Scottsdale vs Sedona: Where To Go On Your Next Arizona Holiday
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Scottsdale vs Sedona: Where To Go On Your Arizona Holiday

Sonoran Desert, Arizona

Arizona has proudly adopted the moniker of being the “Grand Canyon State”, and for good reason. Around five million tourists travel to Arizona, each year, to view the stunning vistas of Grand Canyon National Park. The Grand Canyon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognised as one of the natural wonders of the world, and it continues to be at the top of the list of places to see for most visitors to the United States.

But where do these people go, before, and after, they have visited the Grand Canyon? Arizona is a very large state (approximately 114 square miles) and its landscape encompasses deserts, mountains, canyons and forests, making it one of the most geographically diverse states in America. Arizona is also home to cities such as Phoenix, Tucson, and Flagstaff, as well as several protected Native American lands, so, there is much to see and do within Arizona on any holiday.

Scottsdale and Sedona are two towns within Arizona that have naturally attracted some of Arizona’s visitors. On a map they may appear similar in size, but in reality, Scottsdale and Sedona have very different characteristics and offer a wide variety of activities. So where should you go for your Arizona holiday this year? Having been fortunate enough to visit both areas, I am able to compare them both and share my experiences with you.     

Downtown Scottsdale, Arizona. Early evening, aerial
Arizona Canal, Downtown Scottsdale

Introducing Scottsdale

The state capital, Phoenix, is in the centre of Arizona, with the Grand Canyon National Park to the northern border and the city of Tucson to the south. The Phoenix Metropolitan Area is also referred to as “The Valley of the Sun” and is made up of several towns and cities such as Glendale, Tempe, Mesa and Scottsdale.

Of all these areas, it is Scottsdale that attracts the most visitors. Scottsdale has become home to some of the finest luxury resorts in the Southwest, with numerous championship golf courses bringing a green oasis to the surrounding desert. Scottsdale’s Art District and preserved Old Town are the hubs in the centre, with the various resorts spreading around the outskirts like spokes in a wheel. The proximity of Scottsdale to the international airport at Phoenix, and the almost guaranteed sunshine has enabled Scottsdale to attract both domestic and international visitors.

Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, Arizona, USA
Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona

Introducing Sedona

Whilst Scottsdale offers the glamour of a fashionable suburban resort centre, Sedona’s main attractions are more natural and spiritual. Located about two hour’s drive north of Scottsdale and a similar distance on to the Grand Canyon, makes Sedona a good stopping point on a journey from Phoenix to the National Park. However, Sedona is much more than just an overnight stop.

The landscape surrounding Sedona is characterised by stunning red sandstone formations, that have been eroded over millions of years to become a variety of towers, arches, and canyons. These striking rocks are ideal for outdoor activities like hiking, mountain biking and rock climbing.

Sedona has become a popular destination for wellness retreats, yoga workshops and alternative therapies, and the area is believed to be a centre for spiritual energy, with several vortex sites scattered throughout the area. The town in general has a relaxed and alternative feel and has developed a thriving arts community that hosts festivals and displays in the town.

Desert Botanical Gardens, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA
Desert Botanical Gardens, Scottsdale

Scottsdale vs Sedona: Environment & Weather

In general, Arizona has climate typical of most desert locations. Precipitation is low and temperatures are high. This leads to drought resistant plants dominating the landscape throughout the state, with cacti, succulents, and low-level shrubs to the fore.

Both Scottsdale and Sedona can experience hot summers with average daytime temperatures exceeding 35° centigrade. In the winter temperatures are usually mild, with cooler temperatures overnight.

Average temperatures in Scottsdale are generally higher than Sedona, and Scottsdale receives less annual rainfall too. The cause of this is predominantly altitude. Sedona is nearly 1000 metres higher than Scottsdale. Whilst Scottsdale is surrounded by the Sonoran Desert, Sedona is surrounded by several mountain ranges, such as the Mogollon Rim. The mesas, buttes and cliffs that define the Sedona landscape can also create their own micro-climate, that can lead to the breakout of thunderstorms in the high temperatures of mid-summer.

