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The Grand Canyon represents 2 billion years of geological change. Located 90 minutes from Flagstaff, the South Rim offers lodging, including the historic El Tovar.

Wanderings: Flagstaff, Arizona

Answering “The Call of the Canyon,” this mountain town offers scenic views, historic stops and a thriving artistic community any time of year

Written by David M. Brown  
December 2016 | January 2017


Although known for its sweeping desert landscapes dotted with cactus, Arizona has some surprising contrasts.

In the northern region of the state, Flagstaff is situated in the world’s largest contiguous stand of ponderosa pine in the Coconino National Forest. Located at the base of the San Francisco Peaks at an elevation of 7,000 feet, the city is also near the pinnacle of Arizona’s highest point, 12,633-foot Mount Humphreys.

Flagstaff is truly not your ordinary Arizona,” says Heidi Hansen, Flagstaff’s economic vitality director. “Our mountain town is far from the deserts of our outlying neighbors.” 

With four seasons and averaging about 100 inches of annual snowfall, “The City in the Pines” is as much a tourist destination in winter as it is in summer. 

One might not associate skiing with the Grand Canyon State, but Arizona Snowbowl is located on the western slope of Humphreys and reaches an altitude of 9,500 feet. The facility has 40 runs and seven chairlifts. From this elevated perspective you can see the red rocks of Sedona and the walls of the Grand Canyon, the world’s most sublime natural feature, located some 70 miles north. 

This mountaintop reprieve is close to additional astounding natural landmarks. Nearby are seven national parks and monuments, including Sunset Crater, the youngest of 600 volcanoes in northern Arizona; Wupatki National Monument, an 800-year-old pueblo; and Walnut Canyon National Monument, where cliff dwellings and pueblos were home to the Sinagua who lived there from approximately 1075 to 1275, before the regional volcanoes inspired them to find less volatile terrain. 

Of course, Flagstaff’s founders didn’t arduously trek there for skiing or geology. They came to raise livestock, cut lumber and prepare the rails. The settlement was named on July 4, 1876, when a few pioneering Bostonians attached a flag to a pine-tree staff in observance of the nation’s centennial. The Atlantic and Pacific Railroad followed on August 1, 1882, connecting the town of 200 people to the rest of the U.S. 

By the early 1890s, Flagstaff had 1,500 settlers. In May 26, 1894, the town was incorporated and big-town trappings began to show. Arizona Normal School, today’s Northern Arizona University, was founded in 1899. Its grand Richardsonian Romanesque Old Main, built a few years earlier, was first a reform school and then a proposed insane asylum. Today, it houses the NAU Art Museum, with a permanent collection specializing in art from around the world. 

Flagstaff is a great home base for a regional sight-seeing trip. Along Historic Route 66, which turns 90 this year, one can find original shops, bars, restaurants and motels. Consider the stories behind these structures as you drive past; for example, the El Pueblo Motel once sheltered some of World War II’s Navajo Code Talkers. 

Also located on the Mother Road, is the Museum Club, called “The Zoo” because of its founder, taxidermist Dean Eldredge. In the 1930s, Eldredge exhibited his collection of stuffed animals, six-legged sheep, Winchester rifles, Indian artifacts, two-headed calves and more than 30,000 other items. Since then, The Zoo has changed hands and purposes a few times but has subsequently settled as a music venue.

Take your journey a little farther east to catch one of the region’s otherworldly attractions. While the Grand Canyon has been carved and uplifted for 2 billion years, just 50,000 years ago an asteroid traveling 26,000 miles per hour collided with earth, dishing out a nearly 1-mile-wide Meteor Crater some 35 miles away from town. Another little known astronomy fact is that at the Lowell Observatory astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. Today, the observatory offers daily tours and evening telescope viewing.

Head back toward the city center to begin your walking, biking or scootering tour at the Flagstaff Visitor Center, located in a beautifully restored train station built in 1926. From there, explore the historic downtown’s boutiques, outdoor outfitters, art galleries, retailers selling Native American wares and, for foodies, restaurants of every variety.

Near the visitor center sits the Weatherford Hotel, which opened in 1900 and features 11 turn-of-the-century rooms which have been updated without losing their original charm. Zane Grey wrote The Call of the Canyon here. And the century-old hotel is also reportedly haunted.

