Flagstaff, Arizona, has long been known as the “City of Seven Wonders,” referencing its proximity to an enviable number of natural treasures. The small city in Northern Arizona sits at 7,000 feet above sea level, surrounded by aspen and pine forest at the base of the San Francisco Peaks. It represents a totally different version of Arizona than the cactus-strewn, sunbaked desert the state usually brings to mind. A true four-season climate inspires diverse versions of outdoor fun, all surrounded by outstanding mountain scenery and profound cultural heritage.
Long a hub for visiting the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff is also within a day trip’s distance of seven other national parks and monuments, seven Arizona state parks and hundreds of volcanoes. Want some more astonishing facts about this beautiful city in Northern Arizona?
- Flagstaff sits within the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest.
- In 2001 it was declared the world’s first International Dark Sky City.
- Historic Route 66 cuts through the middle of Flagstaff.
- It’s one of the snowiest cities in the United States, while summers are sunny and mild.
- Flagstaff has been called one of the darkest, quietest and cleanest places on Earth.
There are way more than seven reasons to plan a trip to Flagstaff, but the following pursuits stand out as highlights of this fantastic vacation destination.
Explore Downtown Flagstaff
Downtown Flagstaff is picturesque, largely walkable and historic, with many of its buildings dating to the 1890s. Stop at the Flagstaff Visitor Center, housed in the old Santa Fe railroad depot on Route 66, to pick up maps and guides for self-guided tours. Flagstaff offers more than 50 miles of urban trails, plus 14 miles of the original Route 66. Wander through the Southside Historic District, hit up the brewery trail or public art trail, or join a guided historic walking tour or food tour. Stop in at some of Flagstaff’s lovely boutiques, galleries, craft breweries and restaurants as well.
Head to the High Country
Flagstaff sits at around 7,000 feet, but nearby mountains invite you to have fun at even higher altitudes. The easiest way to reach a tall mountain peak near Flagstaff is with a trip to the Arizona Snowbowl, just 7 miles north of downtown. In winter it’s a bustling ski resort, but from Memorial Day weekend through mid-October you can ride the Scenic Gondola from the 9,500-foot base of an extinct volcano, all the way up to its 11,500-foot summit. The ride is a thrill and the scenery is incredible, with expansive views across the San Francisco volcanic fields. You’ll gain a new appreciation of Northern Arizona’s dramatic, dynamic landscape. On the clearest days you might see as far as Sedona and the Grand Canyon. More summer fun is available with summer tubing and a bungee trampoline.
Other High Country destinations near the city include the Arboretum at Flagstaff, located within the Coconino National Forest. It showcases more than 700 species of native flora and fauna amid the ponderosa pines. Go fishing, canoeing or paddle-boarding at Upper Lake Mary, or head to Arizona Nordic Village for hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Check out the Museum of Northern Arizona
The Museum of Northern Arizona is an outstanding institution, just off San Francisco Peaks Scenic Road a few miles from downtown Flagstaff. The museum is a nonprofit dedicated to the natural and cultural heritage of Northern Arizona. Permanent exhibits cover geology and paleontology, with displays of full dinosaur skeletons, fossils and meteorites, and the Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau, telling the stories of 10 local tribes. Native peoples have inhabited the Colorado Plateau for around 12,000 years. The exhibit showcases distinct cultures, languages and history through timelines, striking artifacts and contemporary jewelry, ceramics and other works of art.
Rotating art exhibitions feature exemplary works related to the history, cultures and landscapes of the region. There’s a Discovery Room with games, crafts and books for younger visitors, and you can pick up a kids’ activity kit at the front desk. After exploring the museum, be sure to take a walk on the Rio de Flag Nature Trail across the street. It’s mostly flat, with three looping sections covering forest, canyon and amphibian pond ecosystems. The shady aspen, oak and pine habitat is home to lots of animal life, so look out for acorn woodpeckers, Albert squirrels and the noisy, bright blue Steller’s jay.
Tour Three National Monuments Near Flagstaff
There are an impressive seven national parks and monuments within 80 miles of Flagstaff, and it’s possible to explore the closest three all in a single day. Sunset Crater and Wupatki national monuments share a loop road off Highway 89, so it makes sense to combine them into one trip. The southern end of the loop road is a 30-minute drive from downtown Flagstaff, and the northern exit is about 45 minutes away. Walnut Canyon National Monument is 20 miles east of Flagstaff.
All three of these destinations feature a visitor center with museum exhibits, plus several short trails. There’s no access to the backcountry due to sensitive ecology and archeological remains. This means extensive hikes are not an option, so the average visitor will spend at most a few hours at each monument.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
The cinder cone garnished with hardened black lava flows that today is Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument was once a valley inhabited by thriving Native communities. Around 900 years ago, those inhabitants – the Sinagua people – hastily vacated the valley in response to recurring earthquakes and fleeing wildlife. This was a smart move, as those quakes preceded the most recent volcanic eruption in Arizona.
Lava flows for miles transformed this section of the Colorado Plateau, and their jet-black, glossy undulations appear remarkably recent even today. Almost a century after the eruption, only sparse, gnarly pines and smatterings of wildflowers have popped up from crevices among the lava. Visitors can admire this unusual landscape on the one-mile, self-guided Lava Flow Trail.