Scottsdale’s flatter and drier landscape is characterized by saguaro cacti and mesquite trees that can survive the long sunny days and lack of rain. Whilst Sedona still has cacti, it has more varied vegetation such as juniper and pine trees. These green plants and trees stand apart from Sedona’s towering red sandstone features.

4x4 Jeep Safari, Sedona, Arizona, USA
4×4 Jeep Safari, Sedona

Scottsdale vs Sedona: The Great Outdoors

With long days of sunshine, it is no surprise that Arizona has a great reputation for outdoor activities. Even in the peak summer heat you will still see people out and about making the most of the early morning and evening temperatures.

Although Scottsdale is relatively flat there are more than 200 miles of hiking trails in and around the town. The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is home to the majority of these walks varying from the short to the more challenging, although Pinnacle Peak Park and Camelback Mountain also attract their fair share of hikers. You can also enjoy mountain biking and horse riding on some of these trails. Riding off into the desert is best done on a guided trail ride organised by some of the resorts or by the local MacDonald Ranch.

By far the biggest outdoor attraction in Scottsdale is golf. As a non-golfer like me, at times it can feel that you are completely surrounded by golf courses. These green oases are often associated with specific hotels and resorts, such as Boulders Resort, but there are also independent championship courses as well, such as TPC Scottsdale and Troon North Golf Club.

 If you want to get out and about around Sedona, then bring your hiking boots. The iconic red rocks of Sedona attract walkers, hikers and runners from all around the USA and beyond. The sandstone cliffs are also challenging for rock climbers. My favourite trails around the town include Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, Devil’s Bridge and Oak Creek Canyon.

There are other ways of exploring Sedona’s natural beauty. For those not wanting to get the red dust on the shoes, then 4×4 and guided jeep safaris are very popular, and the knowledgeable guides will be able to take you to hidden canyons and remote rocky terrain that you may not find on your own. Alternatively, you could take to the skies. Soaring over Sedona in a hot air balloon certainly gives a different perspective on the red rocks.

Native American Hoop Dancer, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA
Native American Hoop Dancer, Scottsdale

Scottsdale vs Sedona: Arts & Culture

In the heart of Scottsdale’s Old Town is something very modern. The Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art is dedicated to presenting contemporary art, architecture, and design. The museum features rotating exhibitions showcasing works by local, national, and international artists. However, Scottsdale’s art district is not all about formal museums. A brief wander around the area will reveal numerous galleries, studios, and boutiques showcasing a variety of artwork, from paintings and sculptures to jewellery and ceramics. As a novice at these things, I particularly enjoyed the Scottsdale Art Walk that takes place weekly (usually Thursday evenings, but check locally for details). It explores many of the local galleries and introduces some of the local artists who describe their work.

There are two other museums that I would recommend you visit during your time in Scottsdale. The Heard Museum focuses on the rich heritage and artistry of Native American cultures, whilst the Museum of the West delves into the history of the American West, including cowboy culture and western movies.

The natural red rock sculptures around Sedona have been inspiring artists for centuries, and it is no surprise that a walk around town will reveal numerous art galleries and studios, where you can discover a wide range of artwork, including paintings, sculptures, pottery, jewellery, and photography. In particular the Sedona Arts Centre promotes local artists whist many can also be found at the Tlaquepaque Arts Village. This outdoor area is inspired by traditional Mexican architecture and is home to galleries, studios, boutiques and restaurants with a southwestern focus.

My favourite place, and perhaps the most striking piece of architecture in Sedona is the Chapel of the Holy Cross. This striking Catholic church is built into the iconic red rocks. Designed by the architect Richard Hein, in conjunction with Marguerite Brunswig Staude, the chapel was built in 1956 and as well as providing a place for worship and contemplation, it provides stunning panoramic views across Sedona. It is remarkable that in a town that openly adopts an alternative lifestyle, that such a traditional church sits in perfect harmony with the landscape.

