Sweet Sedona Adventures
Updated: Oct 27, 2020
You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth mentioning again … there’s just something magical about Sedona. The beautiful red rocks against a bright blue sky, the undercurrent of energy that you can feel but can't explain, the warmth of the people you meet, the contrast between the dry, dusty desert and the cool water and lush forest in Oak Creek Canyon. We just returned from our second trip to Sedona and fell in love again. If you crave adventure and the beauty of the outdoors, you came to the right place! Check out our Sedona itinerary, including our top 10 things to do in Sedona!
Dinner our first night at Mariposa with unbelievable views
Before I get into all the details, let me first explain how we came to be in Sedona two years in a row. Last fall, after our Zion, Bryce, Antelope, Grand Canyon whirlwind tour, we finished our vacation in beautiful Sedona. We just had a day and a half, and all we wanted to do at that point was relax by the pool. So, the only Sedona adventure we experienced was the Pink Jeep Broken Arrow Tour at sunset.
We had planned another National Park tour this fall: San Francisco, Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon. But then the wildfires started. We had no way of knowing what would be open in Yosemite and what the air quality would be like, so at the last minute, we cancelled Yosemite and booked Sedona! We knew where to stay – the Amara Resort – because we loved it last year. And we knew much of what we wanted to do – since we had bagged it all the year prior to veg by the pool. So, it was an easy, last-minute switch!
West Fork Trail in Oak Creek Canyon
Sedona in the fall is absolutely gorgeous – cool, crisp mornings and hot, sunny afternoons. The leaves in Oak Creek Canyon were just starting to turn when we were there. However, it seems others are realizing that fall in Sedona is the place to be, because it was way more crowded this year than last. We heard California residents are tired of the COVID shutdown and wildfires, and they’re leaving in droves for the wide, open spaces and predictable weather of Arizona. If you’re planning a trip to Sedona, book early! I can help you plan it or any other trip on your dream board! Check out my Personalized Travel Planning services.
Our Sedona Itinerary: Top 10 things to do in Sedona
This time around, we fell into a groove of a big adventure in the morning when it’s cooler and less crowded, a late lunch, and then a sprint to the pool to grab chairs or a cabana by late afternoon. The kids leapfrogged between pool and hot tub while hubs and I lounged with margaritas. After eating out our first two nights, we decided it was much more fun to stay at the pool and order from the hotel or get takeout. The kids were in heaven – no showers, no getting dressed, and dinner at the pool every night! So yes, our itinerary was adventurous, but we had plenty of time for relaxing, too!
1. Hot Air Balloon ride at sunrise
One mile up in a wicker basket, standing in a space that barely fits you, your family and the balloon pilot. Sounds crazy, right? It is! I’ve always wanted to brave a hot air balloon ride, and Sedona seemed like the quintessential place to do it. We splurged on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure, and it was worth it!
Two balloon operators exist in Sedona – Northern Lights Balloon Expeditions and Red Rock Balloons. Only eight balloons are allowed up per morning, so it’s really just a matter of finding availability. We booked with Northern Lights and loved our pilot, Dan. He was a wealth of knowledge about Sedona and ballooning and kept us calm even while he was working hard.
Dan picked us up at our hotel at 0 dark thirty (5:45am), because the balloons only fly at sunrise when the air is calmest. I booked the ride for our first morning, when getting up that early would be a piece of cake given the time change. (Arizona is on Pacific time, three hours behind us). We drove about 15 minutes to the launch site where five balloon teams were getting ready to fly. Watching the process of five balloons filling with air against the rising sun is awe-inducing. The kids were squealing with delight!
Once our balloon was ready, it was a mad scramble into the basket, and then we took off! It all happened so quickly; we didn’t have time to be nervous! And then we were flying! The rise up is so smooth, you don’t realize how high you are. But then you look down, and your stomach drops. I was shaky with nervousness for the first half, but then I gradually relaxed into it – if you can ever truly relax in a wicker basket a mile above the ground. While the view and experience are beyond amazing, I wouldn’t call the ride comfortable. You’re standing up in a not-so-roomy basket with hot air blasting above your head. And when I say blasting, I mean blasting. It’s loud! And hot! But when you’re up that high, the heat is welcome. Turn the sound on in the video below - that loud noise toward the end is the pilot activating the heaters!
Our pilot did most of the talking while we flew, which I think was a good thing, since we were all somewhat in a state of shock. We took pictures and videos and tried not to fall out of the basket. We flew for about an hour and then started our descent, grazing trees on the way down, which Dan said was intended to slow us down. No brakes! I fully expected our flight administrator, Roger, to be there to help us land. But we arrived before him, so we were on our own. Dan instructed us to bend our knees to absorb the shock and hold on tight. However, our landing was surprisingly smooth. Right away, the balloon falls and the basket wants to tip toward it. We all leaned hard the opposite way to try to keep us upright. We had to do that a few times, but we luckily stayed upright.
