Credit: Camille Gullickson
As a parent who loves outdoor adventures, I am often looking for sunny destinations for our school breaks that aren’t too far from the Pacific Northwest. One place in particular — Sedona, Arizona — has always had a place at the top of my list for its magnificent red rock formations, mild climate and endless blue skies.
We finally took our first trip to this high-desert Arizona town during spring break several years ago, and we loved it so much that we planned another trip this past fall. Spending two solid weeks in this beautiful outdoor-adventure destination during two different seasons allowed us to revisit our favorite activities and try some new ones.
If you’re planning a trip to Sedona, chances are you’re an outdoor enthusiast interested in hiking and adventuring among the massive red rocks, along the canyons and within surrounding national parks. But to be honest, hiking is not a big draw for our teen these days, so I made sure to plan plenty of less vigorous activities, too. Read on for “family-tested, family-approved” activities in and around Sedona.
Hike to spectacular vistas.
Sedona is a popular hiking destination because of its favorable climate and impressive views, and as a consequence, trails (and parking lots) can be overflowing. By preparing a list of hikes ahead of time, we were able to be flexible, letting go of some ideas and substituting a few trails we hadn’t planned on instead.
A few of our favorite family-friendly hikes in Sedona when our kids were younger included: West Fork of Oak Creek Trail (6.5 miles), a moderate hike, with many creek crossings that keep kids engaged; the Devil’s Bridge Trail (1.8 miles), worth it if you can get a coveted parking spot (cross the bridge if you dare!); Fay Canyon Trail (2.3 miles), a highlight of our first trip and the first hike we returned to; Doe Mountain Trail (1.5 miles), a moderate loop to the top of a mesa and back, affording dazzling views all along the way; and the Boynton Vista Trail (1.1 miles), a vortex spot featuring interesting spires.
On our most recent trip, we revisited a few wonderful hikes from the first trip, but also added some new ones: Bell Rock (1.8 miles), with its splendid panoramic views and loads of photo opportunities; Chapel Trail (1.3 miles), starting at the Chapel of the Holy Cross and ending in 360-degree red rock views; Subway Cave (lengths and routes variable; 4.6 miles from Boynton Canyon, according to our app), our most ambitious hike, involving scrambling up a crevasse into a cave but with a payoff of spotting cliff dwellings; and a nice urban hike along Brewer Trail (1.5 miles) to take in scenic views of Sedona and many nearby red rock landmarks.
Tip: Nearly all of the hikes in the area require a Red Rock Pass, and although there are places to get them locally, I bought our seven-day pass ahead of time at recreation.gov.
Marvel at the cliff dwellings and cave paintings at the Palatki and Honanki Heritage Sites.
Visiting the Palatki Heritage Site and its sister site, Honanki, located about 40 minutes from downtown Sedona, was a highlight of our recent visit. Here, you will find the largest cliff dwellings of red rock country, dating A.D. 1150–1350. To visit, you’ll need to make a reservation at the recreation.gov website; once you’re at the sites, knowledgeable docents will take you on a tour of the Sinagua cliff dwellings and to view the pictographs and petroglyphs (some of which predate even the cliff dwellings). The visitor center, housed in the former ranch house of one of the area’s first Euro-American settlers, Charles Willard, also makes an interesting stop, and there are nice picnic spots nearby.
Tip: This area is only accessible via a long, rough gravel Forest Service road. Consider renting an appropriate adventure vehicle for your Sedona trip. (We chose a compact SUV.)
Visit the Chapel of the Holy Cross at sunset.
I’m not sure how I missed the Chapel of the Holy Cross on our first visit, because it’s considered one of the top attractions in Sedona. The mid-20th-century chapel, located about 10 minutes from downtown Sedona, is perched among the red rocks and was commissioned by Marguerite Brunswig Staude, a local rancher and sculptor who drew inspiration from the construction of the Empire State Building. The chapel is open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. seven days a week, except for Christmas Day and Easter, and there is no charge to visit or to park (though donations are welcomed).
Explore the ghost town of Jerome and learn about Arizona’s mining history at Jerome State Historic Park.
