Arizona is all dry canyons, cactus and Sahara-like desert with triple digit temps and tumbleweed rolling across the roads, right? No, not right. I discovered during research for a move to Arizona that Flagstaff is actually a mecca for skiers and snowboarders. And… Flagstaff, Arizona’s highest mountain city, is known as “The Snow Capital of Arizona.” Imagine my surprise!
But that ain’t all. Flagstaff is also the coolest place to visit any time of the year. When the mercury soars to triple digits in Phoenix, Flagstaff, a mere 2 hours north, is 20 to 25 degrees cooler. In winter, Flagstaff’s temperature can be 40-50 degrees colder than Arizona’s desert cities. It is, in my opinion, the perfect place to chill most any time of the year.
- ABOUT FLAGSTAFF
- WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN FLAGSTAFF
- THE GREAT OUTDOORS
- THE GREAT INDOORS
- ON THE ROAD TO FLAGSTAFF
- FLAGSTAFF FOOD & LODGING
- FIFTEEN TRAVEL TIPS FOR FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA
Flagstaff, a city of 71,000, is just south of the San Francisco Peaks, an extinct stratovolcano mountain range that soars to 12,633 feet at the summit of Humphreys Peak, about 10 miles outside the city.
Mount Elden with its rugged, bare slopes is northeast Flagstaff’s most recognizable geological feature—it’s a lava dome and one of five large peripheral volcanic features within the greater San Francisco Peaks volcanic system.
Flagstaff can be reached via I-17 from Phoenix or I-40 from both Williams and Kingman. Located in the middle of the world’s largest Ponderosa pine forest, at an elevation of 6,910 feet, Flagstaff is higher than the mile-high city, Denver, Colorado, so bring a jacket for those cool summer nights.
With its bustling railroad corridor, Flagstaff is home to Northern Arizona University, Snowbowl Ski Resort, world-class astronomy observatories, superb hiking trails, music and culture festivals, Native American culture, and museums. Flagstaff is peppered with eclectic shops, more than 450 eateries, bars and microbreweries, the Blendz Winery (where patrons can create personalized wines), and even a place called the Drinking Horn Meadery. Yes, they have mead (the medieval spiced, fermented honey drink)! I know what’s next on my list to try the next time I’m in Flag.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO IN FLAGSTAFF
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Walk, run, hike or bike – let me count the ways…
1. Flagstaff’s Urban Trails System (FUTS) winds for 56 miles throughout the mountain city—it cuts through NAU’s campus, parks, meadows, canyons, forests and even intersects with bus stops and businesses. Walkers, runners, bicyclists and wildlife share the hard-packed path. Parts of the trail are steep and parts are easy. Explore developed areas or wilderness. Choose your own adventure!
2. Buffalo Park (part of the FUTS) is a prime photography spot for the San Francisco Peaks. The 2.2-mile Nate Avery Trail loop is easy going because it’s mostly flat, with only a 98-foot incline throughout. The crushed gravel trail is well-marked, and there are stations to pause for extra physical challenges, such as a kid-friendly obstacle course. In spring and summer, depending on rainfall, mountain wildflowers may be abundant. Go early in the morning to hear the haunting, melancholy calls of Western meadowlarks.
3. Flagstaff Aboretum – Nature lover? Tree hugger? Plant whisperer? The Arboretum at Flagstaff, a lush 200-acre garden awaits. Visitors may stroll or hike the grounds and greenhouse and relax among the pines and oaks for bird watching among the 750 drought-adapted native plants species. A seasonal butterfly enclosure offers a peek at an enchanting microcosm of nature. Or attend special events such as a raptor show, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, or sample regional cuisine and wine at “Wine in the Woods.” Heading into fall, aspens turn into a golden leaf show.
The Arboretum is down four miles of bouncy, washboard dirt-clay road (four-wheel drive recommended). Daily guided tours. Spring/summer only.
Prefer to hike in the boonies?
4. Walnut Canyon, 7.5 miles east of Flagstaff on Highway 89, offers extreme hiking for those who’ve no fear of StairMasters. There are daily ranger talks and guided walks. The Walnut Canyon National Monument has hundreds (reportedly, 700) of deep, high stone steps that lead to Sinagua cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and pictographs. A visitors’ center offers exhibits for those whose knees prefer not to brave the stairs.
5. Humphrey’s Peak – Up for an extreme challenge of an 8-10 hour steep hike?
Hike 4.5 miles up Humphreys Peak, the summit a breathless 12,637 feet, and expect summer temps of 30-40° F. Don’t forget overnight food supplies, rain gear, tent, sunscreen, hat, water, warm clothing and a sleeping bag, in case of inclement weather. Pre-hike, check fire restrictions. (Winter hikers need a permit and true grit.)
