Get Your Psychic Kicks in Arizona’s Trippiest Desert

It’s basically Disneyland for the New Age crowd.

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If you get turned around on the way to Sedona—population 10,341—there are a couple ways to situate yourself. First, look for the massive stone formations suddenly jutting from the desert floor, surreal reds and oranges towering over verdant green vegetation. Are they enveloped by sky so blue it inspires even the most inactive imagination? Okay, check.

Now, look for the New Age Disneyland. Sedona is a city of psychics, tarot readers, reiki healers, and crystal dealers. Retail stores like Mystical Bazaar, Crystal Magic, and the all-encompassing Center for the New Age cater to a very specific kind of tourist: those drawn to the area for its supposed metaphysical and spiritual assets.

Indigenous tribes have for centuries regarded the area as sacred. It's the home of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, who hold a spring ceremony every year at Boynton Canyon, a place of great spiritual significance, believed to be where the Great Spirit Mother gave birth to the human race.

And according to these truth-seekers, Sedona is one of the world’s greatest hotspots for psychic energy: whirling and vibrating, creating pulling portals that enhance consciousness. The energy is so strong, so overwhelming, that juniper trees twist and bend themselves over it.

twisted juniper tree
Twistin' the day away. | Monica Lara/Shutterstocck

The Sedona we know today began to emerge in 1980, after a psychic channeler named Page Bryant referred to four of its most popular meditation spots—Airport Mesa, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Boynton Canyon—as “vortexes,” putting a word to a concept people were just starting to get familiar with, grammar be damned.

Amid these four scenic poles, psychic vibrations trembled more intensely. People noticed their skin tingling when close to the perceived energy source. Escaping to a higher consciousness just came easier in this confluence where thoughts and feelings were amplified (apparently all of Sedona is one big amplifier. Don’t visit in a bad mood). Bryant described the vortex locations as electric, magnetic, or electromagnetic. Others say “female or male,” “positive or negative.”

“I want to bring this stuff out of woo woo and into wow wow”

If you want to get scientific about it, there’s no actual measured magnetism or energy at these vortexes. But that doesn’t mean the spiritualists made up what they felt. After all, studies have found that just being outdoors has immense immune-boosting and mood-altering benefits, plus increased clarity and concentration.

Pete Sanders is a MIT biochemical chemistry graduate who aims to connect spirituality with science with his Free Soul Psychic Education Program. “I want to bring this stuff out of woo woo and into wow wow,” he explains. (It's definitely not the first time he's said this.)

For Sanders, the therapeutic benefits of the vortexes are directly related to the physical attributes of Sedona. High elevation, deep canyons, low population density, and the blue skies for miles all combine to create an optimal environment for relaxation and brain stimulation.

Colors are extremely important, and Sedona pops. According to Sanders, the green of the vegetation signals growth, renewal, and hope to the subconscious. As for red-orange, Sanders points to Uluru in Australia, a massive similar-hued rock thought to hold spiritual significance. “The red-orange color is caffeine for the higher mind,” he says.

Cathedral Rock Sedona
Cathedral Rock is both a vortex and a great place for a hike or run. | Cavan Images/Getty Images

Sanders still has a little bit of woo woo in him. He, like many in Sedona, describes vortexes with the terms “upflow” or “inflow.” Upflow sites tend to be at higher elevations: mountains, mesas, and pyramid-shapes—places like Bell Rock and Airport Mesa, where a panoramic visual of your surroundings helps put your place in the universe into perspective. According to Sanders, upflow sites “help you with reflections where soaring to a higher perspective is what you want.” 

Conversely, inflow sites occur in areas closer to the earth—near valleys, canyons, and caves—and assist with introspection and contemplation. Sanders favors a creek at Los Abrigados Resort and Spa, where he gives weekly seminars on the subject of vortexes and where he’s also built a “Go With the Flow'' labyrinth for contemplation and stress reduction, open to the public. Just look for the walkway between the tennis courts and the basketball courts. Parking’s in the back, near the mini golf. 

