Red Rock Country
Invariably, the first question out of the mouths of visitors is, why are the rocks red in Sedona?
Approximately 20-square-miles of mammoth red mesas, sheer cliffs, monoliths, buttes and spires make up what is known as Sedona’s red rock country, one of the most dramatic landscapes in the world. Imagine a palette of blazing red sandstone against cool green juniper, pinon and Ponderosa pine forests beneath a turquoise blue sky. Red is without a doubt the distinguishing visual of this Arizona high-desert destination.
But why red? The answer is embedded in red rocks geology, spanning millions of years. Back when present-day Sedona lay beneath a shallow ancient sea, sand and sediment slowly accumulated at the bottom, depositing iron-rich minerals in sedimentary layers of sandstone and limestone. Eventually, tectonic plates shifted. Water receded. The rocks emerged, eroded by water and wind.
Their red color comes from the iron minerals within the rock, predominantly hematite. When oxidized, these minerals turn the rocks red, similar to how rust forms on iron.
These famous red rocks are made up of the same layers found in the upper walls of the Grand Canyon 100 miles to the north, with the addition of one more rock layer. The Schnebly Formation, a strata of dark red sandstone, is only found in the Sedona area, sandwiched between the older Hermit Formation at the rocks’ base and the white rock Coconino Formation at the top.
Both the town of Sedona and the Schnebly Formation owe their names to a pioneer family, T.C. and Sedona Schnebly. They settled in the area in 1901, opening a lodge and restaurant for early tourists. T.C. became the first postmaster, and Sedona became the town’s namesake when her first name, suitably short to fit on a rubber stamp, was chosen for the postmark.
Long before the Schneblys arrived, Native American communities inhabited the red rock canyons, leaving behind petroglyphs and pictographs depicting images of water, animals and the sun. Remnants of their cliff dwellings and rock art can be seen at protected heritage sites like Palatki and Honanki.
Boynton Canyon holds immense spiritual and cultural significance for the Yavapai, Hopi and Navajo who remember their ancestor stories of the sacred Red Canyon. The Apache called it ‘Che Ah Chi.’
Today, many of the red rocks have been named for their visual resemblance to familiar objects. Approaching Sedona from Highway 179, two of the first identifiable formations are Bell Rock, which looks like a giant red bell, and Courthouse Butte. The most prominent is the majestic-looking Cathedral Rock. Ship Rock resembles a sailboat with a triangular sail.
There’s also Chimney Rock, Coffee Pot Rock, resembling a percolator, and Snoopy Rock, which looks like the loveable Peanuts character sleeping atop his doghouse.
Capitol Butte, one of the highest summits in Sedona at 6355 feet, is said to have been an inspiration for the Disneyland ride, “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.”
The design of Ambiente, a landscape hotel, ensures you’ll never miss a famous Sedona sunrise or sunset when the golden light appears to set the red rocks on fire. Each guest atrium has floor-to-ceiling glass offering a 180-degree view. One flight up to the rooftop star deck gives you a 360-degree view.
Another way to explore the red rock scenery that has enamored filmmakers and artists is to take a hike or mountain bike on the Adobe Jack Trail, adjacent to the hotel. You’ll see magnificent vistas of red rocks and be able to connect with several other trails, or loop back to the hotel. To dive deeper into red rocks geology, book a 4X4 tour in an open-air Jeep for a thrilling way to traverse the rocks accompanied by a local guide.
Sedona’s Red Rock Country is a place of incredible natural beauty that contributes to a sense of spiritual renewal. However, you choose to explore it, remember to respect and honor the land.