When Roger arrived, he and Dan quickly packaged up the balloon and basket while we explored a bit. The balloon collapsed right by a cow carcass – just the skin and bones - which the kids thought was pretty cool. Then we drove to the “picnic” spot and waited for all the balloon teams to arrive. This is where we learned about the other teams tipping and dragging upon landing! We felt quite lucky to have landed so smoothly! Once everyone arrived, we toasted with champagne and orange juice and snacked on apple fritters. Ballooning makes you hungry! We will remember this forever!
2. Pink Jeep Broken Arrow tour at sunset
The Pink Jeep adventure is from our Utah/Arizona trip last year and was one of the kids’ favorites. They wanted to do it again this year, but they were outvoted by Daddy and the hot air balloon. Pink Jeep is a must-do if you’ve never been! Book the last Broken Arrow tour of the day, so you're there for sunset.
3. Hike the West Fork Trail at Oak Creek Canyon
The babbling, beautiful Oak Creek meanders through Sedona offering peaceful shade and cool water. North of Sedona in the Coconino National Forest, Oak Creek forks, and if you take the West Fork Trail, you discover a lush, serene landscape in stark contrast to the desert and red rocks of Sedona. Don’t miss this hike! It’s an easy one – no major climbing unless you veer off the trail and want to scale the rock face like my son did – and so much shade that you’ll need a sweatshirt. The trail crosses the creek many times, so you will get a little wet – or a lot wet if you’re anything like my kids. We spent most of our time walking alongside (and in) the creek away from the main trail. You can hike as long as you’d like - just turn around when you get tired. The sign says the trail is 3.3 miles out, so 6.6 miles roundtrip, but I don’t think we went that far. We stopped to play at a slide pool where many people were congregating and ended up turning around there. This was our favorite Sedona hike!
Get there early (before 8am if possible) so you can get a real parking spot! Our biggest adventure of the day was parking on the side of the road – and we were lucky to get that cliff-hanging spot! Before we decided on which hikes to do, I checked the Back Country Cow blog.
4. Kayak the Verde River
Anywhere we are, if we have the option of kayaking or paddle-boarding, I’m in! Not sure if my husband would say the same, but my kids love being out on the water, too. I’ve kayaked the Na’Pali coast in Kauai – 17 miles of open ocean. It was one of the hardest and most beautiful things I’ve done in my life. Thankfully, I was paired with our guide vs. the friend I was traveling with or my husband. The Verde River boat guy calls the kayaks “divorce boats” because of all the fights they cause. 😋
I’ve never actually kayaked rapids, and I was ready! These were inflatable kayaks and had no rudder, so they’re not easy to steer, but man are they fun! The Verde rapids weren’t that big, but they were enough to keep us entertained. We’d paddle through the peaceful parts and then ride the rapids, which was so dang fun!! We got stuck on rocks a couple times, but the boat guy suggested playing bumper boats to help each other get unstuck. The kids were game for that! The boat guy also said not to freak out if you end up going backwards down a rapid. And go backwards we did! See the video below!
Halfway through, we beached at a rock so the kids could jump in and cool off. We took our time finishing the paddle, but still made it to the stopping point in less than two hours. We all loved it! The kids are ready to sign up for white water rafting on our next trip! Spring Break in the Smoky Mountains, here we come!
We booked through Sedona Adventure Tours. The meeting point was about an hour outside of Sedona in the middle of nowhere. You park at the end, and the guides drive you to the start where you get your boat and life vests. The tour was self-guided, which we liked. You paddle, float and ride the rapids four miles to the end where you parked.
5. Swim, slide and explore at Slide Rock State Park
Oak Creek played a starring role in our Sedona adventures! And it was a standout at Slide Rock State Park where you can slip and slide in the cold, clear water of the creek! We explored off the beaten path as usual, so we had some quiet time away from the crowds. It was mostly kids braving the icy water to “ride the slides”. I kept encouraging my kids to go in further, which was easy for me to say as I only had my feet in! We played for a couple hours and then stopped at the market on the way back to the car for an ice cream treat.
