If you’re planning a trip out to Arizona and you want to find some respite from the sweltering summer heat of more popular cities like Phoenix and Sedona, make your way out to Flagstaff. The small mountain city feels like one of the best-kept secrets in all of the United States.
Sitting at an elevation of 6,900 feet, the landscape and climate of Flagstaff are far different than the sandy deserts throughout most of the state, offering surrounding alpine forests full of ponderosa pines and temperate weather. Arizona locals have been flocking to the city in recent years for its laid-back nightlife, trendy restaurants, plethora of hiking opportunities, and gorgeous scenery.
While many don’t relate the state of Arizona to snow, the city of Flagstaff gets snowfall at certain times of the year and even has its own ski hill. There are also some fascinating Native American archaeological sites in the area, an impressive volcano, and several museums to tour.
The cost of living in Flagstaff is fairly low and the locals are incredibly friendly. In fact, it seemed difficult to walk down one of the city’s streets without falling into a pleasant conversation with one of the city’s residents. Any visitor to Flagstaff will probably fall in love with the ambiance instantly, and it seems inevitable that people from all over the country will be moving there in the upcoming years.
With that being said, one of the most charming things about Flagstaff is how small and understated it is, so you should try to visit before the secret’s out. If you are planning to make your way out there, here are some of the best things to do in and around the city:
1. San Francisco Peaks
Undoubtedly one of the best features of Flagstaff is the breathtaking mountain ranges that surround the city. So, if you consider yourself an avid hiker, you’ve got to make a day trip out to San Francisco Peaks.
This previously volcanic area, located a short drive north of the city, is home to some of the highest peaks in Arizona and offers some of the best hiking trails in the entire state. With 30 different trails, there is a hiking experience for nature-lovers of all fitness levels.
One of the most popular trails among visitors to Flagstaff is the Lava River Cave trail, which takes you through a hollow volcanic tube that spans over a mile. The tube was formed when the volcano last erupted over a thousand years ago.
Another trail worth hiking is the Humphreys Peak trail, which culminates at a viewpoint from the highest peak in the state of Arizona. The Humphreys Peak trail is fairly tough, though, and is probably best avoided if you’re not an experienced hiker.
2. Arizona Snowbowl
Also located in the San Francisco Peaks is Arizona Snowbowl, one of the most unique skiing experiences in the United States during the winter and an equally great place to visit during the summer.
In winter, you can ride up the ski lift and ski down the side of a dormant volcano while looking over landscapes that are still full and green. There are ski trails for any skill level and a great ski resort to hang out in when you’re done skiing.
In the summer, Arizona Snowbowl also offers scenic gondola rides up to the top of Humphrey’s Peak. This is a wonderful way to see the views from the summit of the volcano without having to do the strenuous hike, and there are some incredible views along the ride as well. Once you’re at the top, you can talk to the rangers about the local environment and landscape or grab a bite to eat at one of the restaurants.
3. Walnut Canyon National Monument
Another fantastic location for some outdoor exploring is Walnut Canyon National Monument, located a short drive just east of the city of Flagstaff. While the natural landscape of the canyon is certainly notable with its beautiful Arizona walnut trees and wealth of biodiversity, the true stars of the show are the ancient limestone cliff dwellings built by the Sinagua people.
The Sinagua occupied the area now designated as Walnut Canyon National Monument for some 100 years until they mysteriously disappeared around 1250, which some believe was due to a lack of water.
They left behind over 80 dwellings, 25 of which are located within Walnut Canyon National Monument. The best way to see the structures is by taking the Island trail, which has its trailhead right at the visitor center and spans about a mile. The Island trail will take you down into the canyon and through several reconstructed ruins built by the Sinagua.
4. Meteor Crater Natural Landmark
Drive about an hour east out of Flagstaff and you’ll come upon the best-preserved meteor impact site on Earth. Meteor Crater National Landmark will take your breath away as you look upon the impact site, which is about three-quarters of a mile in diameter, and imagine the massive meteor that created it slamming into the Earth’s surface.
You can choose to walk around the rim by yourself or take a guided tour to learn more about the creation of the crater.
If you’re hungry for more information, there is also an on-site Discovery Center & Space Museum where you can learn all about the formation of the crater and how NASA astronauts used the crater to practice for moon landings. There’s even a 4D movie that recreates what it would have looked like when the meteor made its impact. With so many other fascinating natural features in the area around Flagstaff, Meteor Crater Natural Landmark often gets overlooked, but it’s definitely worth taking the short drive.
5. Historic Downtown
Since Flagstaff isn’t that big of a city, you’ll inevitably find yourself walking or driving through the historic downtown area at one point or another during your stay there. However, it’s worth taking some time to mozy through the streets and see all that this area has to offer.
The downtown area is centered around the old railway station, where you can still see cargo trains running through the middle of the city. The downtown area is pretty lively most nights of the week and you might even catch a farmers market if you’re there on the right night.
If you’re interested in some top-notch Tex-Mex and barbecue food, live music, and outdoor dining, head over to Bandoleros 66, located right in the heart of town on Aspen Ave. If you’re interested in an upscale bar with a rooftop terrace, head over to The Mayor on the corner of Cottage Ave for some drinks after a long day of hiking or skiing.
6. Wupatki National Monument
If you haven’t had your fill of Native American archaeological sites, head over to Wupatki National Monument, which is located in the grasslands just north of Flagstaff. If you want to get a sense of what the way of life was like in this area from 1100 to 1200, take a walk through this collection of pueblos and read the informative signs posted all around. These structures, built entirely of stone and mud, are extremely impressive for the time period they were built in and some of them even stand two stories high.
Each of the individual pueblos in the area is impressive. However, be sure to make your way up to Citadel Pueblo. This particular pueblo is one of the highest in the area and offers stunning panoramic views of the surrounding area.