For any visitor new to town, the first stop should be the Flagstaff Visitor Center insided the 1926 train depot at the Historic Railroad District. Here, you'll find a friendly staff ready to advise you on what to do and see during your stay in Flagstaff, including access to their abundant supply of maps and brochures. Leave your car at the depot parking lot and walk across Santa Fe Avenue to explore the downtown area.
Downtown Flagstaff is presently undergoing a resurgence.
Turn-of-the-century buildings are being renovated, new cafes and jewelry
stores extend into recently bricked sidewalks, and narrow alleys are
turned into arcades. Many of the old structures bear markers detailing
their history. With curio shops, restaurants, and cafes lining the major
streets, this is the best area to shop for American Indian crafts and
Northern Arizona University
Back at the Visitor Center, turn south on Beaver Street and drive or walk (its not a very long walk) across the railroad crossing towards 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 Macys European Coffee House on Beaver being the favorite hangout for both locals and visitors to exchange notes over an excellent cup of latte. Enter the northern end of the campus and explore it on foot, or board the free shuttle bus that takes visitors around campus during the school year at 15 minute intervals. The University inspires all kinds of arts and crafts exhibits as well as theater and music peformances both on and off campus. To get an overview of activities, pick up a copy of the free newsletter Un-tv, The Northern Arizona Arts and Entertainment Guide, at any of the cafes.
Adjacent to the campus, Riordan State Historic Park marks an interesting sight for history buffs. Its actually two homes once occupied by lumber tycoons Michael and Timothy Riordan, furnished in appropriate turn-of-the-20th century style with several exhibits detailing the lifestyle of the period. State Park Rangers conduct regular tours of the imposing fieldstone structure.
Lowell Observatory sits about a mile west of downtown atop a pine-covered mesa. This is where , in 1902, amateur astronomer Percival Lowell found that there must be another planet beyond Uranus and Neptune. In 1930, the object was later actually discovered here and named Pluto. Park on the spacious parking lot in front and explore the Visitor Center, which 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 star gazing. On the way back down, stop and pause at Thorpe Park to explore its play and picnic areas or the trails leading into the wooded hills.
Lodging on Route 66
Drive east from downtown on that stretch of old Route 66 that is now called Santa Fe Avenue. You'll find budget motels lined up along the strip; take your pick. Lovers of Western lore may want to stop at the Museum Club of Flagstaff, also called The Zoo because of its large collection of stuffed animals. The place has evolved into a funky cowboy bar, featuring country music nightly, plus a Route 66 gift shop. Now, continue eastward to get to the huge Flagstaff Mall complex, the largest shopping and dining center in town. Hotels and motels of a more upscale variety are located in this district around Butler Avenue, parallel south to Santa Fe Avenue. More lodging facilities are clustered around the NAU campus on Milton Avenue south of downtown, which is also another shopping district, especially around the freeway interchange at Milton.
Fine Arts and Fresh Mountain Air
Again, using downtown as your point of reference, head north on Fort Valley Road (Highway 180) to pay a visit to the Coconino Center for the Arts and the Arts Barn, one of the focal points of cultural activity in Flagstaff. 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 dive from downtown Flagstaff on Highway 180 will take you to the alpine meadows of Coconino National Forest, and all the way up to the dizzying heights of the San Francisco Peaks if you hop the sky ride or hike from the base at 9,500 feet to 11,500 feet at the top. While climbing, admire awesome vistas of the Colorado Plateau and the volcanic cones jutting out fom 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.
Then, if you continue north on Highway 180 and get past new urban developments into beautiful forests of birch and aspen, you are well on your way to the worlds greatest gorge, the Grand Canyon.
The Native American Heritage
The Colorado Plateau is rich with remnants of the ancient people that populated Northern Arizona long before the arrival of European settlers. Just seven miles east of Flagstaff on I-40, you'll find the cliff dwellings of Walnut Canyon, the long-abandoned home for a band of Sinagua Indians who found shelter in its limestone caves 800 years ago. You can reach the caves on a rather strenuous step trail, or just enjoy the impressive view of the canyon from an easy half-mile rim trail.
For another day trip devoted to exploring the geological and historical wonders of the region, head north from Flagstaff on U.S. 89, a road lined with numerous campgrounds and RV parks. After twelve miles, turn right into Sunset Crater Volcanic National Monument. Tinged orange-red by iron oxide, this cinder cone is an impressive reminder of the areas violent geological past. Although Sunset Crater last erupted about 900 years ago, the jagged lava fields look like they were created just recently. As the entry fee to the park includes Wupatki National Monument, you might as well continue on north to see the Southwests 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. Intrigued by the mysteries of the ancient past, you may want to poke around the less popular sites in the park known as Wukoki Pueblo, Lomaki, and the Citadel. You may even come across a rare archeological find, but be aware that you are expected to disturb nothing you see. Looking north, you can now catch a glimpse of the vast expanses of the Painted Desert with the lands of the Navajo and Hopi nations beyond.
Nor does the list of cultural and natural attractions in the Flagstaff area end here. Depending on your schedule, you may now go on to explore the southern outskirts of town around St. Marys Lake and watch herds of elk emerge from the forests at sunset, or spend long hours at The Arboretum studying the local flora. Finally, if you still have time, take a ride past Pulliam Airport, the regional Northern Arizona air-service facility for both airlines and private aircraft, and continue south on Highway 89A alongside the towering cliffs of Oak Creek Canyon into the thriving -and very touristy art colony of Sedona, the town with one of the most spectacular settings in the U.S., situated at the base of the Canyons famed red rock ramparts. But be forewarned: once you have acquired a taste for this most unique part of the world, you will always feel the urge to come back for more.
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