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The canyons are calling

The extensive trail system in and surrounding Sedona offers more than 200 miles of varied single-track biking. The area is a premier cycling destination. (Alex Pulaski/For the Washington Post)

About a century ago, dentist turned author Zane Grey first laid eyes on Oak Creek Canyon. The red-rock hallway north of Sedona packs such startling scenery into its 12 miles that it often draws comparisons to its famous Arizona cousin, the Grand Canyon.

In those days, Grey’s love of the outdoors had already propelled him to renown as the “most popular of living authors,” as one reviewer concluded. His purple prose popularized the Arizona desert, and after Hollywood came calling in the 1920s and beyond, the landscape around Sedona – about a two-hour drive north of Phoenix – emerged as the cowboy ideal of the American West.

The resulting novel from Grey’s visit, “The Call of the Canyon,” is so rife with sentimentality, jingoism and sexism that it’s barely readable today, with one notable exception – the searing passages about the land itself.

Trying to describe five sunny fall days there with my wife – much of it aboard mountain bikes – I reach for words that seem drab and monochrome, deflating Sedona’s beauty. Instead I end up rereading the passage in which Grey’s heroine first arrives in the canyon:

Visitors take a two-hour guided trail ride through Verde Valley wine country near Cornville, about a half-hour drive from Sedona, with Horsin’ Around Adventures.

“The great cliffs turned gold, the creek changed to glancing silver, the green of trees vividly freshened, and in the clefts rays of sunlight burned into the blue shadows. Carley had never gazed upon a scene like this.”

In a 1924 book review in The New York Times, L.H. Robbins described the West’s attraction as an escape from the daily grind, and how Grey had bottled the area’s siren song in “The Call of the Canyon.”

“Here scenery does more than fill space,” Robbins wrote. “Potent in its influence upon the people of the story, it is a character in itself. … The wild, lonely, fearfully beautiful Arizona desert has never been better done.”

Somehow, then and now, Sedona’s red rocks call us. Time to saddle up.

For as long as I can remember, Moab, Utah, has sat atop the pinnacle of the West’s mountain biking destinations. But Sedona, with more than 200 miles of varied single-track biking trail snaking in and around the city (pop. 10,300), is both a premier cycling destination and a place to discover art and food, even to replenish your soul.

The organic, vegetarian and gluten-free menu at ChocolaTree includes the Sedona 2012 enchilada, a wrap filled with sweet potato, basmati rice, three-bean chili and more. (Alex Pulaski/For The Washington Post)

Since the 1980s, after a psychic divined that the area was home to spiritual energy vortexes, seekers have descended on Sedona with healing on their minds. I was skeptical, at best, about the area’s transformative powers.

First, Joanna Yates, a guide with Hermosa Tours, met us at Over the Edge bike shop, where we had rented some high-end, fat-tire mountain bikes with nifty gadgets such as full suspension for a smoother ride and something I hadn’t seen before – a dropper seat post. With the push of a button the rider can adjust seat height, something that comes in handy when you want the seat out of the way for quick downhill turns.

So Yates’s first challenge was helping a 50-something couple overcome a natural uneasiness about unknown terrain, unfamiliar bikes and unforgiving rocks.

On the drive to West Sedona, she pointed out the striking red-rock formations including Thunder Mountain, Lizard Head and Chimney Rock. Shaped by millions of years of sediment deposits and erosion, the rocks owe their red hues to a thin coating of iron oxide. Rust never sleeps.

“The terrain here is very different from what people expect,” Yates told us. “Look around: It is rock. On Hiline and some of the other double black diamond trails, there’s a lot of exposure. Make a wrong move and you or your bike could go down the mountain.”

Ninety minutes and nearly five miles later we were winded but unscathed, ready for lunch, some city exploration and another ride – or two, as it turned out – the next day.

In the morning we mounted up old-school – on horseback – for nearly two hours of desert trail riding through Verde Valley wine country near Cornville, about a half-hour drive from Sedona. The ups and downs take their toll on the hips and knees, as I discovered in a wobbly dismount.

“Now you know why John Wayne walked the way he did,” said Max Wilson, a guide with Horsin’ Around Adventures.

After a light, energizing lunch at the ultra-fresh, relaxing ChocolaTree restaurant (it bills itself as an “organic oasis”) we saddled up again with Yates for more mountain biking – this time starting on pavement in the thick of town.

We quickly got onto rock and dirt and followed Soldier Pass Trail to the Seven Sacred Pools (pretty, but not as impressive as the Maui version), then a long haul over the Adobe Jack Trail back to civilization. Along the ups and downs, Yates continually shouted encouragement (“You can do this!” or “Go, girl, trust the bike!”) and though we did on occasion walk the bikes for short stretches, we began to find confidence and occasionally even courage.

Which was a good thing, considering that for the next two days we planned to tackle the trails on our own. Enormously helpful were both a detailed trail map and some helpful phone advice from both Over the Edge and another shop we rented from, Absolute Bikes. They were like friendly captains helping us sail strange seas.

On those unaccompanied days, as I rocketed down a steep stretch of the Templeton Trail or tackled slick rock around Cathedral Rock’s base, I heard the echoes of Yates’ steady encouragement ringing in my ears, just as loud, seemingly, as my adrenaline-fired “woohoo” at the bottom of the hill.

“You can do this. Trust the bike.”