In the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest is a town at the crossroads of outdoor adventure, culinary innovation and space exploration. This historic logging, cattle and railroad city has the Mother Road running through downtown. Sitting at 7,000 feet, Flagstaff is not blazing hot like most of Arizona in the summertime. Instead temperatures average in the low 80s on summer afternoons. It’s the leading craft beer city in Arizona, the world’s first international dark skies city and every astronaut to walk on the moon trained in the stunning scenery in and surrounding Flagstaff. Plus, it’s only ninety minutes to the Grand Canyon. United recently started direct flights between Denver and Flagstaff so I hopped on a flight and was in Flagstaff in less than an hour and a half. As I found out on a 72-hour stay, it’s a playground of history, culture and adventure.
Hello Route 66
A spectacular view of the San Francisco Peaks greets you as you arrive at Flagstaff Pulliam Airport. I breezed through the small airport, got my rental car and headed over to the Visitor Center in a historic train station dating back to 1926. It’s the best place to start your Flagstaff fun for a couple of reason: you can take a selfie in a life-size astronaut suit, pay a quarter to make the toy train to go around, grab some moon-themed souvenirs and take a picture on Route 66.
It was lunchtime so I headed over to Tourist Home Café. It’s part restaurant and part bakery. I ordered the fish tacos and my friend Meg said, “You have to get a pastry for later.” I couldn’t decide between the almond joy or lemon butter bar. “Get both,” said Meg and so I did and enjoyed them over the next couple of days. We sat outside and I got my first of many surprises about Flagstaff. Tourist Home’s patio is next to a Pelota hand ball court built in 1926. About a dozen of them still exist in the country. I had no idea Flagstaff once had a vibrant Basque sheepherding community.
As I walked through downtown, I was drawn to a couple of beautifully painted murals, the Mother Mural and Sound of Flight. The Mother Mural near the Route 66 historic drive-in hotels takes you through the history of Route 66. The Sound of Flight near the Orpheum Theatre is 4,500 square feet and is the largest mural in Arizona. It beautifully weaves colorful birds with an ornate piano with even a wolf and statute of David mixed in.
I got a history lesson on wheels with Arizona Segway and Pedal Tours. What better way to learn about the history of Route 66 than on wheels? My guide Sasha was full of fun tidbits and cool facts as we cruised all over town on the two-hour tour. He took me through the campus of Northern Arizona University. I had no idea Olympians train in Flagstaff. Learned that as we cruised past the highest diving center in the world. We made a stop in Flagstaff’s Wild West red light district and I learned the story of madame “Mrs. Tea Cup Sallie” and the secret door connecting Paso Del Norte and the red brick building next to it. We passed by La Santisima Gourmet Taco which has been featured on the Food Network then by Grand Canyon Café, legendary for an 1899 post-Indian Wars gunfight. We continued through town with Sasha telling me about the historic buildings. Then, we went off-roading on Flagstaff Urban Trail System, a network of more than 55 miles. We rode through a forest then took us by Frances Short Pond, a peaceful pond with several folks casting a line.
After the adventure I was in mood for an afternoon tea and popped into Steep Leaf Lounge for a masala chai tea and a chocolate truffle made with local raw honey, raw cacao paste and coconut cream was calling my name. I savored every nibble of the sweet treat.
I geeked out at my next stop at the USGS Astrogeology Science Campus. Every astronaut to walk on the moon trained in Flagstaff. This summer is a huge celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission when Neil Armstrong was the first man to step foot on the moon. Grover, a land rover simulator, is on display in the lobby, along with Neil Armstrong’s handprint. Grover was used by crews of Apollo 15-17. It was built in Flagstaff in 90 days for $1900. Every astronaut to walk on the moon did astrogeology training in Flagstaff. Eugene Shoemaker invented the USGS’s Astrogeology branch in 1961 and established the Field Center in Flagstaff in 1963. USGS is just one of the stops on Flagstaff’s lunar landmarks trail. You can stop at sites like the USGS, Lowell Observatory and Sunset Crater to see where the Apollo astronauts trained. Many of the restaurants and bars have moon- themed eats and sips.
The USGS is next Buffalo Park so I stopped in for a quick easy walk to have a moment in nature before checking into the Residence Inn by Marriott in downtown Flagstaff. It’s a great location and the rooms are spacious.
I wanted to catch a great sunset and took a 20-minute to Upper Lake Mary. As a I got close to the day use area, a big herd of deer was heading into the woods. Surprisingly I had the view to myself as a streak of cotton candy pink lit up the clouds over the lake.
Once back in town I went in search of a late dinner. When it comes to late night dinner, Flagstaff is still a sleepy town. Most restaurant stop serving 8pm. Don’t worry though, there are a few great options that serve later including Shift. I sipped a Fuego 75, which is a spicy twist on a French 75 as I dined on golden beet soup and fresh pesto pasta.
