Elizabeth’s Christmas present really couldn’t be off to a better start. We’d been in Arizona for less than 24 hours and had already had a delightful national park visit. There was a little bit of apprehension for us for the rest of our Friday afternoon, since it involved a drive from Holbrook to Sedona, and that would take us through the snowy mountains around Flagstaff. The interstate south of Flagstaff had been closed intermittently all morning, but fortunately that wouldn’t impact our travel.

But first thing’s first. It was well past noon and we were hungry from “hiking”. I took another shift behind the wheel to give Elizabeth a break, driving down a mostly deserted US-180 back into Holbrook. There were several diners in town that offered lunch, but when you’re in Arizona it makes sense to try to get some Southwest or Mexican food. The Camaleon Cafe in town was exactly what you would expect – a little rundown-looking with delicious food and a cadre of cowboy-looking regulars in there for lunch on a Friday. And one middle-aged lady who appeared to be on an acid trip sobbing into her coffee. The food was also largely like you’d guess – Elizabeth’s chili relleno was delicious, the salsa with the chips was top-notch, and the rest of the food was solidly above-average. No complaints from me, even if Camaleon Cafe was probably benefitting some from the old principle that food always taste better after you’ve been active.

After that, I got to take a blustery trip westbound on I-40 between Holbrook and Flagstaff. Parts of the trip were rather noneventful, marked only by miles of dust at the foot of the Little Colorado Valley. Parts of the trip were a little livelier, where the wind started to blow stronger and occasionally heavy snow squalls began to fall. But still, there wasn’t actually any snow on the ground until we got shockingly close to Flagstaff and the terrain rapidly began to rise. I knew the city was at 7,000 feet, but it didn’t seem real with how long it was taking to actually start going up – until you stared in the distance and saw a completely snow-covered Mount Humphreys, the highest in the state, peeking through snow squalls.

But rest assured: there was, in fact, plenty of snow in Flagstaff. It made for quite the roadside spectacle when I turned off of I-40 into I-17 and then the beautiful, winding Highway 89A through stands of snow-covered ponderosa pine.

At least the weather was reasonably good – up until the moment we hit the west slopes. Which, of course, coincided with the moment we hit the Oak Creek Canyon, a not-at-all-terrifying stretch where Highway 89A dives deep into a canyon with a hell of a lot of switchbacks.

Now imagine you’re doing that while there’s a steady moderate-to-heavy dumping of giant snowflakes falling in your face and you’re praying the whole time that the rental car that’s never been driven before has good brakes. I wasn’t sad, per se, to get to the floor of the canyon and start driving in a slightly more level fashion.

Sedona is only about 30 miles south-southwest of Flagstaff, but it’s also more than 2,500 feet lower in elevation. I’d already done a decent chunk of that in descending the canyon, but the rest of the route into town followed a tumbling Oak Creek downhill. The geological signals that this was Sedona, king of Red Rock Country, were pretty muted at first, but soon the canyon walls started to take on an orange-ish and then a fire-red tint in between ephemeral waterfalls and the ever-wetter snowflakes pounding the windshield. Finally, not long after the snow had changed over to a cold, pelting rain, I arrived at a roundabout that signaled the north end of Sedona. Suddenly, the tight canyon was replaced by a small town full of gift shops, tourists hustling through the rain, and cars. Lots and lots of cars.

Our hotel was at the Aiden by Best Western within the unit known as West Sedona – although functionally it’s all one town. The Aiden is a little nicer than the standard motel setup of a Best Western (it better be at the cost – nothing in Sedona is cheap) – although there certainly were much nicer places to stay in town for those with the money. For us, a bed and a free breakfast in the morning would suffice. Plus – if we looked out the window – it looked like the famed red rocks of Sedona were trying to peek out. And there was snow with them too!

This was a red alert. Any thought I’d had about laying down and resting my weary self (remember that I was less than 36 hours removed from a midnight shift) went out the window. It was 4:30. The sun would set a hair before 6:00. We had plenty of time to get up to Airport Mesa.

This is where a kitschy maps can help give a sense of what’s going on. You see, Sedona is tucked into multiple valleys at the foot of Oak Creek Canyon – and all around it, massive mesas tower over the landscape. It just happens that one of those mesas is basically pointed right at the downtown area – and it has a nice flat area at the top that’s long enough that you could land a plane on it if you wanted. Or multiple planes. Or build an airport on top of it.

My coworker Doug had told me not to pass up the chance to see the view from the Airport Mesa, so it was at the forefront of my mind. Why not ring in our first evening in Sedona by driving up there and seeing if maybe we could get sunset with white snow on red rocks?

Well, there were several reasons why we couldn’t manage that – starting with the persistence of low cloud cover. There were occasional breaks in the rain, but things never fully cleared to where the sun could come out and light up the twilight. Even if they had, alpenglow was completely out of the question – the little trailhead that leads east to an overlook of the mountains east of town was fully parked-at, and so we had to continue up to park at the airport (at a cost of $3!). There wasn’t any cross-mesa hiking to get us there either – the trails that could have taken you past the airport were so muddy as to be essentially impassable. Plus – and I’m not joking here – there were coyotes out among the trees. I saw one guy walking his golden retriever puppies right at one of the coyotes until it retreated into the forest. People are stupid.

So no look to the east for the probably-not-gonna-happen alpenglow. That was fine. Instead, Elizabeth and I could kick the mud off of our shoes and wait at the overlook on the north side of the mesa, which got a great view of the western part of town and red rocks in the distance.

And things looked at least somewhat promising for sunset:

In the meantime, if you could just ignore the super-annoying bachelorette party groups, it was actually pretty peaceful. That is unfortunately a bigger caveat than it sounds like; they were ubiquitous, they were loud, and they had the usual level of disregard for others that you would expect:

But in the meantime, while we waited for the sun to go down, it was a beautiful little spot. The red rocks were stunning. Low clouds danced in and out of the hoodoos, but even those were workable if you just were patient and waited for the right moment.

Hot take: I liked Sedona.

It was worth waiting the extra half an hour for the sun to go down, too. Although Elizabeth and I were disappointed that it never quite popped out at our location, blocked as it was by a ridge to our west-southwest, there was one moment shortly before sunset where misty anticrepuscular rays managed to sneak onto the landscape off to our west.

Let’s try to freehand a long exposure and take a look at those crepuscular rays, shall we?

Those pictures won’t be hanging from any walls anytime soon, but they’re nice enough to get across the kind of sunset we saw. And that’s really what’s most important in the end: Elizabeth and myself, shivering in the Arizona wind, enjoying the last vestiges of a National Park Friday.

By the time we drove back down to get Elizabeth a quick snack at the World’s Only Turquoise McDonald’s, it was already darkening quick.

She needed that snack because we had a late dinner reservation. I guess it’s not surprising that Sedona has a variety of world-class restaurants. Since this was Elizabeth’s Christmas present, I wanted to add in at least one nicer dinner (although little did I know how well we would be eating to this point on the trip). Reservations weren’t terribly easy to come by with a last-minute-booked trip, but one had come open at Dahl and Di Luca, an Italian restaurant just a couple hundred yards away from our hotel. So despite the fact that it was a cold night and raindrops were occasionally spattering out of the sky, the two of us decided to just walk down the sidewalk to our 8:30 (yes, very late) reservation.

It was swanky and dimly lit like all good Italian places are. A low buzz came from tables around the perimeter, where extremely fit people with expensive clothes were sipping fancy glasses of wine and eating their pasta to carboload for their weekends. Our dinner was nowhere near as expensive as I’d feared – even after the waiter talked us into a burrata appetizer and Elizabeth got her wine glass. My bolognese was a solid 4/5. The bread was fantastic. The two of us sat in companionable silence for a good chunk of the meal because we were both exhausted, but also because it had been such a good day that sometimes you don’t need to keep talking to make it better. Just being together is all the capper you need.

It’s probably no surprise that Elizabeth fell straight asleep when we got back to our hotel room. It had been one of those kind of days, after all. I stayed up for a bit watching – what else? – Groundhog Day, before I too drifted off to sleep. A national park, a drive through a winter wonderland, an arrival in the Red Rocks – we still had 36 more hours in Sedona. Today was just the appetizer.

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