A half-century ago, the graybeards say, you sometimes could hardly see Thunder Mountain, Mount Wilson, Cathedral Rock and the other landmarks that enfold Sedona. The nearby Verde Valley refineries processing ore from the copper mines had smoked up the skies; prevailing winds pushed the haze northeast toward Sedona, a creek-fed, cliffside agricultural enclave.

Hard to believe.But then again, maybe the haze wasn't the hardest thing to take - if you subscribe to the first-come, first-dibs point of view.

"This is also what the old-timers say: `When Hollywood discovered Sedona, that's when all the trouble started,' " said Bob Moore, a volunteer at the Sedona-Oak Creek Chamber of Commerce Visitor Information Office.

The first movies were made in the area in the 1920s, but the real boom came after the mines had shut down in the '50s, and especially in the mid-1970s, added Marshall Morgan, who also parcels out information and brochures. "They made some 120 films here. Now about all they do is a lot of commercials."

The movies - from "California" (with Barbara Stanwyck and Ray Milland, 1947) to "Dead Man" (with Johnny Depp and Robert Mitchum, 1996) - and the ads alerted the world to the beauties of Sedona.

The information bureau is kept busy these days, for Sedona is an artists' colony and scenic mecca, a pleasantly touristy modern village, blessed with a temperate climate and backed by epic rock formations and a great rim of rock topped by evergreen forests.

To sightseers it is heavenly; to New Age enthusiasts it almost IS heaven.

For the former, Sedona - population 9,000, with 16,000 in the general vicinity - offers the requisite McDonald's (with subdued teal not golden arches, apparently to meet zoning regulations), discount stores and other businesses, often incorporating the landscape's primary color in their names, from the Red Rock Lodge to the Red Planet Diner.

For the latter there are shops, tours and psychic centers like Angel's Arts and Crystal and the Institute for Shamanic Synthesis. Sedona is a magnet - or rather, a "natural energy vortex" akin to Stonehenge or the Egyptian pyramids - to New Age seekers, channelers and mystics. Some feel compelled to create rock cairns, spirals and medicine wheels, large and small, at lookouts and along trails. You'll come across a couple dozen of these, for instance, at a prickly pear-dotted spot on Airport Mesa. Rangers regularly dismantle those built illegally on federal forest lands.

But perhaps Sedona's principal attraction - beyond the sheer loveliness of its setting - is its convenience as a hub for active travelers. That's what sisters Debbie Scouras of Austin and Barbara Boswell of Port Isabel, Texas, discovered. They were looking for someplace to vacation together and were talked into checking out Sedona by their travel agent.

"She had just been here," said Scouras.

" `Where is it?' we asked," said Boswell.

"And what's in Sedona? What can we do? What can we see?" added Scouras.

Convinced that the options were plentiful, the two flew into Phoenix, rented a car and "made Sedona our base of operations," Boswell said.

They took an airplane tour over the Grand Canyon ("Oh, it was beautiful," said Scouras), played in the snow near Flagstaff, visited the Meteor Crater near Winslow, rode in a balloon ("Oh, man, you ought to do that if you get a chance," said Boswell), visited the historic mining town of Jerome and hitched a ride on the Verde Canyon Railroad.

"We've gone in just about every direction," Boswell said.

One of their jaunts was a four-wheel-drive tour into the many-hued canyons east of Sedona, with Richard Walker of Sedona Photo Tours as their guide. The Jeep was painted yellow, like a box of Kodak film. Other tour operators in town have selected similarly bright tints for their vehicles.

Walker outlined Sedona's history for his guests. Although others homesteaded along Oak Creek earlier, settlers Theodore and Sedona Schnebly are credited with founding the town in 1901. Schnebly, who wanted to establish a post office, preferred a longer community moniker, but to fit postmark requirements had to think short. His wife's name was the compromise.

As his bright Jeep bounced up a dirt road east of Sedona, Walker pointed out Cathedral Rock to the south and took his guests to a viewpoint of Snoopy Rock to the east. Charles Schultz's famous canine reclines on his back, with Woodstock on his nose. Lucy stands in profile off to the left. The unexpected forms prompt one to ponder potential links between nature and the Sunday comics.

Walker drove up Bear Wallow Creek Canyon, once an important wagon and cattle trail, directing attention along the way to formations like Camel Head Rock and the Merry-Go-Round. At times he offered the insights of a naturalist. Black bear, elk, deer, mountain lions and javelina populate these forests, he said. A peculiar type of juniper thrives on the slopes, named for the unusual design on its trunks and branches: alligator bark.

Walker, who has lived in Sedona for three years, migrated from California, where he taught English literature at a community college.

"I gave that up and have never regretted it," he said.

"You're still teaching, Richard," someone added.

Jeep tours aren't the only forms of tourist transportation available in Sedona. Horseback and stagecoach rides can be arranged through some companies. Airplane and helicopter tours are offered out of the Yavapai County-Sedona Airport atop Airport Mesa.

" `Flightseeing,' " said Cindy Rahn, vice president-sales for Arizona Helicopter Adventures, "is a very cool thing. I want to change the world's thinking about vertical flight."

It's hard to beat a helicopter flight for an introduction to Sedona and its colorful canyons, she said.

Three guests clambered aboard a sleek Bell 'copter for a half-hour excursion. Pilot Frank Neal took the craft right over Sedona, sweeping past Chimney Rock and over the collapsed cave of Devil's Kitchen, heading up Soldier Canyon and into still-remote Secret Canyon. He hovered for a moment near ruins of structures built by the vanished Sinagua peoples 400 and more years ago and pointed out formations like Angel Eye Window, the Three Sisters and, nearby, the Three Brothers.

Although initially apprehensive about such an aerial tour, Canadian friends Jacquie Leask of Calgary and Adele Stone of Edmonton talked each other into it - and were delighted afterward.

"It was beautiful," Stone said.

"It could have been an hour and I wouldn't have minded it at all," said Leask."

And, as Rahn predicted, the flight gave the two more ideas. The backroads and backcountry trails crisscrossing the landscape piqued Stone's interest.

"It made me want to go hiking," she said.