A visit to the former Wild West copper mining town of Jerome (founded in the late 19th century), located on a hill about 40 minutes southeast of Sedona, makes a fun family day trip. Considered by some to be the “largest ghost town in America,” it’s easy to explore by foot, and you’ll likely to encounter enough ruins and oddities, such as the Sliding Jail, and shops and galleries to suit your fancy. Be sure to visit Jerome State Historic Park, which is devoted to the history of Jerome, area mining and the Douglas family, whose members were influential mining entrepreneurs from the early 20th century.
Become a Junior Ranger at Montezuma Castle National Monument.
Montezuma Castle, located about a half hour’s drive south of Sedona, was one of four sites designated as national monuments in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt because of their historic and cultural significance. The Sinagua 20-room high-rise structure is considered one of the best-preserved prehistoric cliff dwellings in North America. Here, the kiddos can participate in Junior Ranger activities, and overachievers can download the Junior Ranger activity book ahead of time to get a head start.
Visit Lowell Observatory and Flagstaff, the “Home of Pluto,” and stargaze through historic and modern telescopes.
Beautiful Flagstaff, a college town in the mountains about 50 minutes north of Sedona by car, is well worth a visit itself. On our most recent trip, we spent an evening attending educational science talks and stargazing at Lowell Observatory, but you could spend an entire day here if time allows. Lowell Observatory has been in operation for more than 125 years and has contributed to many important scientific discoveries.
Tip: Plan for at least a two-hour-long stay at Lowell Observatory, or longer if you can. Food options can be limited, so don’t come hungry, but you’re welcome to bring snacks or leave for a meal and come back. Our family enjoyed a casual dinner at Proper Meats + Provisions in downtown Flagstaff, which serves sandwiches made from sustainably and humanely raised meats, yummy vegetarian salads, and also has a children’s menu.
Take in awe-inspiring vistas at Grand Canyon National Park.
You could see Grand Canyon National Park in a day because it’s only two hours north of Sedona by car, but spend more time there if you can. Grand Canyon National Park is one of the most famous and most-visited sites in the United States; the canyon itself may have begun forming 70 million years ago! For my family, our brief day trip meant we only experienced the canyon from vantage points along its rim, but it is truly a natural wonder that is astonishing to experience. Purchase your digital entrance pass ahead of time at recreation.gov.
Enjoy a peaceful moment at the Amitabha Stupa and Peace Park.
This serene little outdoor park and spiritual center near downtown Sedona is open every day and is free to visit (although donations are welcomed), making it an easy stop while you are coming and going from town. Here, along the short walking trails, you’ll see the 36-foot-tall Amitabha Stupa, a beautiful mahogany statue of Buddha, an authentic Native American medicine wheel and more.
Tip: Since visitors often come for prayer or walking meditation, this stop might be best for older children who can be mindful of that. For a bite or a treat, stop by ChocolaTree, a cafe and chocolate factory serving 100 percent organic, homemade vegetarian fare in a peaceful outdoor patio setting that includes a “no cell phone” tented area.
If you go …
Getting there: The nearest small commercial airport is Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, but most visitors heading to Sedona fly into Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, which is a two-hour drive from Sedona.
When to go: Spring (March–May) is the perfect time to visit Sedona — and also the most crowded. On some hikes, we arrived at overflowing trailheads with no street parking available. Consider investigating the Sedona Shuttle, which provides transportation from two park-and-ride lots to many popular trailheads. (We had a rental car and did not use this service, and had to skip certain trailheads as a result.)
Where to stay: Check out U.S. News & World Report’s list of best family hotels in Sedona for options and inspiration.
Where to eat: We like to prepare most meals at the condo we’re staying in to save money for future travels, but we always budget for treats and a few special meals out. Memorable Sedona-area “treateries” include: La Michoacana-Dulce Passion, located in Sinagua Plaza, for mouthwatering and unique Mexican fruit popsicles; Sabrina’s Gourmet Ice Cream, in Canyon Breeze in uptown Sedona, features a dozen or more flavors of ice cream and a dog- and kid-friendly outdoor patio with great views; and Sono Kitchen for boba milk tea and night-market snacks. For a special dinner, head to Elote Cafe for award-winning modern Mexican and Southwestern cuisine, or René Restaurant at Tlaquepaque for fabulous Mediterranean cuisine.