The Complete Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona

Mount Humphreys at sunset overlooks the area around Flagstaff Arizona
ChrisBoswell / Getty Images

Lovingly called "Flag" by its 75,000 residents´╗┐ and frequent visitors, Flagstaff is roughly a two-hour drive from Phoenix and serves as the gateway to the Grand Canyon. During the summer, Phoenicians flock to the city, which sits at 7,000 feet in elevation, to escape the Valley's scorching temps, attend festivals, and hike in the surrounding ponderosa pine forest. When winter comes, many use Flagstaff as a base for winter sports, including downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.

While Flagstaff makes a great destination for outdoor enthusiasts, it also welcomes visitors to explore its quaint shops and artists' studios, check out its beer scene, and tour top-rated attractions like Lowell Observatory, the observatory where Pluto was discovered.

This comprehensive guide will help you plan a trip to Flagstaff and show you how to use it as a base for outdoor activities and a day trip to the Grand Canyon.

Planning Your Trip

Best Time to Visit: Flagstaff is a year-round destination. In the summer, it provides a cool escape from triple-digit heat in Phoenix; in the winter, Flagstaff is popular with winter sports enthusiasts. Leaves change colors in and around Flagstaff during the fall, and spring is usually chilly but pleasant.

Getting Around: Downtown Flagstaff is pedestrian-friendly. You can explore more of the city by taking the Mountain Line bus ($1.25 per ride, $2.50 for a day pass) or using a rideshare app like Uber or Lyft.

Travel Tip: Flagstaff is home to Northern Arizona University (NAU). The city tends to be quieter when school is out during the summer or for breaks and busier on weekends with home football games.

Things to Do

Exploring downtown Flagstaff's boutiques, shops, and galleries can take a full day, but the city has much more to see and do. Learn about the prehistoric tribes who once lived in the area, early cattle and sheep ranchers, the geology of the Grand Canyon, and the city's connection to NASA at Flagstaff's museums and attractions. Or discover natural wonders like the Grand Canyon to Humphrey's Peak, the highest natural point in the state. No matter what adventure you're looking for, Flagstaff won't disappoint.

History: Flagstaff's history predates its founding in 1894. The Museum of Northern Arizona showcases the area's geology as well as Native American history, culture and arts. Step inside a replica Hopi kiva at the museum, or visit the prehistoric ruins at Elden Pueblo Heritage Site. The Arizona Historical Society operates a pioneer museum in Flagstaff while the state maintains Riordan Mansion, an Arts and Crafts home built in 1904. To explore more recent history, drive Route 66 through town or stop at The Museum Club, a watering hole that harkens back to that era.

Nature: Located at the base of the San Francisco Peaks and surrounded by one of the largest ponderosa pine tree forests in the world, Flagstaff stands in sharp contrast to the Valley's desert landscape. Learn about local flora at The Arboretum at Flagstaff and fauna, including bobcats and otters, at Bearizona in nearby Williams. Just minutes from downtown Flagstaff, Lowell Observatory has exhibits on the universe, the discovery of Pluto onsite in 1930, and how astronauts trained for their lunar landing nearby.

Outdoor Activities: Flagstaff is an outdoor enthusiast's playground. In the summer, hike Humphrey's Peak, a challenging 9.2-mile trek with a 3,343-foot elevation change, or stroll the Flagstaff Urban Trail System, some of which ventures into national forest. For an adrenaline rush, test yourself on the aerial and zip line courses at Flagstaff Extreme Adventure Course. During the winter, more than 100 inches of snow falls in the area. Downhill ski at the Arizona Snowbowl Winter Resort, cross-country ski at Arizona Nordic Village, or sled at Flagstaff Snow Park.

Grand Canyon: You can visit the Grand Canyon National Park on a long day trip from Phoenix, but a better strategy is to use Flagstaff as a base. Overnight in the city, and head to Grand Canyon the following morning. You'll have all day at the canyon, especially if you stay a second night in Flagstaff. To save time driving yourself to the national park from Flagstaff, skip the obvious route through Williams and take the back route instead. At the intersection of Highways 89 and 64, travel west on 64 to the park entrance. If you don't have a car, a shuttle is available from the bus station to Maswik Lodge in the park every four hours.

