The Premier Gateway To Sedona: The Red Rock Scenic Byway, An All-American Road
Visitors winding their way from Interstate 17 along Arizona State Route 179 towards Sedona are treated to one of the more incredible scenic drives in America. Many will claim that the natural beauty along this winding road is unparalleled anywhere else in the nation. But behind all of the rolling green landscape and majestic red rocks is a story that most folks are not aware of. It’s a story about the debate and controversy surrounding the construction of this road, and a story about a community not accepting a state agency’s efficient road design geared towards the efficient movement of traffic at the perceived expense of the pristine and fragile environment.
The fifteen-mile stretch of State Route 179 from Interstate 17 is the primary route that millions of tourists use to visit Sedona, one of the premier tourist destinations in the world. In the late 90s, the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) began the planning and design process for the reconstruction of about six miles of State Route 179 (then referred to as Highway 179) leading into Sedona. The purpose of the project was to increase the safety of the road, increase the efficiency of moving traffic, and to make maintenance easier and improve emergency response. The original plans for the road called for the construction of two lanes in each direction (from the existing one lane in each direction), plus a turn lane in the middle for a total of five lanes.
Residents and City officials alike were concerned that the plan was too drastic and would irreparably harm the landscape. They felt, in turn, that it would damage the local economy by negatively affecting tourism, and would also adversely affect the quality of life.
In 2001, the conservation organization, “Scenic America,” listed Sedona’s red rock surroundings as the nation’s ten most threatened landscapes due to ADOT’s original plans to reconstruct the road. It was a view that struck a chord with many residents in the community. The community’s concern about the reconstruction of Sedona’s primary artery to the world spawned the birth of the “Voice Of Choice,” a group of community activists that believed that there was a better answer and potentially a much better design that was a less invasive approach. They began a dialogue with ADOT officials to work towards a more acceptable solution.
What emerged from the dialogue was an agreement in 2005 for a design of a bifurcated road that only included one lane in each direction with the lanes being separated by a very wide forest service buffer that gives the traveler the feel that the other lane in the opposite direction doesn’t exist. The design assured that the breathtaking beauty and solitude of the Sedona landscape would be preserved. Through the efforts of stakeholders including: the Federal Highway Administration; Coconino National Forest; Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT); Coconino County; Yavapai County; City of Sedona; and the Big Park Regional Coordinating Council, the project was substantially completed in August 2010. The new, nine-mile stretch of road, extending from the eastern entrance to the Village of Oak Creek, to the heart of Sedona, includes many amenities and traffic enhancements. These include eleven roundabouts, two new scenic pullouts, bicycle and pedestrian improvements, and enhanced safety features.
In 2006, The US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration awarded State Route 179 its highest designation within the National Scenic Byways Program: the All American Road designation. The road is certainly deserving of this recognition, especially since its reconstruction, completed in the summer of 2010. The Red Rock Scenic Byway is one of only five highways in Arizona and one of 150 roads in the nation that have received the Scenic Byways designation. It is a tourist attraction onto itself.
However, the road, while incredibly beautiful, has not come without its share of problems. The popularity of the Sedona Red Rocks area along with a recovering economy and an aggressive marketing campaign by the Sedona Chamber of Commerce has significantly increased the traffic on the road. The increased traffic from visitors coming to enjoy the area can cause backups as long as a couple miles. This past spring, during the high season for tourism, this was almost a daily occurrence. As part of its 2015-16 budget, the City of Sedona has funded a major transportation study to address traffic issues on State Route 179 as well as other challenging transportation issues in the Sedona area. The study, which will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, will probably take at least a couple years to complete, and any meaningful projects to implement the study recommendations are most likely years into the future.
One can argue that you do not build a church parking lot to handle the Easter Sunday crowd, and that identical thought process applies to the construction of roads such a State Route 179. However, with the increasing regularity of traffic backups, the question must be asked: “Should the road have been constructed with more than just one lane in each direction?” The question continues to be debated by residents and businesses alike in Sedona and the Village of Oak Creek.
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The traffic challenges in Sedona are problems that will not be solved in the foreseeable future. But the community at least acknowledges the problems, and is beginning the process of identifying solutions. In the meantime, visitors to Red Rock Country may want to consider an alternate route into the area. Visitors traveling from the Phoenix area may want to consider using Hiqhway 260 as an alternate route through Cottonwood, and continue north on State Route 89A, entering Sedona though its Western Gateway. There are many sightseeing opportunities and unique attractions accessed along this corridor as well. Although it is a few miles longer, chances are you will arrive at your destination much quicker. And, you can always experience the beauty of State Route 179 by leaving Sedona on this route, or doing a side trip to the Village of Oak Creek. Eastbound traffic on State Route179 will experience a lot less congestion.
See our LIVE WEBCAM VIEWS of our stretch of the Sedona Red Rock Scenic Byway!
For more information on the Red Rock Scenic Byway and other Sedona area tourism information, please visit: www.fhwa.dot.gov/byways/byways, www.scenic.org, www.sedonachamber.com.