6. Flagstaff Snowbowl – Not keen on hiking the grueling trail of Humphreys Peak, but eager to see the view from the near-summit? Hop on Snow Bowl’s Skyride Agassiz Chairlift at 9,500 feet, weather permitting. The open triple-chairlift Skyride whisks visitors to a stunning 11,500-foot upper slope where, on a clear day, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon can be viewed, 80 miles away. Skiers and snowboarders…this is your happy place late November through March. But no matter what time of the year, summer, fall, winter or spring, you’ll enjoy the spectacular views. A Forest Service interpretive specialist answers questions about the region’s biology, geology and history. Hiking upward from this point is prohibited, due to ecological concerns, so snap lots of photos.
Flagstaff Festivals: Music and Brews
7. Summer is Festival Season and the city is home to the annual Hullabaloo, Flagstaff Blues and Brews Festival, Flagstaff Folk Festival, Made in the Shade Beer-Tasting Festival, and more. Here’s what’s coming up: Now in its twelfth year, Pickin’ in the Pines Bluegrass and Acoustic Music Festival is a world-class music festival of bluegrass and acoustic music at Fort Tuthill County Park. This year’s lineup includes the Del McCoury Band, Béla Fleck, The Infamous Stringdusters, Seldom Scene, Hogslop String Band and more. Stay in a hotel/motel or AirBnB or camp at Black Bart’s RV, Coconino National Forest, KOA, or Woody Mountain. On-site camping for this event sells out quickly, so get your 2019 Festival Pass before it’s too late! If you’ve missed the Pickin’ festival, never fear because here comes Flagstaff Oktoberfest!
Heritage and Culture
8. The Museum of Northern Arizona celebrates and preserves Native American and Mexican culture and traditions with many cultural festivals. As well, the Northern Arizona Celtic and Heritage Society celebrates with a Highland Festival. And the Flagstaff Oktoberfest has multiple sponsors who bring German tradition, culture, and beer to Flagstaff. The Cornucopia Fall Festival celebrates the season with Americana traditions of pumpkin patches, pie-eating contests, a hay maze, and carnival rides.
9. The Coconino Center for the Arts is the premier performing arts center and exhibition space in the region. The unique theater in the half-round seats 200 people and boasts two distinctive gallery spaces featuring contemporary art and fine crafts. Just one mile from downtown Flagstaff, this gorgeous facility has a large (4000 square feet) gallery and a smaller “jewel gallery,” and an indoor amphitheater that seats 200. Check the schedule for the wide range of events from gallery exhibitions to concerts, classes and workshops. The Coconino Center for the Arts gallery is open to the public Tuesday – Saturday 11:00 A.M. – 5:00 P.M.
Or would you really rather just go fishing?
10. Frances Short Pond – There’s an old saying that the worst day fishing is better than the best day working. Although more-serious anglers may opt to drive out of town to Lake Mary, there’s an urban fishing hole right in Flagstaff! Frances Short Pond is a two-acre pond that’s stocked with trout and bluegill by Arizona Game and Fish. It’s a fun place for kids or grandkids to learn how to fish as well as adults.
Do You Enjoy Train Watching?
11. Flagstaff Train Depot and Visitors Center (1 East Route 66), built in 1926, is still a working railroad station as well as a visitor center with coupons and info about local attractions.
Railroad enthusiasts often visit the platform side of the Amtrak station to take photos of the more than 100 daily trains, most of them freight. (Stay off the tracks.Trains may blast through crossings at high speeds to build momentum to get up the hill.) Adjacent to the station on Route 66, a 1911 Baldwin steam locomotive named Consolidation #25 is permanently on display.
THE GREAT INDOORS
Seeking Celestial Bodies?
12. Lowell Observatory – Flagstaff passed dark skies ordinances to preserve the quality of astronomical viewing. It was the first international dark sky city. On Mars Hill, Lowell Observatory is world-renowned for the discovery the ninth planet in our solar system. Lowell Observatory is also open in the daytime—there’s a solar telescope for viewing the sun. A 45-minute guided daytime walking tour includes a visit to the Clark Refractor telescope built in 1894, used by scientists in the 1960s to prepare for the moon mission, and is still used today. Recently restored to its original glory, it is worth the short drive up the hill to walk the lush grounds and view the telescope and the dome in daylight, as well as at night. And, by the way, Lowell is the “home of Pluto.” And despite the changes in its classification as a dwarf planet, not a true planet—Lowell insists that Pluto is still a true planet.
