Throughout a dozen-hour road trip, I’d chatted up a virtual list of Sedona oddities that were all but expected, or at least needed to be sought out, between bike rides, of course. “Ooh! Maybe we’ll run across shape-shifters out on the trail!”…“Man, I can’t wait to see the freakshow parade in town. $5 to whoever spots the first tinfoil hat!”…”Do you think the vortexes will affect electronic shifting?”
This was my first trip to the Arizona town, and I was going to be extremely disappointed if we didn’t get plucked off Highway 89 by a UFO, or at the very least get whirled into the spirit world for a few minutes from our buddy’s backyard deck. We’d be there for the Blood Moon Eclipse after all, so in reality, it seemed my imagination was actually aimed a bit low.
For a place renowned as both a mountain bike mecca and a New Age nebula, however, Sedona is pretty boring on its first lap through town. On the north side, it feels like a typical western tourist trap where you can get a stick of cotton candy while waiting for the leathersmith to find another “e” to finish stitching “Fred” on the back of your custom, size 42 leather belt. On the south end, the vibe feels much more retirement community, save the one and only bike shop and a tasty little taqueria.
Here’s the thing: Behind the strip malls, day spas, and occasional kitschy UFO-themed establishments lies an impressive network of trails that wind through what many claim to be spiritual vortexes and intergalactic alien rest stops. The technical, rolling singletrack and its accompanying backdrop are definitely impressive, but to call it unworldly would deny the locals and seasonal resident mountain bikers (who built the trails specifically for riding) of their due credit. Sure, you occasionally have to share the singletrack with aimless tourists scouring the trailside in false hopes of finding a monolithic amethyst like the one on the front of their spa’s brochure, but, for the most part, the trails remain impressively biased to mountain bike traffic.
One would think that without much consistent concern for mowing down other trail users, there’d be plenty of opportunity to at least glance at the phenomenal rock formations while bouncing down the singletrack, if not let the mind succumb to some of the spiritual, vortexual or extraterrestrial energies and influences whirling around. But, unlike any type of alien influence, the first thing that probed into my thick skull was a deep, cheesy announcer’s voice from the 80’s TV commercial for the board game Operation.
“Doooon’t touch the sides!” reverberated between my ears within the first 50 feet of Sedona singletrack as I quickly realized just how intrusive and downright threatening those sides can be.
Riding singletrack lined with rocks isn’t anything out of the ordinary by any stretch, but cram in several species of jumping cactus between/on/under/in those rocks, then add in exposed cliffs and encroaching piñon pines, and that happy Zen place my non-Arizonan mind usually finds while riding gets buzzed right off the board game.
Speaking of getting buzzed and showing poor game, riding Hangover trail the morning after a long night of stepping up to a pro-league pitcher with a Wiffle Ball bat in one hand, and one of Pogi’s margaritas in the other, probably wasn’t the best of ideas. My guess is that she was playing with me like a cat does a mortally wounded mouse, but at the time I really thought I had a chance. Maybe if my buddies knew her, they would’ve warned me—or probably warned her.
Either way, what they did caution me about were the sections of very exposed cliffs that give Hangover Trail its name. Though none of us had any real issue with the exposure (at least not that anyone admitted to), we did watch a runner stop dead in his compression socks, drop to all fours, and crawl backwards away from the edge of one section of trail.
Laughing at that runner came back to haunt us the next day as we crawled down a couple of steep, rocky chutes on Hiline Trail. Though not as exposed as Hangover, it still offers impressive views from high above the valley floor, which is a great thing to pretend you’re in awe over, instead of pointing and laughing at your buddy scrambling for handholds while his carbon-soled shoes slip off the rocks below him.
Most of the trails we rode were a nice mix of rocky, technical sections buffered by a few fast and flowy sections of singletrack. Not every trail has stomach-dropping exposure or World Cup DH chutes that only aliens must be able to ride, but all the singletrack in the valley is lined with those afformentioned piñon pines.
Like the jagged rocks and cactus lining most of the trails, the piñon branches deserve a dose of healthy respect. Not just because they like to reach out and grab helmet vents and jersey sleeves, but more so because they’re sometimes home to snakes.
Seriously, snakes in trees. They’re said to climb up into the twisted, horizontal low-hanging branches of piñon pines and other shrubs, waiting to ambush birds and scare the clean chamois right out from under cyclists.
Vortexes. Sedona is full of them, though maybe not in the traditional sense—if a vortex can even be “traditional.” Ask anyone who’s been, and chances are they’ll have an entirely different take on what lies in and around the tiny town. While we missed any notable energy fields or supernatural phenomena, it’d be hard to argue how quickly and fantastically we were absorbed right into our own mountain bike maelstrom.
Though there were no UFO sightings, sleeping out on Jimmy’s back porch to watch a full moon eclipse into a namesake blood-red orb was more than enough galactic entertainment for the trip. On a hotter week, we’d have probably ridden a little less and explored many more of the swimming holes throughout the valley. Instead, we spent most of the crisp, lukewarm daylight hours exploring the singletrack worthy of a 12-hour drive.
Even with the usual high expectations I pack for most trips to places with reputations like Sedona, it didn’t disappoint. In my case, it essentially took decades to get over the idea that I’d simply be doubling drive time past Moab to ride what surely would be Arizona’s version of red rock desert trail. To be perfectly honest, Sedona comes up short in direct comparison to Utah or Colorado desert by way of both lack of camping options and expansive trail networks.
That said, when those other states are showcasing just how harsh and unpredictable their winter weather can be, chances are it’s sunny and 60 down in Sedona. Throw into the mix an impressive trail network designed by mountain bikers for mountain bikers, and Sedona is definitely a place to add to the list. Just don’t touch the sides!