Get there early – 9am is good, noon is not. We thought we could go after ballooning, but cars were backed out on the street and the sign said it was at least a 90-minute wait. We went the following morning instead. Bring water shoes and lightweight towels
6. Experience the Vortexes
We wanted to experience Sedona’s vortexes, but we didn’t think doing it on our own would be that meaningful. I’m sure we would just hike to the “spot”, look around and try to “feel it”, and then my husband would crack a corny joke, the kids would whine, I’d roll my eyes, and then we’d turn around and head back to the car. 🙄
Because I wanted to be enlightened, I booked the Vortex and Medicine Wheel tour through Sedona Red Rock Tours. It was just our family and our spiritual guide, Akal. He’s exactly what you would imagine him to be – bright blue eyes, warm smile, weathered face, and scraggly grey beard. The only outlier is he drove up in a dusty Jaguar instead of a pickup truck.
Akal tailored the tour to us. We started out at the Airport Mesa Vortex where he taught us about vortex and ley lines – the supernatural lines that connect the universe. Where these lines intersect, there are pockets of concentrated energy that many people can feel. All of Sedona is considered to be a vortex, but there are specific sites where the energy crackles most intensely. Airport Mesa is one of them. We hiked and stopped to rest at an overlook where Akal guided us in meditation. I don’t think any of us necessarily felt any different energy up there, but being still and quiet up on the red rocks together was peaceful. We then drove to the Amitabha Stupa and Peace Park, a spiritual oasis deemed holy by native people. We performed a medicine wheel ceremony with blue cornmeal and percussion instruments, sending love to those that have gone before us and letting go of hurt and negativity. At the Stupa, the living presence of the Buddha, I prayed for peace and an end to COVID. The kids wrote down prayers, too, but wouldn’t share what they wrote. We soaked in the beauty of the red rocks and plan to explore Buddhism given we haven’t found our spiritual home yet in Indianapolis. Akal would be so proud.
Akal took us to two more sites, but it became obvious that the kids were winding down and hunger was calling our name, so he sent us off with love and a fabulous lunch recommendation - Picazzo’s Healthy Italian Kitchen.
We also hiked on our own and leveraged Back Country Cow to decide what to prioritize. One morning, we hiked up to the Birthing Cave – a cave that looks like the inside of a pregnant woman’s belly. There’s even an outie belly button you can sit in, but we couldn’t quite get to it because the walls were too slippery. The hike is easy until the very end when it gets quite steep and rocky. Once you’re in the cave, the views in and out are fantastic! We only saw a few other families, as this is a lesser-known hike and can be difficult to find. The first place we parked was not it! But the difficulty just adds to the adventure, right?! Screenshot the directions from Back Country Cow because cell service is iffy in that area. Look for the Long Canyon trailhead on the way to Enchantment Resort.
Next time we’d also like to hike Cathedral Rock and Devil’s Bridge and visit Chapel of the Holy Cross. The kids also decided they wanted to mountain bike next time - if we can steal them away from the pool, of course.
Our kids love playground ziplines, but they’ve never experienced a real zipline. I've done it in Whistler, and then Hubs and I ziplined in Costa Rica a few years ago. I remember being a bit terrified at times, especially watching the parents send their little kids out over the canyon. As we were planning Sedona, I gave my kids the option of ziplining or an outdoor adventure course, and they chose ziplining. Canyoneering in Zion proved that they don't shy away from heights or adventure, so we knew they were ready! The closest option is Out of Africa Wildlife Park where the ziplines cross over the wild animals. They call it the Predator Zipline! We were literally ziplining over lions, tigers and bears – and giraffes, zebras and wolves, too!
Out of Africa is about 45 minutes from Sedona. We were the last zippers of the day, so it was just our family and two guides. They drove us up to the first tower, and then we started walking up the looooooong staircase. I was panicking the whole way thinking about sending the kids off the platform and having no control. Our guides were very professional, engaging and reassuring, which helped calm me down. When it was my turn, I kept saying to the guy, “Are you sure? Are you sure?” I held my breath and took off. The guide on the other end stops you, so you don’t have to do a thing, which is different than ziplining in Costa Rica and way better. I made it to the other side alive, and after that, the next four zips were a lot easier. However, in between zips four and five is a super high suspension catwalk that was probably harder for me than the ziplines. We were clipped in, so logically I knew I couldn’t fall to my death. But my crazy imagination pictured me stumbling and falling through the ropes, hanging there precariously and not being able to calm myself enough to make it to the end. However, I activated my high-tech coping mechanism (singing my ABCs), didn’t look down and made it to the end. For the last zip, you get to race each other, which the kids and Daddy were really into. I, however, was just happy to be safe on the final platform, regardless of whether I won or not. ☺️ This was the kids' #1 adventure of the trip!
They don’t allow cameras or phones on the ziplines – because everyone drops them - but a photographer takes pictures of you on the last two zips. You can buy all the pictures for $40, which we did!