13. NAU Observatory – Free of charge on Friday nights from 7:30 to 10 p.m. (during the academic year, weather permitting), NAU’s Atmospheric Research Laboratory welcomes the public to view celestial objects through its telescope at the NAU Observatory on campus (Building 47, S. San Francisco Street).
Flagstaff’s theater scene
14. Theaters on the NAU campus: The Prochnow Auditorium welcomes such diverse speakers as a Jewish spy who shares her experiences in the French First Army Intelligence during World War II. The Ardrey Memorial Auditorium has hosted 69 seasons of the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, and the Flagstaff Festival of Science. The Clifford E. White Theater’s current season includes classics such as Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap and Shakespeare’s King John, as well as student-directed plays.
15. Shakespeare Under the Pines – Elsewhere in Flagstaff, other theater offerings run the gamut from Black Bart’s Steakhouse, Saloon, & Musical Revue to Flagstaff’s Shakespeare Festival (The Tempest) at the Coconino Center for the Arts and also at the Arboretum. Seeking Shakespeare Under the Pines? Flagstaff has it! Other performing arts theaters include downtown’s circa-1911 Orpheum Theater for concerts, drinks, film tours, and Theatrikos Playhouse, which is, this season, performing The Great Gatsby (adapted for the stage).
Flagstaff History: get a blast from the past!
16. Fort Tuthill Military Museum – Reopened in 2017 after this military museum’s extensive renovation, Fort Tuthill’s Building 1 reveals the regimental history of the 1st Regiment Arizona Volunteers (circa 1865). Building 2 explores the history of the “regiment’s prewar training and South Pacific Combat though Afghanistan deployment of today’s 1st Battalion 158th Infantry.” From its Civil War era beginnings to the present, Fort Tuthill “preserves and presents the distinguished history of the Arizona National Guard, the 158th Infantry Regiment, and defines the role Fort Tuthill played in that history.”
17. Museum of Northern Arizona has a 200-acre campus with an “exhibit building, research labs, and state of the art collections facilities for more than five million Native American artifacts, natural science specimens, and fine art pieces.” The museum also boasts the enormous, assembled skeleton of a 93-million-year-old therizinosaur (sickle-claw dinosaur).
18. The Riordan Mansion is partnered with the Pioneer Museum and may have ticket deals for both. At 13,000 square feet and on 5 acres, there is a lot to see on the guided tour of the 1904 building’s architecture, history and furnishings, and family life. It’s also a wedding venue.
19. The Pioneer Museum (only $6 admission) is housed in what was once a hospital built of stone blocks hewn from Mount Elden. Three permanent displays include hospital history, Decade Rooms (history from 1880 to 1950), and a steam locomotive and caboose on the grounds. Fun for kids, both big and little.
Want to cheer on the Flagstaff Lumberjacks in person?
20. NAU Skydome – When there’s a nip in the air, the smell of wood smoke is plentiful and parking spaces are sparse. That means the university is back in session, and with it, NAU Football Season. NAU offers visitors the excitement of watching live football in the indoor Walkup Skydome. NAU is one of only 11 universities to own its own domed facility.
Love to Chill on Vacation with a Good Book?
21. Bookstores – When renting a cabin in the woods, it’s almost required that some down time is spent relaxing on the porch or in front of a warm fire reading a great book. Yes, you have your Kindle, but don’t overlook bookstores for free entertainment, special events or just a comfortable place to sit and regroup during a city walk. Bookmans has thousands of used and new books, magazines, DVD movies, video and board games, and music. There’s free wi-fi, a café, scheduled live music, as well as EV charging stations. And pets are welcome. Brightside Bookshop hosts author signings and other events. Starrlight Books has vintage treasures in its quaint downtown shop. Barnes & Noble has a store, too, and a café to sit and load up your Nook with free ebooks via free wi-fi.
ON THE ROAD TO FLAGSTAFF
What’s there to see on the way to Flagstaff?
22. Sedona is world-famous for its hiking trails that snake through picturesque red rocks, and for its legendary vortex sites of cosmic energy. The iconic red bluffs are so alluring and majestic that travelers may want to stop and take photos.
23. Slide Rock State Park – Also on 89A (between Flagstaff and Sedona) in Oak Creek Canyon is Slide Rock State Park, a naturally slippery rock course and swimming in very cold Oak Creek, even in summer. It’s a great place to take photos of running water (go early to get the cheaper parking outside the entrance). In autumn, there’s a leaf show of oaks and mixed woods and the scenic drive through Oak Creek Canyon, especially in fall, is a sight to behold. (Visitors may need a Red Rock permit in some areas.)
