SEDONA, Ariz. -- The best time to arrive here is in the dark of night. The next morning when you open your drapes and stroll onto the hotel terrace, you will stare in awe at the blend of twisted red rock formations. Monoliths, mesas -- some as high as 5,000 feet -- hoodoos, hanging cliffs, and spires join serrated red mountain walls. It's as if an impassioned abstract sculptor went to furious extremes. Indeed, many people now moving to the region believe that there are numerous spiritual sites or vortexes around Sedona made by God.
''Vortexes are high-energy meditation sites that turbo-boost people's spiritual and psychic abilities," says Pete A. Sanders Jr., author of ''You Are Psychic!" (Ballantine, 1990) and ''Scientific Vortex Information" (Free Soul, 1992). Sanders, a graduate of MIT, moved to Sedona in 1980 to found Free Soul Mind/Body Education. He believes there are nine vortex locations around Sedona.
''There aren't any signs that say 'This is the vortex,' " he says. ''Go to the general locations and find a place that you feel personally enhances your energy. Sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes, and meditate for 15 to 20 minutes."
Whether or not you believe in the power of the vortexes, after hiking and biking through this phantasmagoric landscape, you will inevitably agree with Sanders's statement that ''there is definitely something magical about Sedona."
A one-hour round-trip climb will take you from the side of Highway 179 to one of the most spectacular formations, a coveted site for meditation named Bell Rock. This monolith looks like a large anthill thrust into the sky. Take one of the numerous trails that encircle or ascend Bell Rock. The arid terrain is covered with prickly pear, yucca, cacti, short pinon pines, and the shady juniper tree.
You may encounter circles of loosely stacked rocks that new age pilgrims call medicine wheels. These wheels are based on Native American beliefs in achieving harmony and balance in life, and supposedly intensify the vortex experience. Yet, in recent years, the US Forest Service has been irate over the disruption of the natural habitat by new agers. Native American tribes have staged protests, considering it a sacrilege to leave a medicine wheel in place after meditation.
''If visitors feel a need to construct a medicine wheel, they should make a mental one," Sanders recommends. He also asks that people resist taking pieces of the red rock. ''Soon Bell Rock will be Bell Flat," he added. Instead, he echoes the principle of John Muir, naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club: ''Take back memories, leave only footprints."
The 3-mile path that weaves through Boynton Canyon is arguably Sedona's most popular trail, and rightly so. Jagged red sandstone walls, close to 4,700 feet tall, line both sides of the narrow pass. Prehistoric Native American dwellings can be seen under cliff overhangs that jet out of the mountains. If you can somehow manage to avert your eyes from the towering scenery, you might be able to spot several alligator bark junipers close to 2,000 years old. The tree gets its name from the thick, scaly bark that resembles an alligator's hide. At trail's end, a steep, rocky path leads uphill to a cliff with Native American ruins. This section is only advisable for the well-conditioned hiker.
On your return trip, stop for lunch or a drink at the first-rate Enchantment Resort, which sits on the canyon floor. The glass-encased dining room and lounge offer exquisite views of the surroundings.
According to Lanny, my jeep tour driver in Scottsdale, ''everything in Arizona has horns, thorns, claws, and fangs, and if it doesn't, it's hiding something that does." However, here in northern Arizona, you don't have to worry too much about western diamondback rattlesnakes, tarantulas, or scorpions. You're more likely to see jack rabbits, mule deer, and large birds such as hawks, herons, even bald eagles. You might also come across the javelina, often referred to as the desert pig -- a 3-foot-long rodent with snout and husk.
A red-tail hawk circling overhead and a cottontail rabbit scurrying in the brush were my welcoming committee at the beginning of the Wilson Mountain trail. The way starts gently, with a gradual ascent up the mountain. To your left, ponderosa pines climb a massive sheet of red rock whose ridges look like organ pipes that only an angel could play. Halfway up, the trail becomes strenuous, steeply traversing the side of the mountain. Finally, you'll reach First Bench, a large flat area covered with chunks of black basalt lava. Breathtaking vistas of Verde Valley's far-reaching corners reward you for your efforts. Avid hikers can continue another 500 feet up to the peak of the mountain, but most people will be satisfied with the three-hour round-trip trail to First Bench. Wear good hiking boots since the path becomes muddy and the red soil tends to cake on your soles.
If you tire of hiking, exchange two legs for two wheels. Mountain biking is far preferable to battling Sedona's congested roadways. Twenty-six miles of rarely used graded dirt roads wind through the heart of red rock country on Boynton Canyon Road. You pass old ranches, cloud-piercing pinnacles, and lonely mesas as you pedal through one of the most remote plateaus of the Wild West.
This might be John Wayne country, but in the 21st century, you don't need a horse to traverse the terrain. In fact, if you meditate, you don't even need a body.
Newton-based Stephen Jermanok can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.