Northern Arizona's liveliest and most attractive town, Flagstaff occupies a dramatic location beneath the San Francisco Peaks, halfway between New Mexico and California. Straddling the I-40 and I-17 interstates, it's both a way station for tourists en route to the Grand Canyon, eighty miles northwest, and a worthwhile destination in its own right.
Downtown, where barely a building rises more than three storeys, oozes Wild West charm. Its main thoroughfare, Santa Fe Avenue, used to be Route 66, and before that the pioneer trail west. A stroll around Flagstaff's central few blocks is gloriously evocative of the past. The tracks of the Santa Fe Railroad still cut downtown in two, so life remains punctuated by the mournful wail of passing trains.
Ever since it was founded, in 1876, Flagstaff has been a diverse place, with a strong black and Hispanic population, and Navajo and Hopi heading in from the nearby reservations. Now home to just over fifty thousand, it makes an ideal base for travellers. As well as the abundant hotels, hostels, restaurants, bars, and shops downtown, food and lodging chains line the interstates.
Flagstaff is a vibrant, fascinating city that's always on the move. Recent developments have made it a tourism haven filled with many things to do.
Historic Downtown/Railroad District Downtown Flagstaff is presently undergoing a renaissance. Turn-of-the-century buildings are being renovated, new cafes and jewelry stores extend onto recently bricked sidewalks and narrow alleys are turned into arcades. For any visitor new to town, the first stop should be the Flagstaff Visitor Center , located inside the 1926 train depot at the Historic Railroad District. Flagstaff Historic Downtown is filled with unique, historic buildings, such as the Hotel Monte Vista . It's worth a stop to admire the nostalgic decor commemorating the times when Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracey, Jane Russell and other Hollywood stars of yesteryear lodged here.
Across the railroad crossing downtown, you'll find the Northern Arizona University campus. The area immediately south of the railroad is dominated by bars, cafes, hostels and shops catering to the student crowd, with Macy's European Coffee House being the favorite hangout for both locals and visitors. The University supports various arts and crafts exhibits as well as theater and music performances both on and off campus.
Adjacent to the campus, Riordan State Historic Park marks an interesting sight for history buffs. The park is actually two homes that were once occupied by lumber tycoons Michael and Timothy Riordan, furnished in appropriate 19th Century style with several exhibits detailing the lifestyle of the period.
Lowell Observatory sits about a mile west of downtown atop a pine-covered mesa. This is where, in 1902, amateur astronomer Percival Lowell determined that there must be another planet beyond Uranus and Neptune. In 1930, the planet was later actually detected and named Pluto. The Visitor Center features an interactive astronomy exhibit as well as a multimedia presentation. Evening visits are particularly interesting, as one of the telescopes is open for nighttime stargazing.
The Coconino Center for the Arts and the Arts Barn , one of the focal points of cultural activity in Flagstaff, can be found north of the city. The Center houses a fine arts gallery, a bookshop and an auditorium for special events, while the Arts Barn next door contains a very good collection of Indian arts and crafts, including silver and turquoise jewelry. A little further up the road, surrounded by shady Ponderosa Pines, the Museum of Northern Arizona offers an excellent display of the geology and anthropology of the Colorado Plateau.
A 14-mile drive from downtown Flagstaff on Highway 180 will take you to the alpine meadows of Coconino National Forest . The dizzying heights of the San Francisco Peaks are reachable by taking the sky ride or hiking from the 9,500-foot base to the peak at 11,500 feet. While climbing, admire the awesome vistas of the Colorado Plateau and the volcanic cones jutting out from the plain. Although the Arizona Snow Bowl and the Flagstaff Nordic Center are primarily winter ski areas, the mountain is certainly worth a visit any time of the year, but particularly in the fall when nature turns the forest into a glorious symphony of colors.
The Colorado Plateau is rich with remnants of the people that populated northern Arizona long before the arrival of European settlers. Just seven miles east of Flagstaff on I-40, lie the cliff dwellings of Walnut Canyon , the long-abandoned home for a band of Sinagua Indians who found shelter in its limestone caves some 800 years ago. The caves may be reached via a rather strenuous step trail, or the impressive view of the Canyon can be seen from a half-mile rim trail.
Nearby Sunset Crater Volcanic National Monument is also worth a visit. Tinged orange-red by iron oxide, this cinder cone is an impressive reminder of the area's violent geological past. Although Sunset Crater last erupted about 900 years ago, the jagged lava fields look as though they were created just yesterday. To the north, you'll see Wupatki National Monument , the Southwest's largest Indian ruin. The Wupatki Pueblo is a four-story village created from sandstone, with a ball court and an amphitheater whose function still puzzles anthropologists and archeologists.
It's not uncommon to feel a bit light-headed in Flagstaff. After all, the average elevation is more than 7,000 feet above sea level and when you get up into the mountains, it's pushing the two-mile mark. Being so close to the stratosphere can have its impact. But then again, maybe you're just hungry. If that's the case, the cure is as near as a neighborhood cafe, a tasty ethnic eatery or a sizzling steakhouse.
Historic Downtown/Railroad District
Full-fledged foodies might be surprised at the caliber of the culinary talent who call Flagstaff home. Frank and Nancy Branham launched Cottage Place Restaurant in 1994, bringing their own upscale European-inspired fare in a beautiful setting. The restaurant offers exquisite French cuisine in an idyllic cottage setting, consistently being awarded "Best Fine Dining" status.