24. Montezuma’s Castle National Monument is a pueblo of cliff dwellings, Beaver Creek and Montezuma’s Well. There’s a Visitor Center, too, that reveals the mysteries of what lurks at the bottom of the ancient well, as well as sheds light on the multi-roomed cliff dwellings that were built by the Sinagua. The paved 1/3 mile trail is fairly easy, however there are “stairs, hills and rocks.” Don’t miss this astonishing glimpse into Arizona history and culture.
25. Jerome is Arizona’s most famous occupied ghost town. Up a winding road to an elevation almost a mile high, this artsy-craftsy tourist town of 400 residents rises up from Cleopatra Hill, high above the desert floor, and captivates visitors. The Jerome Historical Society presents the Mine Museum (and gift shop) with artifacts of a bygone day that shaped a booming mining town that was built on a billion dollars’ worth of copper mined from miles of tunnels under the town. Gold, silver, and other ores were also mined.
Among the ghosts that have been sighted at the Mile High Inn and Spook Hall, a brothel madam, a friendly elderly gentleman, and a mining heiress share notoriety with a phantom cat that “leaves footprints on the beds.” A plethora of productive artisans, craftspeople, musicians, writers, shopkeepers and bed and breakfast owners offer food and lodging, wine tastings, home-made fudge, pottery, one-of-a-kind jewelry, handmade clothing, unusual home décor and Jerome souvenirs in many shops that dot the winding, switchback streets, some with stairs to climb to lower streets. Take a haunted tour or explore Douglas Mansion State Park. What treasures—or ghosts—will you discover in a boomtown once nicknamed the “wickedest town in the West”?
26. Meteor Crater Natural Landmark was the official training site for Apollo astronauts. Thirty-five miles east of Flagstaff (Exit 233 on I-40), this less-visited regional crater (because it’s privately owned) is the ‘best-preserved, first-proven impact site in the world.’ First-time visitors to this magnificent desolation—a 500-foot deep bowl-shaped crater—will notice it’s very windy (a 111-mph wind was confirmed there by the National Weather Service in November, 2012), so assist children open car doors and trunks with caution to prevent damage to vehicles.
There’s an Interactive Discovery Center, a movie about impacts and collisions, and a one-hour guided tour of the rim. No drone photography is allowed. No hiking down into the crater. The Visitors’ Center has an indoor Subway with sandwiches and there’s a space-themed gift shop with Native American art, jewelry and gifts, even fossils.
27. Hackberry General Store – If you travel to Flagstaff through Kingman, part of the original Route 66 Highway remains accessible; it’s a 147-mile dusty stretch of nostalgia between Kingman and Flagstaff. Along the way, don’t miss the Hackberry General Store that’s part museum, part Route 66 souvenir shop. It was once a gas station, back in the day, but the store no longer sells gas. Old gas pumps can be seen, as well as other memorabilia from the bygone age before the interstate swallowed up most of Arizona’s leg of Route 66.
General Store and Map to businesses in the region
Whether you’re an avid hiker, or prefer the easygoing pace of downtown strolls, train watching, or museum visits, Flagstaff has something to offer all visitors. Desert heat taking its toll? Visit Flagstaff, a four-season mountain city that’s “cool” in every way.
FLAGSTAFF FOOD & LODGING
Flagstaff has an abundance of eating and drinking establishments, from fast-food to a surprising large number of restaurants serving gourmet cuisine, and I’d be hard-pressed to list them all, much less sample all of them. The brew pubs are so plentiful, the subject requires an article all of it’s own, which I’ll get to eventually so keep your eyes peeled. When we’re in Flagstaff, we usually rent an AirBnB cabin and are fairly casual in our dining choices. Here are a few favorites:
- Pizzacletta is a tiny place with inauspicious long tables and open seating, but the wood-fired Neopolitan style pizza is awesome. Their excellent thin-crusted pizzas are loaded with gourmet toppings like aged prosciutto and a variety of cheeses. Medium priced.
- MartAnnes Burrito Palace, a family-owned Southwestern style restaurant located on historic Route 66 is a local favorite. This casual, quirky hangout is best known for it’s Chilaquiles and for serving a great breakfast. Unlike most restaurants of this type, they do charge for chips and salsa.
- Satchmno’s BBQ and Cajun food in a humble environment, and I’m drooling just thinking about their slow-smoked BBQ and gumbo. Take the whole family. You won’t be disappointed.