Grey helped grubstake the building of the nearby Hotel Monte Vista, which opened in 1927. Listed on the U.S. Register of Historic Places, it’s connected to nearby buildings such as the Weatherford and Babbitts Backcountry by a tunnel system, thought to have been built by Chinese immigrants. These have been used intermittently during the last 100 years, including, it’s said, for opium dens.

Galleries include West of the Moon Gallery, with works by artists such as the celebrated Navajo painter Shonto Begay, as well as ceramics, stained glass, silver, beadwork and other crafts. And at Arizona Handmade Gallery, one can find colorful hand-blown glass by George Averbeck. The Artists Coalition of Flagstaff Gallery is another artistic haven, offering exhibitions and a gallery space for local craftspeople. A little farther north, the Coconino Center for the Arts hosts concerts, art markets, festivals and workshops as a cultural center.

University students, young full-time residents and second homeowners have helped establish the vibrant culinary scene in this city of 65,870 residents. A few restaurants with a particular commitment to local purveyors are Root Public House, serving a smoked pork chop with eggplant and Medjool dates. There’s also Shift, located in a historic building and serving up pickled French fries and steak tartare. And the Coppa Café offers “a taste of Europe” with seared foie gras and lobster and scallop crudo.

Just outside of downtown are some other fine accommodations. Three Diamond Little America Hotel is located on 500 acres of private forest. It was remodeled in 2016 but maintains its original 1973 mountain lodge spirit. The Inn at 410 is a locally owned bed and breakfast in an 1890s-era house, and not too far from Mars Hill, England House Bed & Breakfast is a beautifully restored 1902 stone house. The gracious hosts, Richard and Laurel Dunn, prepare an unforgettable gourmet breakfast.

For those seeking to learn more about the region, The Pioneer Museum is the former county hospital and poor farm, and the Museum of Northern Arizona is a top-tier museum to learn about Native cultures, natural sciences and arts of the Colorado Plateau region. More than 5 million Southwestern artifacts are shown and inventoried here.

If architecture is one’s interest, visit Riordan Mansion State Historic Park. Completed in 1904, it was once home to a founding Flagstaff family that made its money in lumber. It is a masterpiece of Arts and Crafts architecture by Charles Whittlesey, the architect who designed El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon. The mansion comprises two, 6,000-square-foot residences and a common room that was shared by the two brothers and their wives, apparently amicably.

Rich in history, outdoor adventures, geology, fine dining and fine art, this railroad town has become a must-stop destination in Arizona, to visit or to stay for a while. 


IF YOU GO...


ATTRACTIONS

Arboretum at Flagstaff: 4001 S. Woody Mountain Rd; 928.774.1442; thearb.org

Arizona Snowbowl: 9300 N. Snow Bowl Rd. 928.779.1951; arizonasnowbowl.com

Flagstaff Extreme Adventure Course: Fort Tuthill County Park; 888.259.0125; flagstaffextreme.com 

Flagstaff Visitor Center: East Route 66 800.379.0065; flagstaffarizona.org

Grand Canyon National Park: State Highways 180 and 64; 928.638.7888; nps.gov/grca

Lava River Cave: Forest Road 171 928.527.3600; fs.usda.gov/coconino

Lowell Observatory: 1400 W. Mars Hill Rd; 928.233.3212; lowell.edu

Meteor Crater: I-40, Exit 233; meteorcrater.com

Museum of Northern Arizona: 3101 N. Fort Valley Rd; 978.774.5213; musnaz.org

Museum Club (The Zoo): 3404 E. Route 66; 928.526.9434;  themuseumclub.com

Northern Arizona University Art Museum: 620 S. Knoles Dr; 928.523.3471; nau.edu/cal/art-museum

Pioneer Museum: 2340 N. Fort Valley Rd. 928.774.6272; arizonahistoricalsociety.org

Riordan Mansion State Historic Park: 409 W. Riordan Rd; 928.779.4395; azstateparks.com

