Ironic as it might be to say in a magazine article, there simply are no words to describe a visitor’s initial approach into Sedona. “Breathtaking” comes as close as possible to capturing the heady experience that millions of awestruck motorists experience as they slowly wend their way into the small city, through some of nature’s most finely wrought geologic handiwork. Amid such eyepopping natural splendor, it’s not difficult to understand how, over the decades, Sedona has become a magnet for nature lovers and health enthusiasts, spiritualists and seers, and, in nearly incalculable numbers, the quintessential American tourist.
Sedona’s easy access is key to its huge popularity. The short two-hour drive from Phoenix to Sedona is a cinch. Interstate 17 rises pleasantly northward, traversing at least three distinct ecosystems as it ascends the roughly 3,000 feet into the Verde Valley’s moderately temperate terrain. Gradually moving toward higher elevations—from desert to high plains, and then into mountainous climes—the temperatures dip appreciably and the local vegetation changes, announcing each new environment with a bright, botanical flourish.
As one frequent traveler to the region remarked, “Sedona is a unique blend of spiritualism, ancient peoples, nature and man.”
Amid all its many charms, what starkly characterizes Sedona as one of the world’s most desirable destinations is its magnificent outcroppings of multi-hued sandstone. These fabulous natural formations dot the region in every direction, jutting upward from the high desert floor, mesmerizing visitors.
Add to that the the fact that Sedona is surrounded by 1.8 million acres of national forest, chock-full of hiking and biking trails, bouncy jeep tracks and crystal-clear streams, and the city’s enduring appeal makes perfect sense.
Native American Roots
Sedona’s history is as fascinating as its topography. Geologists and archaeologists date the region’s first settlement to roughly 10,000 years ago when Native American tribes found shelter in the soft sandstone caves and hollows in and around the area. And, despite the region’s low annual rainfall, Hopi tribespeople found a way to grow corn, beans, and squash to feed their families, thus becoming the region’s first farming homesteaders.
The territory was discovered by Europeans in the 16th century when Spanish explorers arrived searching for gold and silver. Much later, in the 19th century, Sedona was the site of small ranching and farming settlements
One of the first permanent Caucasian settlers was John James Thompson, who, in 1876, built a small cabin in nearby Oak Creek Canyon. By the early 1900s, just two dozen families lived in what’s now the Sedona area. One settler, Theodore Schnebly, filed with the federal government to inaugurate a new post office. When it got approved, he named it Sedona, after his wife. Thus, the town was born.
Now a thriving community of 10,000 full-time residents, Sedona—with all its natural beauty and tranquility—is busy implementing a wholesale plan to help accommodate its local citizens as well as to better address its main source of revenue: the many thousands of tourists who visit the city annually.
It’s precisely because Sedona is a city that discourages major industrial development and the all-too-commonplace “big-box-store” mentality, that its managers have to seek out and nurture other means of revenue.
“Tourism is our big economic engine,” says Molly Spangler, Sedona’s economic development director. “It’s the majority of our local economy and it’s how we fund a big portion of our government. With that funding, we’re able to invest in our city infrastructure, police force and our chamber of commerce, which is the main tourism and visitor’s bureau, effectively.”
Spangler describes how a major thrust of the city’s masterplan focuses on a concerted effort at promoting and maintaining Sedona’s branded reputation for naturalness, spiritualism and good health.
“One of the things that I’m really proud of is that our chamber of commerce and the city as a whole have taken up the cause of sustainability here in Sedona,” she explains. “As a result, we’re implementing a sustainable tourism plan, trying to educate local people and visitors to be mindful of our sustainability focus. And when it comes to visitors, we want to educate them as much as possible on how important it is that they take care of the city as if it were their own.”
That sustainability takes many forms, Spangler says. “It can be something as small and simple as our restaurants going essentially ‘plastic straw-free.’ And more actively, we have a lot of businesses becoming more sustainable in their wastewater mitigation practices, people and businesses doing more composting, and then all the efforts to bring about better hiking trail management.”
