Free Camping in Sedona: Monsoons and a Meeting

WHY

When I drive down magnificent highway 89A from the forests of Flagstaff to the high desert of Sedona, Arizona, I am not seeking adventure. I am chasing a balm for a hot feeling in my heart — the result of recently starting anew in Flagstaff, a college town nestled beneath Northern Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks.

What is your calm place? Mine is Sedona, ever since I first mountain biked the red flanks of its sandstone rock formations. That joyous ride was a decade ago, and I am still drawn back in. Some attribute the pull of the place to its renowned energy vortices — rare ‘electromagnetically live’ pockets of the planet. Or so the story goes.

Indeed, Sedona is a hotspot for new age mystics who believe that the vortices are portals to new planes of existence. I co-organize a philosophy workshop here, which shares conference space with workshops on seances and telekinesis. In Sedona ‘Philosopher’, ‘Mystic’  and ‘Metaphysician’ are interchangeable concepts.

WHERE

This time I decide to try “dispersed camping” — aka, free and primitive camping. No reservations. No running water. No restrooms. No nothing, except for a glorious patch of public land to pitch a tent on. If you are lucky there may even be a fire pit or creek nearby. Maybe. You must pack out what you pack in, leaving as little human trace as possible.

Dispersed camping may be found north, south, east and west of Sedona. (See the forest service’s useful “Dispersed Camping Guide” for all locations.) I drive west on Highway 89A, electing to camp west of Sedona along Forest Road 525. Because west is best, right?

WHAT HAPPENS

As I drive my CRV north on a bumpy dirt road into the Coconino National Forest, my mouth hangs open. How are there so many uninhabited, beautiful campsites to choose from? And the land is PUBLIC — the land is FREE! I drive deeper and deeper into the desert in search of something far from the highway — a special space I can be truly alone in. After 6 or so miles I find this:

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I park the CRV and suit up for a ride. My mission? To figure out how to get from here over Boynton Pass to the fast and flowing Aerie Trail, an area that teams with javelina. I start east down a series of chewed up jeep trails.

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Not before long thunder booms through the desert, and lightening sizzles in the sky to the east. I am riding into the storm.

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After a few miles I stop. I stare. I linger. Do I turn around or go on? The wind answers for me, whipping up dirt into fearsome funnels of sand. When I turn around to pedal back, the monsoon follows me — spitting rain in ever increasing volumes. I pedal harder, my drivetrain squeaking and rumbling in the wet. I duck low on my bike, not wanting to attract a stray lightening bolt. The wind pushes and shoves me.

I should have known better. I am well acquainted with Arizona’s monsoon season, having spent most childhood summers in Tucson. Within minutes a calm and sunny desert day morphs into monstrous monsoons. Previously parched landscapes flood.

I am drenched when I reach my car. Although the CRV is parked on an elevated plateau the surrounding area could quickly flood and become impassable. Moreover, my vehicle is the tallest thing in the vicinity, a shining beacon for lightening. Should I drive out? Upon driving in I passed a sign (about a mile back) that read: “Beyond this Point Road Unsuitable when Wet”. I turn the key in the ignition. Time to GO.

Lightening and thunder crack all around the CRV as I slosh through newly formed streams of water along FR 525c. I pass an unoccupied red Prius on the side of the road before nailing it through a powerful water stream. My dashboard lights up with emergency warnings. How are they going to drive through this? I wonder as the sun sets.

As I approach Highway 89A I notice campers congregating at the only dry campsite — a large pullout on the west side of the dirt road about a half mile from the highway. Their car headlights spray light over the hard orange dirt.  I guess this is where I camping tonight! Although the storm is mellowing I am eager to camp among people. I am shaken.

I pull my car up behind a black Civic parked beside a little white tent at the far western end of the campsite. As I assemble my one-person waterproof tent, a male voice calls out from inside the tent, “do you need help?!” “I’m fine!” I call back, surprised and a bit defensive. Why would I need help? It is dark out, but my car headlights provide ample light.

My camping gear is my bikepacking gear — a thin blowup air mattress, a lightweight 40-degree sleeping bag and a 2-lb tent. Within ten minutes I am sprawled out on my lush sleeping pad and silky sleeping bag, nursing a craft beer and a good book. I use a bicycle light to read. I hear only laughter, the highway, the gentle pattering of rain on my tent and the hum of insects. The red Prius soon joins our little neighborhood, carrying an Australian couple. They made it.

This is the calm I was looking for.

I quickly drift to sleep, only to awake at 12 am. A couple camping near their RV just south of us is fighting. Their tent is pitched beneath an old oak tree. The entire “neighborhood” can hear their argument. It is the perfect couple’s quarrel — hitting every note just right as though it were choreographed. After about an hour of this show, I hear a rustle from the white tent, then footsteps and then, “Hey guys, this is Sedona”. White Tent Man speaks. “You are using your minds to solve this argument and it is futile. You need to use your hearts.” Silence. Then, “Thanks man”, the couple replies in new, earnest tones. White Tent Man returns to his white tent.

I listen for voices. Nothing. Then, “Hey, can I ask you a question?” White Tent Man queries me. “Sure”, I say a bit hesitantly. “Is that a CRV you have?” I answer affirmatively. “I have a Honda, too … a Civic”, he remarks with pride. I tell him I used to drive only Civics. Then I tell him my name. He responds with a name that is Persian for “Warrior”. A peacemaking warrior. I smile.

The peacemaking man tells me he is looking for work. I suspect he is living out here. It is legal to camp at any one area for 14 days out of 30. One could easily rotate around Sedona, in effect living on BLM and national forest land. We agree to talk in the morning. The neighborhood is quiet now.

I toss and turn all night. I never sleep well when I camp.

I awake at 6:30 am. It is already hot. I pack up quickly and snap some photographs of the campsite.

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My neighbor is up and about, preparing to drive to town. He leaves his tent pitched. As he walks over I am stunned. He looks like a model. He also looks like he needs something to eat. He munches on a protein bar. “I got offered a job in Flagstaff this morning”, he remarks stoically with a hint of a smile. “I just got a job in Flag, too”, I tell him, incredulous. Fellow “solo” campers, we wish each other luck. Perhaps we will hike together one day. He leaves to check in with an Australian couple. This is his town.

Before leaving Sedona I do a rainless mountain bike ride from Bell Rock, up Llama Trail, Little Horse Trail and Chapel Trail to my favorite chapel, Sedona’s Chapel of the Holy Cross. I adore chapels not because I am religious, but because I am attracted to sacred places. I like the hushed calm of the exquisitely sculpted chapel. I like how it blends with the land. I like how its stone cross is part of its architecture, its inner skeleton.

I head to Chicken Point Vista, finishing up my ride on the hog trails and Mystic Trail.

View from Llama Trail:

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View from Chapel Trail:

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View from the sticky sandstone flanks of the hogs:

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‘Till next time,

Sarah