Sunset Crater National Monument: Highway 89; 928.526.0502; nps.gov/sucr

Wupatki National Monument: Highway 89; 928.679.2365; nps.gov/wupa

Walnut Canyon National Monument: I-40, Exit 204; 928.526.3367; nps.gov/waca

GALLERIES

Arizona Handmade Gallery: 13 N. San Francisco St. Ste 100; 928.779.3790 azhandmade.com

Artists Coalition of Flagstaff Gallery: 111 E. Aspen Ave; 928.774.5269; flagstaff-arts.org

Beaver Street Gallery: 28 S. Beaver St. 928.214.0408; beaverstreetgallery.com

Gallery 113: 111 E. Aspen Ave; 928.600.2113; galleryone13.com

Shane Knight Gallery: 5 E. Aspen Ave; 928.556.1563; shaneknight.com

Vhay Gallery: Eastside of Heritage Square in Babbitt Building; 928.225.8884; ericavhay.com

West of the Moon Gallery: 14 N. San Francisco St; 928.774.0465; westofthemoongallery.com

ACCOMODATIONS

Abineau Lodge: 1080 Mountainaire Rd. 928.525.6212; abineaulodge.com

All-Star Grand Canyon Glamping: 2420 N. 3rd St. Ste D; 800.940.0445; allstargrandcanyontours.com

Arizona Mountain Inn and Cabins: 4200 Lake Mary Rd; 800.239.5236; arizonamountaininn.com

England House Bed & Breakfast: 614 W. Santa Fe Ave; 877.214.7350; englandhousebandb.com 

Hotel Monte Vista: 100 N. San Francisco St. 928.779.6971; hotelmontevista.com

Inn at 410 Bed & Breakfast: 410 N. Leroux St; 800.774.2008; inn410.com 

Little America Hotel: 2515 E. Butler Ave. 800.352.4386; flagstaff.littleamerica.com

Weatherford Hotel: 23 N. Leroux St. 928.779.1919; weatherfordhotel.com

RESTAURANTS

Brix: 413 N. San Francisco St; 928.213.1021; brixflagstaff.com

Coppa Café: 1300 S. Milton Rd; 928.637.6813; Coppacafe.net

Criollo: 16 N. San Francisco St; 928.774.0541 criollolatinkitchen.com

Diablo Burger: 120 N. Leroux St.; 928.774.3274; diabloburger.com

Josephine’s Modern American Bistro: 503 N. Humphreys St; 928.779.3400; josephinesrestaurant.com

Mountain Oasis International Restaurant: 11 E. Aspen Ave; 928.214.9270

Pizzicletta: 203 W. Phoenix Ave. 928.774.3242; pizzicletta.com

Root Public House: 34 S. San Francisco St. 928.774.1402; rootpublichouse.com

Shift: 107 N. San Francisco St.; 928.440.5135; Shiftflg.com 

Tinderbox Kitchen: 34 S. San Francisco St. 928.226.8400; tinderboxkitchen.com 

Map: Daphne Gilliam

Created 900 years ago, Sunset Crater is the youngest volcano on the Colorado Plateau

Wupatki National Monument was once home to thousands of people. Short trails lead to Wupatki, Lomaki and other pueblos.

Lowell Observatory’s 19th-century Clark Telescope is located in a historic wooden dome.

The Museum of Northern Arizona offers information about Native American culture and natural science. Don’t miss the bookstore on the way out.

The Weatherford Hotel is a centerpiece of historic downtown Flagstaff, with restaurants and shops nearby. Photos: Flagstaff Convention & Visitors Bureau

The Museum Club has been a Route 66 stop since the early 1930s, when founder Dean Eldredge built “the biggest log cabin in Arizona.“

Opened in 1899, Northern Arizona University’s art museum is also an architectural landmark.

The Hotel Monte Vista has hosted celebrities like John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart. Photos: FCVB

In the spirit of a mountain lodge, Little America Hotel offers hiking trails just steps away.

Josephine’s Modern American Bistro offers delectable fare in a historic building that showcases Craftsman Bungalow architecture.

Mount Humphreys provides residents and visitors plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities, from hiking and mountain biking to skiing.

In Walnut Canyon, the former homes of ancient inhabitants are still evident.

The train station doubles as a visitor center and stands near the shops, boutiques and cafes of downtown Flagstaff.