Importantly, Spangler points out that the movement isn’t merely about Sedona’s ecological health. It’s also about the sustainability among the people in the community, in their connections to one another.
“We’re promoting more patience and kindness, for example, in our day-to-day dealings with one another,” she says. That’s an aspect of sustainability that you don’t hear about as often.”
From a city management standpoint, Sedona has been wise to exploit its profound natural beauty to its advantage in every possible aspect. As an example, the Parks & Recreation masterplan focuses on harnessing the natural openness of the sprawling Coconino National Forest that surrounds Sedona, using it as naturally as possible to enable and preserve the town’s “brand” and rich legacy.
In that sense, the city managers aren’t trying to create more structured parks and open spaces to satisfy public demand for recreational areas. Rather, they’re focused on establishing a balance of open space management with more structured physical development that takes place in the downtown.
Sedona advertises itself as “a great place to grow or start a business” and according to Lorena Schmidt, branch manager at Sedona’s National Bank of Arizona, it’s hardly an empty promise.
“Sedona happens to be a market where a lot of people come and put their vision together—a place where they tend to feel they can do what they’ve always wanted to do—even retirees. It might be a winery or even a gem store, but the spirt of this city lends itself to helping inspire them.”
Local residents Don Fries and Bev Bow are a case in point. Typical of many Sedona transplants who move to the city and soon catch its infectious spirit of healthy entrepreneurship, they decided to open their not-for-profit business Healthy World Sedona five years ago. Their business’s mission is geared toward promoting the benefits of plant-based nutrition for human, environmental and animal health and welfare. The couple feels that the nature of their organization perfectly dovetails with the city’s increasingly healthy, sustainable zeitgeist.
“When we moved here, we weren’t planning to start a business; we were just going to live here,” Bow explains. “But as we became involved in the community and saw what it has to offer, we wanted to help make a difference and ‘give back’ in some way, so this is what we decided to do.”
Healthy World Sedona focuses on hosting “health fests” in and around the area, and since they opened their doors, the events have grown considerably, attracting attendees from around the globe to gather and learn about living more thoughtfully and compassionately, via a whole food, plant-based lifestyle. Recent events at L’Auberge de Sedona have been packed “wall-to-wall,” the couple say.
Fries admits that moving to Sedona was enlightening. “There’s a lot of things about the lifestyle here that contribute to health and spiritual wellbeing, and our idea of having really healthy choices for food and diet—along with good information about what that means—we felt was a contribution we could make. Sedona wants to be a place that people can come for health and relaxation, and overall mind-body-spirit well-being.”
Health and spirituality aside, the business end of operating an organization in Sedona is “progressive,” Fries says. “There’s an extremely supportive and professional chamber of commerce here, and that makes a big difference. Jennifer Wesselhoff, the CEO of the chamber, is wonderful to work with.”
The chamber and the city have been absolutely supportive since we first opened,” Bow adds. “The mayor shows up at events of ours every year and greets people, which is something she really wouldn’t have to do. It says a lot about the level of support Sedona offers its businesses.”
The couple say that, from a growth standpoint, they’re bullish on the future of Sedona. “There are more and more millennial-age people that seem to be making a decision to live here exclusively,” Bow points out. “In fact, we’re seeing more young people moving to this area who want to invest in this community. To a fairly great degree, historically, Sedona’s been a retirement and tourist community, but we’re seeing an increasing number of younger people who really identify with the lifestyle here, and are saying, ‘This is my town and I want to do whatever I can to make it a great place."
Schmidt agrees with them on Sedona’s future. “The sustainability aspect of our city is also geared to attracting new residents, many of them younger people who recognize the value of living and working in a community that puts a sustainable lifestyle on such a high pedestal.”
By Bruce Farr
Photo: Mark Lipczynski