Outdoor Yoga, Sedona, Arizona, USA
Outdoor Yoga, Sedona

Scottsdale vs Sedona: Spas & Wellness

Renowned for its luxurious hotels and resorts, it should be no surprise that Scottsdale is also home to some award-winning spas. Whilst the resorts themselves provide tranquil and rejuvenating surroundings for all guests to relax and unwind, those that seek a little extra pampering will find state of the art spas and wellness retreats. Some resorts even incorporate comprehensive wellness programs that focus on holistic health and wellness. Those that know me won’t be surprised to learn that I have no hands-on experience with this, but I am informed that it can involve fitness classes, nutrition guidance and yoga lessons.

I do have more experience with natural springs, and near to Scottsdale the Fountain Hills and the Verde River are a source of natural hot springs, where you can relax in thermal baths after your hike.

Sedona’s alternative lifestyle combines well with the beauty of its natural surroundings and Sedona has developed as a centre for spiritual and physical healing. Whilst Sedona’s hotels and resorts will provide the usual range of spa and wellness treatments, it is in the specialised retreat centres where you will find a world of spiritual growth and enlightenment. Many of the retreats offer classes in meditation, yoga, and spiritual counselling.

Whilst you are in Sedona you should be sure to visit one of the town’s natural vortexes. A vortex is believed to be an area where the earth’s energy is amplified, creating a strong and palpable energy field. These energy vortexes are said to emanate from specific locations within Sedona’s red rock landscape, with each vortex having its own unique qualities and characteristics. The presence of vortexes in Sedona is attributed to the area’s unique geological and geomagnetic features and the magnetic and electric fields are believed to enhance healing, spiritual awakening and creativity. Whether you experience these vortexes or not, you can explore the sites on their own or join guided tours led by experienced guides who offer insights into the history, geology, and metaphysical significance of the vortexes. Sites are located at specific points throughout Sedona, including Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, Boynton Canyon, and Airport Mesa.

Boulders Resort & Spa, Scottsdale
Boulders Resort & Spa, Scottsdale

Scottsdale vs Sedona: Hotels & Resorts

Being a suburban area, Scottsdale can offer visitors a variety of accommodation, from basic motels upwards. However, it is in providing luxurious accommodations with high-end amenities and impeccable service, that Scottsdale excels.

Scottsdale’s resorts often feature spacious rooms and suites, stunning desert views, championship golf courses, award-winning spas, and fine dining options. Whether you are seeking relaxation, outdoor adventure, or cultural experiences, Scottsdale’s resorts offer a wide range of amenities and activities to cater for your needs. Some of the world-class resorts in Scottsdale include:

  • The Phoenician, located at the base of Camelback Mountain
  • The Scottdale Resort at McCormick Ranch, set in 60 acres of desert landscape
  • The Boulders Resort & Spa, surrounded by rounded red rocks
  • Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, with a backdrop of the McDowell Mountains
  • Four Seasons Resort, set high in the Sonoran Desert

The hotels and resorts in Sedona offer a range of styles, from luxurious suites and casitas, to boutique cottages and villas, all surrounded by the stunning natural beauty of Sedona’s red rock landscapes.

All of Sedona’s properties cater for visitors seeking relaxation and rejuvenation with breathtaking views of the surrounding red rock landscape. Some of the best hotels and resorts in Sedona include:

  • L’Auberge de Sedona, situated on the banks of Oak Creek
  • Sedona Rouge Hotel & Spa, with a rooftop terrace providing panoramic views
  • Enchantment Resort, nestled in Boynton Canyon
  • Amara Resort & Spa, located in uptown Sedona
  • Sedona Summit Resort, a villa vacation property
Hiking in Sedona, Arizona, USA
Couple hiking in Sedona

Scottsdale vs Sedona: Which Is Best For Couples?