8. Picnic while stargazing
I’m putting this one on the list because it’s something we should have done and something we will do next time. The night sky in Sedona is otherworldly. I debated booking a Stargazing/UFO tour but decided we were spending enough money already. Next trip, we’ll pick up dinner and plan a stargazing picnic on our own. Sedona Secret 7 has recommendations on where to park for an amazing view. You want easy in/easy out because hiking in the dark is dangerous. In the fall, the sun sets around 6pm and it’s completely dark by 6:30pm, so it doesn’t have to be a late night!
9. Stroll and shop at Tlaquepaque
We didn’t make it this visit, but last year we strolled the picturesque Tlaquepaque Old Mexican Village in search of Christmas gifts and souvenirs. This outdoor market of art galleries and gift shops with cobblestone paths and stone archways is incredibly charming and lives up to its description of “The Art and Soul of Sedona.” Ava and I got lost wandering through the stores and pathways and spied on a wedding reception. We planned to have dinner there this year, but again, the pool took priority. That seems to be a common theme.
10. Veg out in a pool cabana with a jalapeno margarita
We ended every day at the Amara pool with a margarita in hand watching the kids play like best friends. Before dark, we would order dinner and then relax in the hot tub waiting for the pool lights to come on. Because as we all know, swimming after dark in a lit-up pool is pretty much the coolest thing ever - the perfect way to end your day in the desert!
Where to stay in Sedona
This was round two for us at the Amara and it did not disappoint! We’ve had a pool/red rocks view room both trips (an inner courtyard view), and this year we had a ground floor room right off the pool, which was so convenient. I don't think we'd be as happy with an outer room.
While the pool could get quite crowded and sometimes we had to wait to get a cabana or chairs, we still appreciated the intimacy and convenience of everything being right outside our door. The Amara is in Upper Sedona and is a short walk to shops, restaurants, and tour operators.
While we were there, I had the pleasure of touring the Enchantment Resort, a perk of being a travel consultant and blogger. Enchantment is a 70-acre luxury resort nestled in Boynton Canyon with breathtaking views. All 218 casitas have a private deck or patio overlooking the canyon. If my kids saw the pool, they would never want to leave. I hear the restaurants are outstanding, too. Unfortunately, due to COVID, non-guests are not allowed in the restaurants. This was true of many Sedona resort restaurants.
Enchantment is a bit out of the way – a 15+ minute drive from Sedona – so be prepared to do some driving or just stay put and enjoy the beauty of Boynton Canyon. I think next trip, we will try Enchantment!
Where to eat in Sedona
We may not be the best experts of where to eat in Sedona given we ordered from Salt Rock Kitchen (Amara’s restaurant) by the pool so many nights, but we did have a chance to try a few we can recommend. Regardless of where you decide to dine, make reservations before you go!
For a nice night out, Mariposa would be my top pick! The views were incredible as was the food. I’m still dreaming about the kale salad, empanadas, and seafood stew. However, Mariposa does not have a kids’ menu so beware if you’re bringing your kids. In fact, I think our kids were the only ones I saw there. We ordered the chicken dish for them to split and they made do.
View from Mariposa restaurant
Elote Café tops everyone’s list as the place to dine in Sedona for what I would call eclectic Mexican. We weren’t able to get reservations, but we did order takeout by the pool one night. Hubs and I liked it, but eating good food out of a plastic container is never the same as experiencing the real deal. We also heard Tamaliza was amazing for authentic Mexican.
We kept Salt Rock Kitchen at Amara in business the week we were there – a couple brunches, five dinners, and more drinks than we should count. Jalapeno margaritas, salads, tacos, and huevos rancheros for me and my hubs. Burgers, chicken tenders, and waffles for the kids.
Amara's Salt Rock Kitchen after dark
When COVID is under control and non-guests are allowed again, try the restaurants at Enchantment and L’Auberge.
For breakfast, Casa Sedona Inn was lovely on our way out of town. We enjoyed HP Café last year. And I hear Briar Patch Inn right on Oak Creek is outstanding, although they’re not accepting non-guests right now.
As always, we reveled in our time away together and will always remember our adventures, but we relished coming home to our sweet, furry ones. Many thanks to our dog sitter, Bonnie, who kept us connected to Tootsie and Teddy with a daily dose of photos and videos that we fought over.
Heather Vergara is a former PepsiCo marketing executive who left the corporate world to be a Mom and never looked back. In addition to travel and adventure, Heather is passionate about kindness, community, whole food, and sweating every day. Heather has an MBA from Indiana University, a Digital Marketing Exec Ed certificate from Columbia University, and a BA in Journalism from the University of North Carolina. She lives with her husband, two kids and two furry dogs in Zionsville, Indiana.