I’m not known for my hiking stamina, so trekking the south face of Sedona’s Mescal mountain was probably an inappropriate time to conduct an interview. My husband, Wyatt, and I had joined trail guide George Miraval at golden hour for the six-mile round-trip hike, spurred on by the promise of a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding peaks. But as the trail got higher, it became difficult for me to get words across, not to mention the flood of questions I had.
Miraval recently helped open Trail Housethe striking new outdoor center of enchantment station (doubles from $825). Wyatt and I had driven in from Los Angeles for a long weekend, and I was curious to hear Miraval’s perspective on how Sedona — a once sleepy, sparsely populated place near the Grand Canyon — had changed since his arrival 33 years ago. Today, it attracts some 3 million visitors each year, bringing with them $1 billion in tourism revenue.
As we continued, boots kicking up red dust in front of us, Miraval told us that the change in Sedona could be summed up in five words: It’s all the fault of social media.
Turns out it’s a common refrain. The day before, I had asked the same question to hotelier Colleen Tebrake, who is about to open Ambiente, a Landscape Hotel (double from $1,500) – a collection of cube-shaped glass suites with 360-degree views of Sedona – late May. What was the origin of the growing hype? She replied: “Instagram”.
Their conclusions are not without merit. Miraval had taken us to a remote trail where we only encountered three other hikers and a rather talkative owl. But four miles to the east, an hour-long queue was forming at Devil’s Bridge, a rock formation where hundreds of Instagrammers gather each evening in the hope of snapping the perfect sunset shot. . Things are so bad that Sedona has put in place a new sustainable tourism plan that seeks “the end of tourism as we know it”. Visitors are invited to sign the Sedona cares about commitmentwhich outlines ways to be safe and respectful of the land and the community.
One of Miraval’s goals at Trail House is to show off the many other sides of Sedona, weaving in lessons about how best to protect this enclave and its exteriors. It goes beyond simply encouraging visitors to leave no trace on the trail; it also means learning the cultural and geological history as well as the flora and fauna along the route. As we took in the panorama of sunset-tinged red rocks, he wondered aloud, “Do you want to go to such a beautiful place and wait in line?”
Wyatt and I had traveled 470 miles to escape the smog, traffic, and crowds, so the obvious answer was no. But lines are now unavoidable in Sedona. There is one main road, Highway 89A, which runs through the 19 square mile town. The views as you ride it are second to none: the reds, oranges, yellows and purples light up the rocks as mountain after mountain unfolds before you. But even the most awe-inspiring scenery couldn’t distract me from the stationary traffic when, after overhydrating myself on a morning run, I jumped out of the car confident that I could walk home. hotel faster than Wyatt could drive there.
When Miraval moved to Sedona, traffic was non-existent, as were most hiking trails. An avid outdoorsman, he started running and mountain biking in the hills above the city. Ironically, some of the routes he helped chart are now those occupied by hikers, whose cars now fill the roads. The problem, according to many residents, is that these visitors seem less interested in understanding the place itself and more in what the place can do for them. “It’s degrading what everyone wants: to feel the loneliness and the spirit of the land,” Miraval said.
Another Sedona fixture is the Chef Lisa Dahl, who arrived 27 years ago from Marin County, California. She also values the land above all else — but unlike our solitude-seeking trail guide, she doesn’t think that necessarily means keeping this former cowboy town a secret. “This place is so beautiful,” she told me. “When I came here I thought it might be another Aspen in the making.”
Dahl loves nature, but she had surveyed outdoor destinations in the western United States and seen an unfortunate common denominator: bad food. “You come back from the Grand Canyon and you’re starving,” she laments, laughing. Dahl helped launch fine dining in Sedona, opening the famed Italian restaurant Dahl & DiLuca (dishes $24–$44) in 1995. Within a year, he attracted a Phoenix New Times food critic – a first for the city – and landed a rave review.
The chef now runs six restaurants in Sedona; its most popular spot, the Latin-inspired restaurant Mariposa (dishes $28–$48), has one of the most coveted views in the area. Some restaurants, she notes, might use a million-dollar panorama as an excuse to phone in when it comes to the menu — but the grill is a consistent favorite for its potent margaritas, skirt steak with chimichurri and its impressive wine list.
Dahl’s success has paved the way for a burgeoning restaurant scene, which increasingly emphasizes a sense of place: another way to celebrate and preserve the natural environment. On a terrace placed at the edge of a stream lined with plane trees, Watercress on Oak Creek (dishes $24–$39), to The Sedona Inn, offers tasting menus that incorporate picked ingredients. To Amara Resort & Spa, Southwestern SaltRock Cuisine (main dishes from $31 to $58) serves a menu sourced primarily from the surrounding Verde Valley. Former Chef Amara Lindsey Dale will continue to emphasize local ingredients at Forty1, Ambiente’s future restaurant.
More hotels and restaurants mean more tourists, but there’s an inevitable stopping point: very little vacant land in Sedona remains available for commercial development. When it opens, Ambiente will occupy three of the remaining acres. But Tebrake hopes the hotel, perhaps counterintuitively, will help alleviate overtourism. She and her sister, Jennifer May, who own and manage it, borrowed the Scandinavian concept of a “landscape hotel” to create a property defined by low-impact architecture and other sustainable choices.
The sisters told me that Ambiente’s 40 self-contained dwellings, which they call “atriums,” are designed to blend into the environment without interrupting its ecosystem. Each has a fireplace, rooftop lounge and floor-to-ceiling windows that create an IMAX-like effect: when the sun sets on the red rocks, it’s like watching a light show on a 9 by 24 feet filter. The cubes sit on stilts – a stream runs below, following an ancient waterway that a landscape architecture firm helped resurrect. “It’s a recirculating system, so the water will just loop around and keep going,” May explained. The hotel also plans to introduce small electric vehicles that guests can drive around town on the bike path. “We’re hoping people can get in, park their car, and not go back there the whole time they’re here,” May said.
And you don’t have to drive to find some of the area’s best hikes. A short path leads to an on-site trail, which feeds into the Adobe Jack Trail system – much less traveled than Devil’s Bridge, but with equally impressive views. Because even in Sedona there are trails that are just beginning.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the title Second act of Sedona.