And what about those twisted juniper trees? Thought by some to bend toward the energy vortexes, they seem to be a victim of the dramatic lay of the land. “If you’re in a site, whether it’s a mountain, canyon, or a mountain next to a canyon, that tends to accentuate wind currents,” says Sanders. “Which would make the trees twist a little bit more than usual.”

a man meditating in a circle of rocks
Okay this guy is not playing around. | Tom Bean/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Though the twisted trees are unique to a certain landscape, the benefits of vortexes aren’t limited to special locations. If you look at vortexes in terms of upflow and inflow, it follows then that you don’t actually need to be in Sedona. Just find yourself a site high up or low down, natural or man-made… though if it’s man-made, try to pick one with an abundance of natural materials. Concrete counts. In Manhattan, for example, Sanders suggests going to the Empire State Building. To get the most out of a site, wherever you are, try meditating. 

“Each person experiences a vortex differently,” says Mike Koopsen, who leads the L’Auberge de Sedona Resort’s Thursday morning “Hikes and Vortex.” He suggests sitting quietly and taking deep breaths, visualizing something meaningful or relaxing, and, most of all, being open to the experience. 

And if nothing happens? 

“Relax and let the awesome beauty of the area inspire you.”

It's a chapel, it's a vortex, the Chapel Of The Holy Cross is a combination chapel-vortex | Dawn Marshman/EyeEm/Getty Images

Where to experience vortexes in Sedona

Sedona is filled with hundreds of vortexes. Below are the big four to get started, plus some lesser-known ones recommended by experts. 

Airport Mesa
Its proximity to the center of town makes the upflow Airport Mesa one of the most trafficked vortexes, which means you probably won’t have it to yourself. You will, however get breathtaking panoramic views, especially at sunrise or sunset. There are some of those twisted juniper trees, and visitors have claimed to see colored orbs. At night, the stars seem close enough to touch. 

Bell Rock 
One of the area's most recognizable formations, Bell Rock is shaped like, well, a huge standing bell. (Or, some say, an alien spaceship.) Viewed as an upflow site, many have reported a tingling sensation on exposed skin here. It’s easily accessible from the road, with the strongest vibrations felt on the north side. A loop around is about 1.8 miles.

Cathedral Rock 
This is the only one of the big four with “inflow” energy, encouraging you to slow down and be introspective. A short hike of 1.2 miles roundtrip gets you to the top, and can at times be challenging, but worth it for the views. The vortex is found where Oak Creek runs next to Cathedral Rock, and is called “Red Rock Crossing.” 

Boynton Canyon 
Boynton Canyon is a spiritual home of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, and considered the most sacred of the big four. Also known as the Kachina Woman Vortex Site, it’s both an inflow and an upflow site, with the canyon as inflow and the ridges and peaks as upflow. It stretches two-and-a-half miles long, with energy throughout. 

The Chapel of the Holy Cross 
Built into the red rocks, The Chapel of the Holy Cross was actually inspired by a visit by sculptor Marguerite Brunswig Staude to the Empire State Building, when a cross appeared before her eyes within the structure. The chapel the epiphany inspired was officially dedicated in 1957 and overlooks Sedona. Despite it being a Christian monument, it's believed to be full of vortex energy. Either way, it’s a stunning place to visit. 

Schnebly Hill 
Koopsen recommends Schnebly Hill for a remote scenic overlook that’s quite literally off-the-beaten-path: An off-road vehicle is required to get to the top, but once there you’re in one of the highest plateaus in Sedona. 

Eagle’s Nest
As an alternative to the busy Airport Mesa vortex, Sanders recommends Eagle’s Nest in Red Rock State Park. The 2.4 mile loop offers the same 360-degree panoramas without the crowds, noise, and parking problem. 

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Editor. She has felt the pull of the earth. It was cool.