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Seeing red in Sedona

SEDONA, Ariz. – Known for its so-called spiritual vortexes and healing powers, this red-rock oasis in the high desert of northern Arizona has become a tourist playground.

But there is no getting around the fact that the ruddy sandstone formations that permeate the Verde Valley are remarkable features worthy of a visit.

Lying under prehistoric seabeds, the iron within the sandstone oxidized into the reddish-orange hues that provide the natural backdrop for the scenic wonderland. Mix in an oasis-like sparkle of water from Oak Creek and the Verde River.

Just north of Sedona, Slide Rock State Park (azstateparks.com/slide-rock) is a natural water park filled with rock slides and deep pools just begging for the brave to leap.

The family-friendly site is filled with folks who spend the day splashing away, eating picnic lunches and exploring the grounds of what was originally a 43-acre apple orchard. A day pass costs $30 per carload.

Sedona itself is home to new-age wizardry, jeep and ATV vehicle rentals and galleries, gift stores and crystal shops aplenty.

The area delivers a seductive lure that once attracted the likes of Walt Disney, who lived here for a time and built his first sound studio in town. Sedona has served as the backdrop for numerous movies, mostly Westerns, including “Angel and the Badman,” starring John Wayne, and “McKenna’s Gold,” with Gregory Peck.

Taking a tour is the best way to hear the local lore while seeing some of the formations up close.

Safari Jeep Tours (safarijeeptours.com) guide Socrates Smith, a poet, former body builder and “Baywatch” lifeguard turned massage therapist and jeep wrangler, expounded on the wonders of Sedona while twisting and turning and bumping over back roads that rarely meet a grader.

“Look at those colors,” he said, pointing out a mature agave plant whose death-knell flower stalk was in full brilliant yellow and sunburst orange bloom. “It blooms once in its life, spreads all its seeds, then dies. And no, that’s not the agave that tequila comes from.”

Tall tales of UFO sightings, information about the local cliff dwelling – which is actually at the base of a mesa – and interesting if not somewhat lurid information about the tarantula wasp followed.

“It’s one of the nastiest insects,” Smith said. “It stings a tarantula and paralyzes it, then drags it back to its nest and lays its eggs in it so the babies can feed on it, while it’s still alive. Nature – isn’t it wonderful?”

The Chapel of the Holy Cross is not to be missed, even for the nonspiritual.

Perched among the crimson bluffs on the outskirts of Sedona, the Catholic church was inspired and commissioned by local rancher and sculptor Marguerite Brunswig Staude in 1932, inspired by the construction of the Empire State Building.

The project was first targeted for Budapest, Hungary, but was thwarted by World War II, so Staude brought the project to her home. It was completed in 1956 at a cost of $300,000.

Much of the land surrounding Sedona is government -owned, with numerous trails snaking into the rugged backcountry. Trails range from easy, mile-plus strolls with no elevation gain to daylong endurance marches for experienced outdoor wanderers.

For the less adventurous, a quick trip south of Sedona to nearby Cornville offers numerous opportunities to visit wineries that produce their vintages from grapes grown on site.

The D.A. Ranch (daranch.com) is a picturesque setup with a gurgling stream meandering through the property, feeding a pond shaded by a giant weeping willow tree.

Employee Rebecca Romine, a 1978 St. Pius High School graduate, was happy to talk about the ranch, which produced its first wines just 11 years ago.

“My job is a wine-slinging flunky and it’s perfect,” she said. “Every time I drive over the hill and look at this, I smile. It’s this pace. Very personalized. There’s no waiting lines. No buses showing up. When you walk in, there’s the swing and the babbling brook. Everybody jumps on the swing; they start decompressing immediately.”

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