La Bellavia is just one part of an enclave of eateries on this South Beaver Street block. Right next door, Macy's European Coffee House and Bakery is a mecca for natural food fans with an appetizing array of vegetarian, non-dairy and wheat-free fare and freshly roasted coffees. If you think that nutrition-consciousness is passe, you haven't tried to get a table in this tiny cafe! Directly across the street, Beaver Street Brewery and Whistle Stop Cafe Flagstaff's first microbrewery, receives consistent commendations for its lagers and ales (Railhead Red is their signature brew) as well as its well-prepared pub food. It's no surprise that you'll find great steaks and barbecue here. After all, this is the Southwest. There's some mighty fine Mexican, too. Try Cafe Ole .
Granny's Closet is an Italian-accented fine dining restaurant near Northern Arizona University that's long been a big hit with students, parents and anyone looking for an affordable, appetizing meal. Strombolli's is famous for both their namesake stuffed pastry pockets and their specialty pizzas. It's hard to drive a mile in Flagstaff without happening on a Chinese restaurant. But that doesn't detract from either their popularity or their quality. In fact, they regularly vie, and often tie, for the status of being named the best in town by the local media. Nearly every prefecture is well represented. For Mandarin, there's August Moon , while Asian Gourmet specializes in Hong Kong-style cuisine. The best of the wurst, by far, can be had at Sun Sausage Deli and Brat House, with specialty sausages made by masters in the nearby mountains and served up in the original 1930s Flagstaff bus station.
Though some have tried, man can't live by beer alone. So let's eat. Have a hankerin' for a cowboy steak in a Wild West setting? You're in luck here. Black Bart's Steakhouse Saloon , just off Interstate 40 on Butler Avenue is a chuck wagon-style feast. The saloon is decked out in full frontier fashion with a mounted buffalo head and a Conestoga-load of cowboy collectibles. The Black Bart Singers (waiters who double as entertainers) offer a foot stompin', knee slappin' musical revue nightly. Just up the road a piece, about three miles north of Flagstaff Mall , you'll find Western meals that are a bit more gentile at the Horsemen Lodge , a rustic, mountain-style retreat.
But where's the Italian? The Asian? The wursts and the wieners? They can all be found in Flagstaff's endless array of ethnic eateries. Mamma Luisa not only hand-cuts each portion of veal, but bakes their own crusty, chewy Italian breads. Dead heads (not of the Jerry Garcia variety) are actually part of the decor at another Flagstaff institution. The Museum Club , a.k.a. "The Zoo," has been named Bar of the Month by Bartender Magazine, is one of Car & Driver Magazine's Top Ten Roadhouses and one of the most historic and interesting clubs in the U.S. Founded by taxidermist Dean Eldredge to display his animals and artifacts, the property became a nightclub in 1936. You'll still find Eldredge's stuffed bobcats, bears, owls and peacocks perched in the tree branches above the dance floor. And, hey, this may be a former museum, but it's no mausoleum—it turns into an after hours club on weekends. Rediscover the heyday of historic Route 66 at Miz Zips Cafe .
Before embarking on an exploration of Flagstaff, be sure to equip yourself with maps and brochures available at the Flagstaff Visitor Center inside the Amtrak Station or at any of the numerous newsstands around town.
Flagstaff Historic Downtown Explore the Flagstaff Historic Downtown , where you'll find the Colonial Hotel Monte Vista and the Weatherford Hotel . Take a walk through Thorpe Park , then grab a bite to eat at Pasto .
Northern Arizona University Explore the large Northern Arizona University campus, which is almost a self-contained town in its own right, with plenty of opportunities for learning and diversion. Visit the Old Main Art Gallery on the northwest end of the campus. Tour the Riordan State Historic Park , which contains a mansion-style estate, then dine at nearby Strombolli's Restaurant and Pizzeria or Buster's Restaurant and Bar .
Pioneer Museum Explore the offerings at the Pioneer Museum , marked by the 1929 Baldwin logging train in front, and the Coconino Center for the Arts and the Art Barn , the main center of artistic activity in the area and a great source for Native American arts and crafts. The Museum of Northern Arizona offes a good introduction to the geology and history of the region. The Lowell Observatory is a short drive away, and provides some great aerial views of the town. When you're through, dine at Sakura .
Wupatki National Monument Many ruins have been found in the eastern area of Flagstaff, with Wupatki National Monument being the biggest and best preserved one of them all. You will also find Walnut Canyon National Monument and the Homolovi Ruins State Park here. Walk the popular Bushmaster Park then enjoy a meal at the Western Gold Dining Room .
Flagstaff Nordic Center Enjoy breakfast at Cafe Espress downtown, then head to Northern Arizona. The Flagstaff Nordic Center offers skiing opportunities, while the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site allow visitors a glimpse into the Navajo way of life. Archaeological treasures are abound at Petrified Forest National Park .
There are tour companies that specialize in everything from helicopters trips to white water rafting expeditions.
Bus Tours Flagstaff Express ( +1 928 225 2290 ) Tour West America ( +1 800 900 8687 )
Helicopter Tours Maverick Helicopter Tours ( +1 866 689 8687/ http://www.maverickhelicopter.com/ ) Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopter Tours ( +1 800 528 2418/ http://www.papillon.com/ )
Adventure Tours Open Road Tours ( +1 877 226 8060/ http://www.openroadtours.com/flagstaff/ ) Great Ventures Tours ( +1 800 578 2643/ http://www.greatventures.com/ )