

Out here, we are alone. The only others within sight are a pair of hardy mountain bikers, who take a break at the edge of the lilypad precipice. We hike a gradual incline of about 50 feet, the compressed sand like rubber grips under our shoes, to a point where the Jeep looks as inconsequential as a bird on a rhino’s back.

Well, almost alone. Back in the Jeep, heading back down the trail, we find ourselves mano-a-mano with another tourist-filled Jeep climbing up. It grants us right-of-way, but there’s no denying it: We are part of Sedona’s fanfare, her paparazzi, her entourage. We still can’t take her seriously, but in the end she’s charmed us, the way she always does.

Mark Ramirez: