Soaring over Sedona: See the red rocks from a helicopter or hot-air balloon

The beauty of Sedona seduces you in so many ways. It wows you from ground level. Castles and columns of towering red rocks extend in all directions. Mountains and mesas form an unmistakable skyline.

Sedona is surrounded by 1.8 million acres of national forest and bracketed by four wilderness areas. More than 300 miles of trails weave among the sandstone formations, making it an irresistible landscape for hikers and mountain bikers. Jeep tours stream into the outback at all hours of the day.

Yet many visitors seek a different perspective. They want the Big Picture. They want to see things from above. After you’ve put boots on the ground, it’s tempting to put your head in the clouds.

Take to the air to savor Sedona in big voracious gulps. Soar overhead and see how canyons align, where streams run and how waves of forest break on the hard spine of the Colorado Plateau. See the Sedona that eagles see.

For those who want to go airborne, Sedona has several distinctive options.

Helicopter tours

See Sedona from the sky on a helicopter or hot-air balloon tour
Jill Cassidy/azcentral.com

Helicopters take off throughout the day from Sedona’s scenic airport perched on a mesa overlooking the town. Nimble and easy to control, helicopters are ideally adapted to the Sedona environment. They cover lots of territory in a short flight and provide a tantalizing taste of the epic scale of the landscape.

Choppers drop in and out of backcountry canyons and everything feels heart-poundingly close. They skirt mountains, buzz through corridors of vertical stone and glide along knife-edged ridge lines. They can hover above prehistoric cliff dwellings, offering remarkable photographic opportunities. Vistas splash through the windows at every turn.

Everyone aboard is outfitted with comfortable headsets equipped with microphones so it’s easy to communicate with the pilot and other passengers.

Guidance Air opened a year ago, offering four helicopter tours daily. The Skyline Tour ($99) lasts 12-15 minutes and makes a loop above iconic formations such as Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte. The return trip takes you past Snoopy Rock, the Chapel of the Holy Cross and over Oak Creek Canyon.

The Anasazi Tour ($169) passes the long arch of Devil’s Bridge, climbs through Secret Canyon and tops out above the forested expanse of the Mogollon Rim. On the return, it passes by several isolated ancient cliff dwellings not visible to hikers. The most thrilling moment comes when the chopper fires through a high notch in the cliffs called the Gunsights. The tour lasts 20-25 minutes.

The Cathedral Tour ($229) is Guidance Air’s most popular and combines the Skyline and Anasazi tours. The Dreamcatcher ($359) lasts almost an hour as it traverses a wider swath of the Verde Valley from Sycamore Canyon to Mingus Mountain. Custom flights are available and you can put together packages combining heli and jeep tours, heli and ATV rides and even a jaunt to the Grand Canyon.

Details: 928-351-1000, www.guidanceair.com.

Sedona Air Tours has been in operation since 1994. Its lineup of tours starts with the Bear Wallow Run ($99), a 15-minute outing that buzzes at eye level past Cathedral, Bell and Snoopy rocks, above Chapel of the Holy Cross and Bear Wallow Wash. For an extra jolt of excitement, take the ride with the doors of the helicopter removed for $115.

Ancient’s Way is the company’s signature tour, traveling through the Dry Creek area above Long Canyon and Boynton Canyon, past Doe Mesa and Cockscomb and viewing cliff dwellings along the way. The tour lasts 25 minutes and costs $159 ($179 with doors off).

The Hog Wild Tour combines both of the above other tours and covers all vortex locations during 35 minutes of flying for $199 ($215 with doors off). Sedona Air Tours also puts together package excursions and offers plane tours of the Grand Canyon and custom outings.

Details: 928-204-5939, www.sedonaairtours.com.

Balloon rides

Hot-air balloons have a less flexible schedule than helicopters. Their dependence on gentle winds demands they launch in the pre-dawn stillness.

It all begins as passengers gather to watch the crew assemble the craft on the forest floor. Moving with practiced ease, they sling ropes and unfurl an acre of nylon. A giant fan blasts air into the bulb-shaped envelope. Suddenly the colorful beast flutters to life, an eye-popping sight.

Then the crew cranks up the flamethrower. Fed by a roaring geyser of flame, the envelope lurches upright, grows full and impossibly large. Ten minutes after the inflation process begins, you’re climbing into a broad wicker basket and preparing to shake off earthly bonds.

Like soft planets the balloons rise from the pine and juniper scrub into the dissolving darkness of early morning. It’s the perfect time and elevation to see elk, deer, coyotes, javelina and other animals going about their business.

The controls the pilots use to guide the balloon are simple. To ascend they flip on the propane burner —because as any fifth-grade science geek will tell you, warm air rises. To descend, they open a flap allowing heated air to escape. The trick is snagging the proper thermals to propel the craft in a desired direction. The balloon lacks any steering mechanism. To move horizontally, the balloon must move vertically — hitching rides on cooperative wind breaths. In short, they waft.

It is an inexact but endearingly graceful mode of transport. As you lift off, the stone formations begin to shimmer with the approach of dawn. Gaining altitude and clearing a mesa top, a piñata of light bursts in the canyons as you suddenly ambush the sunrise. It is a distinctly Sedona way to start the day.

Two balloon companies are permitted by the U.S. Forest Service to take off and land in the Sedona area.

Red Rock Balloon Adventures launches daily flights throughout the year. You’ll be in the air for 60 to 90 minutes. Afterward, a champagne picnic is served. Guests also get a DVD of their flight. Hotel pick-up and drop-off are available. $225, $195 for age 12 and younger.

Details: 928-284-0040, www.redrockballoons.com.

Northern Light Balloon Expeditions was Sedona’s first balloon company. It offers complimentary hotel pick-up and drop-off for flights that last an hour or more. A champagne picnic is served after each flight. $220, $195 for ages 5-12.

Details: 928-282-2274, www.northernlightballoon.com.

Find the reporter at www.rogernaylor.com. Or follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RogerNaylorinAZ or Twitter @AZRogerNaylor. 

Meet Roger Naylor

Arizona Republic contributor Roger Naylor will discuss his latest book, “The Amazing Kolb Brothers of Grand Canyon” at two locations.

Phoenix: On Saturday, Nov. 18, he’ll talk from noon to 1 p.m. at North Mountain Visitor Center, 12950 N. Seventh St. This is Authors Day at the center and other local authors will have books available too. Come early to chat and browse.

Details: 602-343-5125, www.northmountainvisitorcenter.org.

Benson: Naylor will be a featured speaker at the annual Thanksgiving Fiesta at Singing Wind Bookshop, 77 W. Singing Wind Road. The event is from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19. Other local and regional authors also take part. Singing Wind is noted for its extensive collection of Southwestern books.

Details: 520-586-2425.

 

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