Day 2: Scenic Chair Lift, 3 National Monuments and Epic Stargazing
This Breakfast is a Hoot
I started Day 2 with a great view from my room at the Residence Inn of the alpenglow on the San Francisco Peak at sunrise. I walked over to Toasted Owl Cafe and instantly feel in love with its quirkiness with vintage porch chairs and loveseats outside. Inside it’s a hoot with owl everything including chandeliers, napkin holders, cookie jars and salt and pepper shakers. I loved my multi colored silicone water cup and my smashed avocado toast was enough to feed at least two people. The spice blend sprinkled on the smashed avocado took my breakfast over the top. It was so yummy. I chatted up my waiter and had to ask about the name. “Started by a teacher with owls in classroom and kids brought in owls for gifts and it snowballed from there. Her family owned a restaurant in Grand Canyon, and she did a play on breakfast with name Toasted Owl,” he told me. What a great story I thought to go along with a fabulous breakfast. Wanting to grab a coffee to go, I popped into Macys European Coffeehouse. With as packed as it was, I could tell it’s a favorite of locals. My mouth watered as my eyes glazed over looking at all of the muffins, scones and pastries. Macys is one of Flagstaff’s few all-vegetarian restaurants and they have tons of gluten free and vegan options. I grabbed a latte and headed off to Flagstaff’s ski country.
Scenic Lift to Snow
During the summer Arizona Snowbowl trades ski slopes for sensational scenery. Enjoy lunch and the view of the mountain at 9500 feet at the historic Agassiz Lodge. The kids will love summer tubing, mini ropes course, bungee trampoline, treasure panning and barrel rolling while you kick back and relax. The 30-minute scenic chairlift takes you up to 11,510 feet. Enjoy the birds chirping in the pines and if you’re lucky you might see elk, deer, rabbits or even a fox. Once at the top, you can have a snowball fight and enjoy the view. After a 300” snow season, there’s still plenty of snow on the mountain to enjoy. On the way down it’s an entirely different view. On a clear day you can see the Grand Canyon, San Francisco Volcanic Field and even all the way to Sedona.
Three National Monuments in an Afternoon
I thought I was going to be an overachiever visiting three national monuments in an afternoon, but it is totally doable in Flagstaff. My first stop was Walnut Canyon National Monument, about ten minutes from downtown. I decided to do the Island Trail, a steep one-mile trail dropping 185 vertical feet. The first staircase is 273 steps down, which means 273 steps back up at the end. The loop trail has 190 steps scattered along the paved trail. There are more than 300 dwellings including about 70 living spaces of the Sinagua people dating back to between 1100 and 1250. Most of the dwellings are on the cliff walls but you do get to get up close to a couple of them.
My second afternoon stop was Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, 19 miles north of Flagstaff. The eruption that happened between 1040 and 1100 is the most recent volcanic activity in northern Arizona. The cinder cone you see formed during the early stages of the eruption. Sunset Crater has shades of green from the trees, red from the dirt and black from the lava. It looks like day turning in tonight. I hiked the 1-mile lava flow trail. The fascinating landscape was also a training ground for Apollo astronauts. I stopped at the Cinder Hills Overlook then continued driving the loop road connecting two national monuments.
Around 10 miles from Sunset Crater, there was incredible vista views of the painted desert in the distance. The temperature change between the two national monuments was about 15° warmers from Sunset Crater to Wupatki National Monument. Wukoki Pueblo is considered “one of the most impressive masses of aboriginal masonry.” Wukoki is a modern Hopi word for big house. This pueblo was once a home for two to three prehistoric Indian families. It’s visible from miles and looks like an old castle. I did the short walk to it and marveled at the masonry work of what was at one time a multi-floor dwelling. My next stop was at Wupatki Pueblo. I enjoyed taking the half mile loop around the grandest pueblo in the national monument. I walked up to the citadel for amazing 360° views and then stopped at the Box Canyon ruins and the Lomaki Pueblo out on the prairie. As the late day glow lit up the three ruins, I was wishing for more time to explore the ancient dwellings that for a moment I had to myself.
Seeing Galaxies Far, Far Away
In 1894, Lowell Observatory was established in Flagstaff by wealthy Bostonian Percival Lowell. It made space history when astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. Lowell was used to create the lunar maps for the Apollo moon missions. In 2001, Flagstaff was named the world’s first International Dark Sky City because it is one of the best places on earth to gaze at the night sky. The observatory sits at 7200’ in town and is open for daytime tours and evening viewing. The night I went there were three telescopes available for viewing. I decided to wait in line first for the historic Clark Refractor built in 1896. As I looked through the 123-year-old telescope I saw the M5 cluster almost 25,000 light years away. In the globular cluster I was looking at 100,000 to 500,000 stars. It was star gazing that took my breath away! Next, I looked through the McAllister Telescope and saw M94. The spiral galaxy looked like a glittery cotton ball. Through a portable telescope I saw two galaxies. The spiral galaxy M81 looked like a cotton ball and cigar galaxy M82 which looked like a slash. During night viewings there are programs and demonstrations offered every hour. I sat in on the Arabian night sky presentation for a bit until my tummy rumbled so loud, I had to go in search of dinner.