Nearby Attractions: Spending several days in Flagstaff allows time to explore a good deal of Northern Arizona. Just 18 miles north of the city, you can hike the other worldly terrain of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument; adjacent Wupatki National Monument protects Pueblo ruins dating back to the 1100s. Other Pueblo sites include Walnut Canyon National Monument (11 miles east of Flagstaff) and Montezuma Castle National Monument (57 miles south). Less than an hour east on 1-40, Meteor Crater is the best preserved meteor impact site on the planet. You can also still get your kicks on Route 66 by driving west on the Mother Road through Williams and Seligman, the inspiration for the movie "Cars."

Where to Eat and Drink

The mountain community's 200-plus restaurants are, on a whole, outstanding. For a casual meal, order a wood-fired pizza from Pizzicletta, thick deli sandwich from Proper Meats + Provisions, or brisket from Satchmo's Cajun and Barbecue. Options for a special dinner out include Brix Restaurant and Wine Bar, Josephine's Modern American Bistro, Tinderbox Kitchen, and Criollo Latin Kitchen. Thanks in part to the university, global fare is also popular. Try Karma Sushi Bar Grill or Swaddee Thai Authentic Thai Cuisine when you're craving international flavors.

Flagstaff loves craft beer, so much so it has its own beer trail. The Flagstaff Brewery Trail features eight breweries in the city. (One brewery has two locations, making a total of nine stops on the trail.) Don't miss Beaver Street Brewery, the city's first brewery, or its nearby sister property, Lumberyard Brewing Co. The original location of Mother Road Brewing Co. is also within walking distance. If you enjoy experimental beers, Dark Sky Brewing Company pushes the limits with flavors like churro and peanut butter.

Although it's not on the brewery trail, Drinking Horn Mead Hall serves alcoholic meads sweetened mostly with fruit juices and occasionally with honey. Try black cherry or lemon ginger.

Where to Stay

The best place to stay is downtown since you can easily walk to restaurants, breweries, bars, and shops. To stay in one of the historic hotels downtown, book a room at The Hotel Weatherford or Hotel Monte Vista. For a modern downtown option, consider the Residence Inn Flagstaff. Some homes in downtown Flagstaff are available to rent, and chain hotels close to the university provide easy access to Mountain Line busses.

Although Flagstaff doesn't have a resort that rivals the ones in Sedona or Scottsdale, Little America Hotel is a AAA-Four Diamond property set on 500 acres of ponderosa pine forest. There are also several bed and breakfasts in the area, the most popular being The England House Bed and Breakfast near downtown Flagstaff.

Outdoor enthusiasts can stay in a cabin at Mormon Lake Lodge, Arizona Mountain Inn & Cabins, and Ski Lift Lodge &Cabins or in yurt at the Arizona Nordic Village. There are a limited number of cabins at Flagstaff/Grand Canyon KOA as well.

Getting There

The easiest way to get to Flagstaff from Phoenix is by car. (Click here to learn more about renting a car at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.) Depending on your starting point in the Valley, the drive will take anywhere from two to two and a half hours. Before you go, check traffic conditions online or by dialing 511. If you don't have a car, you can travel by bus or shuttle.

Tips

  • Plan to spend at least four hours in Flagstaff on a day trip. This will be enough time to explore downtown and have lunch or dinner. Add at least another hour per attraction you'd like to visit.
  • Bring layers: a jacket or sweater, pants, and a long-sleeved shirt. Temperatures in Flagstaff are roughly 30 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than they are in Phoenix. Even on an 80-degree summer day, temperatures can dip to 60 degrees after dark.
  • In the winter, prepare for snow. At a minimum, bring a coat, gloves, and closed-toe shoes. Chains are not generally required on I-17 heading from Phoenix to Flagstaff, but some more remote roads may require chains or close altogether.
  • Because Flagstaff is at such a high altitude, it's important to drink plenty of water and be careful about drinking too much alcohol. If you plan to hike, bike, or participate in other strenuous activities, you may want to plan an extra day to acclimate to the elevation.
  • During the summer (and warmer weeks of spring and fall), the city hosts festivals, car shows, and events most weekends. Check the Flagstaff 365 calendar for details.
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