- Tourist Home All-Day Cafe is just what it says…a cheery cafe with yummy bakery items and great coffee. Part restaurant, part bakery, serving breakfast and lunch. Voted “Best of Flagstaff 2018.”
- If trains are your thing, head for The Crown Railroad Cafe on historic Route 66. This diner with model trains serves American food…and some serious nostalgia. Bring the whole family.
Flagstaff also has an abundance of lodging, (96 hotels and motels in the area). The hotel chains are all there, but I can only vouch for the places we’ve stayed, most of which have been through AirBnB. AirBnB offers some of the best condos and cabins in and around Flagstaff. We’ve stayed in both, usually close enough to town so that we have a quick choice of things to do and places to eat. We’ve never gone wrong staying in an AirBnB property. If you want the authentic feel of a cabin in the woods, I’d suggest going with an AirBnB.
If old historic hotels appeal to you, The Historic Hotel Monte Vista can’t be beat. Front and center in downtown Flagstaff on the corners of Aspen and San Francisco Streets, the Hotel Monte Vista stands just off historic Route 66. It’s a true icon from the 1920s. With the mountains and canyon countries nearby, the Monte Vista is a great place to relax and use as a home base while you explore the natural wonders Northern Arizona has to offer. The hotel has a restaurant, the Lotus Lounge, and a bar where you can find live music, Karaoke, a full day happy hour and Trivia Night. Staying at the historic Hotel Monte Vista you’ll get a glimpse into the bootlegging days of the past and the spirited lifestyle of the Great American West. You may even hear the ghost stories…or see a ghost or two.
Little America – the recently renovated Little America Hotel is set on a 500 acre private forest, with hiking trails, approximately two miles from town.
The 45-year-old hotel has its own bar and restaurant, (The Silver Pine Restaurant and Bar) and in-room dining, which makes it nice when after a day of activity you don’t feel like going out for cocktails and dinner. The hotel offers “Getaway” packages that include a $50 credit that can be used in the restaurant, bar or gift shop. Mid-range prices generally see a rise in the summertime. We’ve stayed at Little America several times over the years and truly enjoyed our stay each time.
Winter, summer, spring or fall, Flagstaff, Arizona, offers something fun for all. We hope we’ve convinced you Flagstaff is a pretty chill place to visit and that you’ll enjoy the travel attractions in and around the city as much as we do.
FIFTEEN TRAVEL TIPS FOR FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA
- Bookmark the monthly downtown events calendar.
- Stay hydrated. Due to increased respiration, the Institute for Altitude Medicine recommends adding 1 to 1.5 liters of water to the usual intake to stay hydrated.
- Dress in layers, even in summer, as afternoon thunderstorms are common and the higher the elevation, the cooler the temperature. A rain jacket with a zip-out lining can protect you from unexpected showers and chills.
- Book Flagstaff accommodations far in advance as hotel rooms fill up quickly, as do campgrounds, especially on summer weekends.
- Pack light. Flagstaff has plenty of shopping opportunities if you forgot something or a need pops up.
- Sunscreen is especially important at high altitudes.
- Not every meal comes from a restaurant. Flagstaff Community Farmer’s Market has Arizona produce and foods as diverse as edible flowers, tacos, lavender lemonade and handmade salsa. The produce and street food market is open from May 6th through October 21st at 211 W. Aspen (the City Hall parking lot) on Sundays from 8 a.m. to noon.
- Shopping for souvenirs, clothing, jewelry, or one-of-a-kind gifts? Flagstaff Urban Flea Market is open five Saturdays a year between June and October at 211 W. Aspen (the City Hall parking lot).
- Due to Flagstaff city noise ordinances, trains may not sound horn warnings at grade crossings. Use extra caution and obey wayside horns, flashing lights and traffic signals which are keyed to train approaches. (Not all crossings have mechanized crossing gates and pedestrians must obey signals, too.)
- Cell reception varies in mountainous regions.Travel apps can help with navigation, but be sure to download local maps that can be accessed without a cell signal.
- Stash your smartphone and wallet in a hanging passport holder (scroll down). It may save your phone in an unexpected downpour or keep you from losing it on a hike.
- During periods of extreme fire danger or during forest fires, some attractions and hiking areas may be closed to visitors. Visit the Coconino National Forest website to check accessibility.
- Within Arizona, check road conditions by phoning 511. Or visiting com.
- View the forest alerts, closure notices, and a list of the no-drone zones for the Coconino National Forest.
- Check the current status of Flagstaff’s autumn leaf shows with the LEAF-ometer.