Wupatki National Monument
From around 500 to 1225 AD, thousands of Sinagua lived in complex rock-walled pueblos north of Flagstaff, the ruins of which are protected as Wupatki National Monument. They were farmers, hunters, gatherers and traders, with extensive networks reaching as far as the Pacific and Gulf coasts. The desert and mountain landscapes around the monument were cooler, wetter and more fertile than today, and could support large, dynamic communities.
After visiting Sunset Crater, it’s interesting to learn that many of those who fled before its eruption settled at Wupatki. Falling ash from the volcano enriched the soils and supported agriculture across the region.
Today, the remaining red sandstone walls in geometric forms hint at life in the pueblos, and are stunning examples of ancient architecture. Along with the desert and mountain backdrop, the ruins and their shifting shadows are captivating, and so very photogenic. The largest structure, Wupatki Ruin, would have been the largest and tallest multi-story building in the entire region, with over 100 rooms. There are numerous secondary structures nearby. Visitors can explore Wupatki and two other pueblo complexes via short, self-guided trails. Be sure to stop at a natural blowhole that vents cold air upward from an unknowable underground cave system. It’s as much a curiosity today as it would have been a century ago.
Walnut Canyon National Monument
Another intriguing monument making up the legacy of the ancient Sinagua is Walnut Canyon, 20 miles outside Flagstaff. The 600-foot-deep canyon carved by Walnut Creek yields varied and abundant vegetation across its many microclimates. Some 800 years ago, its unique biosphere supported a substantial Sinagua community. They carved more than 80 cliff dwellings into the natural recesses of the canyon’s limestone walls. They also built pithouses around the canyon rim, with each type of housing offering its own benefits for survival.
Visitors to Walnut Canyon National Monument can see 25 cliff dwellings by hiking the 1-mile Island Trail, a very steep loop trail that takes you 185 feet down into the canyon and back. Bear in mind that the monument’s 7,000-foot elevation makes the hike additionally strenuous. Easier to stroll is the shorter, entirely flat Rim Trail through pinon pine and juniper forest. It features two canyon overlooks and extensive, very informative signage covering local flora and fauna and its historical and cultural applications.
Don’t Miss Flagstaff’s Lunar Landmarks
As the site of several very significant achievements in astrology and space travel, Flagstaff is justly proud of its lunar landmarks. Did you know that Pluto was discovered from Flagstaff in 1930? And that every astronaut who ever walked on the Moon trained in Flagstaff? Sunset Crater, Cinder Lake Crater Field and Meteor Crater, all in the vicinity of Flagstaff, were Apollo Astronaut training sites, and key to instrument development and lunar mapping.
For anyone interested in space, Flagstaff’s lunar landmarks are must-see spots. Be sure to schedule a visit to the Lowell Observatory, famous for the discovery of Pluto. A historic facility dating to 1894, it features vintage telescopes still in working order along with modern equipment. General admission covers guided and self-guided tours, plus science talks and stargazing. Six state-of-the-art telescopes are available at the Giovale Open Deck Observatory, and you can also experience solar viewing through the Hydrogen-Alpha Lunt Telescope.
The Earth’s best-preserved meteor impact site is 35 minutes outside Flagstaff at the Meteor Crater and Barringer Space Museum. About 50,000 years ago, during the last ice age, a 150-foot-across iron-nickel meteorite crashed into the Earth at 26,000 miles per hour. In a few seconds, the once-flat plain grazed upon by mammoths and mastodons became an inverted dome over 2.4 miles in circumference and 700 feet deep. You can explore the crater and learn more about its creation on a guided rim tour. Or, observe it from the indoor viewing room, outdoor deck and self-guided trails. The Meteor Crater is also notable as a NASA training site, chosen for its close resemblance to the surface of the Moon.
Where to Stay in Flagstaff: Little America Hotel
Little America Hotel is the only AAA Four Diamond hotel in Flagstaff, testament to its upscale ambiance and impressive design. Accommodations are in four two-story lodge buildings laid out like a village community in a quiet, 500-acre woodland setting. The main building features a grand lobby where the design evokes the local land and culture through artistic installations of geodes around an enormous pine-clad fireplace. It also houses the gift shop and Silver Pine Restaurant, which specializes in elevated global comfort food and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus happy hour. In-room dining is available from the restaurant menu as well.
Little America Hotel offers 247 guest rooms, all beautifully appointed with goose-down bedding, 55-inch flat-screen HD televisions and large, marble-clad bathrooms. Choose from guest rooms with two queen beds, two queens plus a sofa sleeper, or a king room. More spacious options include two-bedroom apartment suites with full kitchens, fireplace suites, governor’s suites and presidential suites. All guest rooms feature custom furnishings, with rustic-chic raw-edge headboards and desks, several plush chairs, and a built-in convenience center with a microwave, refrigerator and Keurig coffee maker.
Guests enjoy access to a fitness center, outdoor pool and hot tub, horseshoe pit, volleyball court and children’s playground. There’s also a 2.5-mile hiking trail on the southern side of the property, winding among the ponderosa pines. These recreation options are all pleasingly shady and scenic, and a very attractive feature of the hotel. An adjacent 24-hour Travel Center with a convenience store, gas station and coin laundry is another asset to the property. Its Hot Grill and Deli offers casual fare, including signature soft serve, for dine-in and to-go orders. It’s really handy for inexpensive meals at all hours, and for picking up road-trip provisions for your Flagstaff area day trips.
Little America Hotel
2515 East Butler Avenue
Flagstaff, AZ 86004
California News Press and its contributors received goods, services and/or other professional courtesies to facilitate this review. All opinions are those of the author.
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