Last spring, as we headed north from Phoenix to visit the Grand Canyon, we stopped to see Sedona, AZ. We found easily accessible dispersed camping in the Coconino National Forest, within a reasonable drive of the many things to do in Sedona, but also near National Park Sites such as Tuzigoot and Montezuma Well. We found so many things to do in Sedona, we stayed for 2 weeks instead of the couple days we originally planned!
Free Camping in the Coconino National Forest
Right off I-17, exit 298, is access to the Coconino National Forest. Dispersed camping is permitted for up to 14 days; try to choose a site with evidence of previous use, which shouldn’t be hard.
We especially loved how dark the skies were at night. There was minimal light pollution and we enjoyed having a clear view of the night skies.
Things to Do in Sedona
Sedona is well-known for its beautiful red rock formations and several so-called energy vortexes. We decided to start with a hike around the Airport Loop trail, named for the airport sited atop a mesa. Trailhead parking, which is very limited, was full already when we got there. We drove further up the raid and parked in a pay lot near the airport. The parking fee was cheap ($3 in 2017) and there were ports-potties there, affording everyone one last chance to go before we set out on our hike. There is a connector, the Sedona View trail, from this lot to the Airport Loop trailhead. We hiked clockwise around the Mesa, but were I to do it again I would hike counter-clockwise, starting across the road from the trailhead parking. Altogether it was a little over 5 miles of hiking, including the connector from the pay lot. If you get there early enough to park at the Airport Loop trailhead, you could save maybe a mile. It was a very achievable hike for families with kids, since their elevation changes are modest, but probably not a good hike for an absolute beginner or someone afraid of heights. A significant part of the trail is close to steep slopes or drop-offs.
There is supposed to be a “vortex” along this trail. None of us felt or sensed anything out of the ordinary on this hike. When I researched beforehand, I found references to trees on the mesa that were supposedly twisted by the energy vortex. We did see plenty of twisty junipers in a variety of places, but there are trees like that at most elevated places, twisted not by mystical swirling energy, but the wind.
We also did some shorter hikes, but sadly I failed to record the trail names. They were all fun and beautiful, though! There are so many great hikes in Sedona that I recommend buying a hiking guide if you’re going to spend more than a day or two. Normally I wouldn’t spend money on a paper guidebook that would just clutter up the RV later on, but you might order an inexpensive used one online before you go, and resell it or pass it on to another traveler when you’re done with it.
A “Red Rock” pass is required for use of National Forest lands in the Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon area. (See map) If you have a national park pass, such as the America the Beautiful pass, Every Kid in a Park pass, Access pass, or Senior pass, it will be honored. Simply leave it in your vehicle’s display hanger. A pass is not required for a brief stop to take a photo or look at a scenic viewpoint, but if you will be leaving your vehicle to hike, picnic, etc in the applicable area, you need a pass. If you don’t have a national park pass, you can purchase a one-day Red Rock Pass for $5, a seven-day Red Rock pass for $15, or an annual Red Rock pass for $20.
Things to Do Nearby
While camping near Sedona, we visited several sites of historical significance.
A single admission fee grants visitors access to both Tuzigoot National Monument and Montezuma Castle National Monument. Admission is $10 per person, with children 15 and under free, and is good for seven days, so you don’t have to rush to see both sites in a single day. Of course, if you have one of the national park passes, then your admission is free anyway!
Montezuma Castle has a visitor center with some information about the Sinagua people, and a paved path leading to views of the “castle.” Not a castle at all, it is a well-preserved cliff dwelling. In past times, Visitors were allowed to explore inside the dwelling, but to protect the site, visitors now must remain outside, down on the ground. A detailed model is displayed so visitors can se what the inside looks like, though. The local schools were on break and it was busy the day we were there. A ranger was available to answer questions and talk about the dwelling. I don’t know how many times we overheard someone ask him, “How did they get up there?”
Each time he patiently responded that they had ladders. One man retorted, “But what about the women and children?”
I was floored. Never before had I encountered an individual who believed women can’t climb ladders! Truth be told, the women and children of the Sinagua people were probably much more physically capable than this guy!
About 11 miles away, Montezuma Well is a limestone sinkhole, nearly 400 feet in diameter. Used a a source of irrigating water for over a thousand years, this body of water has a unique collection of life. The water is too carbonated and contains too much arsenic for fish to survive, but a handful of well-adapted creatures have made a home there, some of which are found in no other known place on earth. Not only is Montezuma Well of interest from a geological and biological perspective, but it is a beautiful setting for a walk and some bird-watching. Guided birding walks are offered- contact the park or check the website for dates and details. Curly and Sparky, along with their father, went on a guided bird walk and really enjoyed themselves. The volunteer guide was able to accommodate a wide range of experience, and the other participants were friendly and welcoming.
Tuzigoot National Monument protects the ruins of another Dinaguan dwelling, a little different in style from the cliff dwelling at Montezuma Castle. The site was excavated and partially recontructed in the 1930’s. Today the visitor center houses a fabulous little museum. A paved 1/3 mile loop leads visitors around and through the pueblo ruins. There is little shade on the path, so a hat, sunscreen, and water are recommended.
As beautiful and educational as those sites all were, our favorite part of our Sedona-area visit was the V-Bar-V Heritage site. This petroglyphs site is gated and well-preserved. Open only on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, a volunteer docent is on site to present information about the petroglyphs, and answer questions, It was wonderful to be able to see the petroglyphs up close, rather than through binoculars while standing at a distant viewing point. There is a fee to access this site; either the Red Rocks Pass or a National Parks pass will be honored. There is a kiosk in the parking area to purchase a Red Rocks Pass if you don’t already have it.
There are so many things to do in Sedona and nearby that a family could spend even more time than the 14 days we were there. We plan to go back again sometime and hope you get a chance to check it out as well!
If you’ve already had a chance to visit, what were your favorite things to do in Sedona? Tell us in the comments!