The Unassuming Wine Bar
For a late evening bite I headed over to FLG Terroir tucked away on the second floor of the Switzer building. Several locals had recommended it. I toasted a great day with a sparkling Italian wine and noshed on veggie overload with a delightful roasted asparagus salad with wine poached strawberries, marcona almonds, chèvre, balsamic vinaigrette and mixed greens.
Day 3 – Biking the Rim and Thirsty Thursday at the Museum
Eat n’ Run
Before heading to the Grand Canyon, which is just 80 miles from Flagstaff, I stopped in family owned Eat n’ Run at the corner of Route 66 and 4th Street for breakfast tacos and an Arizona sunrise smoothie. This joint is a must for breakfast. Plus, they’ll even make you a great lunch to go. The Mediterranean wrap I ordered to go hit the spot later in the day.
It’s about an hour and a half drive through the Coconino National Forest from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon. It’s beautiful on the San Francisco Peaks Scenic Byway flanked with ponderosa pines. The vegetation gets scrubbier as you get into the Kaibab National Forest then the landscape turns into ranchland as you get within ten miles of the Grand Canyon. If you’ve never been before, exploring all of the South Rim is a must.
You can drive, but parking is limited. Free shuttles are offered for sightseeing along the 25-mile stretch from Grand Canyon Village to the Desert View Watchtower, which is a must. The canyon and painted desert views are jaw dropping as you stop at the overlook pull-outs.
For a unique way to experience the canyon, book a Bike Grand Canyon tour with Bright Angel Bicycles in Grand Canyon Village. The Hermit Road Tour is 3.5 hours and the Yaki Point Tour is 2.5 hours. It’s a great way to learn about the area’s geology, anthropology and wildlife while taking in the stunning backdrop during your ride. If you’re lucky you might see deer or elk grazing as you explore some of the quieter trails. I was supposed to do the Hermit Road Tour to explore the quieter side of the South Rim, but Mother Nature had other plans with severe storms including hail blowing over the Grand Canyon.
When you visit, you want to be prepared for fast changing weather. Make sure you have rain gear and a jacket. Just as fast as the storms blew in, they moved out so Jen, my guide and I set off on an impromptu ride to do part of the Yaki Point ride. She was a wealth of knowledge as we chatted and rode along the rim. One thing I did not know is the North Rim is a thousand feet higher than the South Rim. The bike tours are ultra family friendly. All ages are welcome, and they keep the tours small with a maximum of twelve riders. Make a reservation in advance. You can also rent bikes if you want to venture out on your own to explore some of the quieter trails on the South Rim. It’s a great way to take in the canyon views along with seeing the variety of flora from prickly pear cactus to wildflowers. If you’re lucky, you might even see some wildlife. We saw about seven mule deer munching away and two elk sunbathing. The Grand Canyon is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year.
After an afternoon at the Grand Canyon, I stopped at the Museum of Northern Arizona for their Thirsty Thursday event with food, drinks, and time to explore the exhibitions in the museum. They have over five million artifacts in the museum’s anthropology, biology, fine art and geology collections. This museum is unique in that they have worked with native tribes for ninety years. I could have spent hours in the Native People of the Colorado Plateau gallery alone. It tells the story of the ten tribes in the area. I was fascinated by the similarities and differences of the tribes you see in the clothes, pottery and other daily life objects. I also loved the Babbit Gallery filled with stunning pieces of handmade jewelry by the Hopi, Navajo and Zuni tribes. As a grabbed a bite to eat and listened to the music, I got my favorite part of the evening. I got into two conversations with artists from different tribes. I was thoroughly intrigued by their stories and wow’ed by their works.
Wanting a resort experience in Flagstaff, I checked into Little America. In my spacious room, I drifted off to dreamland in the goose down bedding.
Not Wanting to Say Goodbye
The next morning, I took advantage of Little America’s hiking trail on property. It’s a lovely walk on the 2.5-mile hiking trail through ponderosa pines. I savored every second of the peacefulness. I managed to snag the primo table by the window for breakfast at Silver Pines. I splurged a little on a wonderful breakfast of cinnamon French toast and fruit.
Before heading to the airport, I took a little more time to explore the original alignment of Route 66 through the redeveloped Southside Historic District. I started back at the historic train station walked over to the classic drive-in motels and by the Mother Road mural one more time. I wasn’t ready to say, “see ya down the road.” I was wishing for more time in this town where history meets adventure.