Flagstaff, AZ is one of my favorite cities in the Southwest. It’s the best spot to make “home base” during a trip to northern Arizona, with Sedona 30 miles to the south and the Grand Canyon just a 50-odd miles away.
American history buffs love Flagstaff, Arizona for its history – Route 66 being part of the main thoroughfare – the mellow nature of Historic Flagstaff (downtown) is relaxing and fun, and there are enough National Monuments nearby to satisfy any cultural traveler. Here are my Top 10 Things to Do In Flagstaff and the nearby area.
Grand Canyon National Park
The Grand Canyon is clearly the biggest draw for travelers considering a vacation in Flagstaff; there are many tour and day trip companies around, but Flagstaff is the best place to stay for the trip.
If you stay right near the Grand Canyon (at the famous El Tovar Hotel for example), then your vacation will have to be “all Grand Canyon, all the time.” Stay in fun Flagstaff instead, and make a couple of day trips to the Grand Canyon.
Check out the Bright Angel trail, especially if traveling with young children. My kids managed part of it quite well.
Another option is to take a guided tour. They are generally affordable, and the guides are super at pointing out things that might otherwise go unnoticed by first-time visitors.
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
Anyone who’s been to Hawaii’s Big Island will be struck by the physical similarities to much of that tropical isle and the terrain around this part of Arizona. The ground is largely composed of lava rock, with some hardy trees struggling, here and there, for a toehold.
It’s so interesting to consider the ancient volcano here, with the Grand Canyon to the north and the Coconino National Forest nearby; northern Arizona is incredibly diverse. The Lava Flow Trail is an easy one-mile loop walk along the base, 1/4 of which is paved.
Coconino National Forest
In addition to Flagstaff’s vanilla-pined scented Ponderosa Pines trees, Coconino National Forest is home to Arizona’s longest lava tube in northern Arizona – Lava River Cave. It was formed roughly 700,000 years ago by molten rock that erupted from a volcanic vent in nearby Hart Prairie.
Dress appropriately when you come to visit, with warm clothes and sturdy shoes. The cave is as cool as 42° even in summer, and you may even find some ice inside. The rocks are always sharp and slippery, too. Bring two or three sources of light, in case one happens to fail, it can be very dark one mile from the nearest light source.
While you’re in the area, be sure to visit Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness. This collection of cliffs, buttes, and canyons has to rank as one of nature’s most magnificent masterpieces.
These 43,950 acres are criss-crossed with trails that take you everywhere from the deepest gorges to the most prominent panoramas for gorgeous red rocks.
More awesome ways to explore Arizona with kids
Meteor Crater Natural Landmark
It’s a quintessential roadside attraction…that over charges by most accounts…but you have to see it! Meteor Crater is nearly one mile across, 2.4 miles in circumference and more than 550 feet deep.
The Discovery Center provides a learning experience for all ages. Audiences are treated to “IMPACT, The Mystery of Meteor Crater” shown in our Big Screen Theater. Reach three different Lookout Points to view the Crater. Take the Guided Rim Tour (additional 45 minutes to an hour). Enjoy Collision! 4D Experience Room, have a meal at the Blasted Bistro, and search for a souvenir in our Gift & Mineral Shop.
If you’re road tripping in an RV, then consider parking your rig here, too!
The highest point in Arizona, Humphreys Peak (the largest summit in the San Francisco Peaks) is a popular tourist destination for outdoorsy folk. If you’re up for a hike, you can get to the peak along Humphreys Trail; it’s around four and a half miles, uphill (consider yourself warned- this is not for all skill levels).
From the peak, the vista of Northern Arizona is spectacular – the Grand Canyon, Sedona, even the desert mountains way south in Phoenix are visible on clear days.
There’s a lot of snow October through May. About 9-miles from here you’ll find Arizona Snowbowl, one of the regions fun family snowboarding and ski resorts.
Walnut Canyon National Monument
Walnut Canyon is my favorite of these smaller Flagstaff-area National Monuments. Walnut Canyon dates to the same time period as the Grand Canyon, but is much, much smaller.
It’s manageable, and the trail takes visitors around the middle level of the canyon. Here you can see Sinagua cliff homes – and even stand in them, respectfully. These cliff dwellings were part of the small Sinagua Native American civilization in Walnut Canyon, built some time in the 1100’s. It’s quieter here than the Grand Canyon, and absolutely worth the trip.
Wupatki National Monument
This ancient pueblo is preserved well, and tended to by archeologists interested in the Wupatki culture. The Wupatki lived here circa 1100, and later merged with the Hopi. No one knows exactly why, but it was a peaceful integration. A short hike and self-guided stroll around the pueblo easily takes under an hour.
Frequent readers know that Sedona is one of my top 10 favorite vacation towns in North America. Flagstaff is a great point between Sedona and the Grand Canyon, and I recommend it for a southwestern vacation covering both destinations. There are some great, fun activities in Sedona for a day trip.
This town used to be the state capital, and once was the fourth largest city in the Arizona Territory…but that was a long time ago. Once the copper mine closed down (and the “ladies of the evening” moved on), Jerome seemed destined to be an Arizona ghost town.
Today, remnants of the Wild West are on display and there is a thriving, lively artist community as well. Like many small towns in America’s Old West, Jerome could have emptied out.
As locals like to say, the “hippies” saved Jerome from this fate. Small-town friendliness merge with the progressive attitudes of many artists, creating a welcoming, unsuspicious atmosphere and very interesting art galleries.
Honestly, I love exploring the town of Historic Downtown Flagstaff. Get a map; this is the part of the city where the charming shops, great restaurants, and upscale chains are.
I especially liked finding a “Life is Good” satellite store here, a couple of antique stores with genuine Old West memorabilia, the Flagstaff Brewing Company. and some fantastic southwestern barbeque at Bigfoot BBQ.
Brookside Chocolate Company was great; hand-crafted chocolates that vary from delicate to decadent. There are many other places to eat in Historic Flagstaff, of course. What a fun town!
Founded in the 1890’s, this is one of the oldest observatories in the southwest. The staff are very knowledgeable and eager to share their love of the site’s history, collection of old telescopes, and what guests are seeing through more modern telescopes. The Lowell Observatory is open year-round every day except Sunday.
Museum of Northern Arizona/Arizona Historical Society Pioneer Museum
These two museums are very close to each other, and manageable enough in size that a both can be done together. The Museum of Northern Arizona highlights the biology and ancient history of the Colorado Plateau, along with a fine arts gallery.
The Arizona Historical Society Pioneer Museum is Arizona’s oldest historical agency (circa 1864). Besides exhibitions – and it has over 3 million objects in rotation – the Arizona Historical Society offers educational outreach and research regarding Arizona’s long history up through today’s development.