Scottsdale is a fashionable town to see, and be seen in. For couples wanting everything in a close proximity then Scottsdale has it all. Luxury Resorts, sports and outdoor activities, art and culture and gourmet restaurants with evening entertainment close by. For those wishing for a romantic escape then immersing yourself in one of the high-end resorts is simple, but does come at a financial cost.

Hiking around the Sedona’s scenic trails, hand in hand, is pretty special, particularly if you choose one of the quieter trails. Dining under the night sky is very popular in Sedona, and whilst there are less nightclubs and evening entertainment than Scottsdale, the experience of Sedona’s dark skies can be entertainment enough for many people.

Family hiking in Sedona, Arizona, USA
Family hike, Sedona

Scottsdale vs Sedona: Which Is Best For Families?

Scottsdale has entertainment for all ages whether you are seeking thrills, relaxation, or retail therapy. The Scottsdale Quarter is an outdoor shopping and entertainment complex with a variety of shops, restaurants, and entertainment options. In the heat of the day, the children (and young at heart) will enjoy cooling off in the splash pad area.

The McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park features a variety of attractions, including train rides, a carousel, playgrounds, picnic areas, and a model railroad exhibit, whilst the Butterfly Wonderland is the largest butterfly conservatory in the United States. Alternatively, families can also take a leisurely bike ride or leisurely stroll along the Scottsdale Greenbelt, a network of parks and pathways that runs along the banks of the Arizona Canal. A great place for a picnic.

There are plenty of outdoor activities to entertain families around Sedona. One of my favourites for children and adults alike is the Slide Rock Park, where everyone can slide down a natural rock water cascade, swim in refreshing creek waters, and enjoy picnics amidst the scenic surroundings. Red Rock State Park offers plenty of family friendly trails and interpretive programs, whilst the Sedona Trolley Tour is great for tired legs, and you still get to see the city’s red rock formations, scenic viewpoints, and cultural landmarks.

Wild flowers on Granite Mountain Loop, Scottsdale, Arizona
Spring wild flowers on Granite Mountain Loop, Scottsdale

Scottsdale vs Sedona: When Is The Best Time To Visit?

If you don’t mind the heat, then summer could be a good time to visit both Scottsdale and Sedona. Summer offers fewer crowds and lower hotel prices, but you will need to plan activities for early morning or later in the evening. Even the higher elevations of Sedona won’t enable you to escape the heat, so don’t start hiking in the heat of the day.

Spring is a popular time to visit both Scottsdale and Sedona due to mild temperatures and blooming desert wildflowers. Springtime also coincides with major events and festivals in both destinations, such as spring training baseball games in Scottsdale and the Sedona International Film Festival.

Autumn is another good time to visit Scottsdale and Sedona. September and October can still be warm in both destinations, but November brings cooler temperatures and fewer crowds, making it an ideal time to visit. The Fall foliage in Sedona’s oak and maple trees also adds a colourful backdrop to outdoor adventures.

Winter is peak tourist season in both Scottsdale and Sedona as there is an influx of visitors escaping colder climates further north. Temperatures are generally mild although Sedona can occasionally see some snow in January and February.

Horse riding by a river, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA
Horseback riding, Scottsdale

Scottsdale vs Sedona: Visit Them Both

Ultimately it can be difficult to choose between Scottsdale and Sedona for your next holiday to Arizona. Both offer very different experiences, and both are well worth your time. Fortunately, you don’t really have to choose, as you can visit both and stop by the Grand Canyon as well!

Our Arizona and the Grand Canyon fly drive itinerary combines a visit to the Grand Canyon with stays in both Scottsdale and Sedona. Making the whole trip in just over a week. Your only choice maybe whether to add some additional nights and where to stay a bit longer.


Richard has more than 25 years of experience working within the travel industry. He has travelled widely in the USA, Australia and Africa and enjoys exploring National Parks and other wilderness areas.