The cultural and historic city of Flagstaff, located in Northern Arizona, got its name after some travellers passing through on America’s 100th Independence Day stripped a pine tree to raise an American flag in celebration.
With year-round entertainment due to four contrasting seasons, Flagstaff is the largest city in Northern Arizona and lies at around 2000m elevation. The mountain town environment makes it a very welcoming spot for Arizonians wanting to escape the heat.
Surrounded by natural attractions, monuments and the worlds largest ponderosa pine forest, it is a prime location for outdoor sports and adventures, from hiking and camping to skiing.
Flagstaff is also home to the Northern Arizona University making it a bit a of student hub. Whether driven by the student population, or other reason, it accommodates a surprising number of microbreweries.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Flagstaff:
1. Historic Downtown and Visitors Centre
Flagstaff’s historic downtown is centred around the old railroad and station, which is where you will find the visitors centre.
The centre is packed with information and recourses about Flagstaff, Route 66, and places further afield in Arizona and is the perfect point to start your trip, whether staying local, or visiting the Grand Canyon, about 2 hours away.
Connected to the visitors centre you will find the working Amtrak ticket office, as the station is in fact in use.
The historic downtown is also a vibrant area to explore, dotted with shops, restaurants and bars.
2. Wheeler Park
A short walk from the visitors centre will bring you to Wheeler Park, an open green space with plenty of trees, right at the heart of the community.
Not only a lovely place to come and relax with a book or enjoy a picnic, it regularly hosts events such as park runs or weekend arts festivals including Hullabaloo and Art in the Park.
The park is an activity hub in the summer and a winter wonderland in the cold months.
3. San Francisco Peaks & Arizona’s Highest Point
Just to the north of Flagstaff, the once volcanic mountain range of San Francisco Peaks now contains 6 of the highest peaks in Arizona.
There are almost 30 trails to hike in the district for those wishing to escape to nature, catering to a range of experience levels and offering breathtaking views of the surroundings.
The Lava River Cave trail takes you through a hollow lava tube of over a mile long formed thousands of years ago in the last volcanic eruptions.
Another popular route is Humphreys Summit Trail which unsurprisingly takes you to the highest point in all of Arizona for unparalleled views. It is however regarded a tough one, so be prepared.
4. Arizona Snowbowl Scenic Chairlift
Also located on San Francisco Peaks, the Arizona Snowbowl is an alpine ski resort with lots to offer.
Best enjoyed in the onset of autumn as the landscape transforms into an explosion of colour, the Scenic Chairlift offers incredible bird’s eye view of Arizona which may stretch a far as the Grand Canyon on a clear day.
At the top, informative rangers offer their knowledge on the biology, geology and history of the region, filling any knowledge gaps for you.
The Snowbowl also has various walking trails, a restaurants and entertainment for the young ones.
5. Heritage Square
Heritage square is another prime location to see live music, art festivals, movie screenings and live performances among other events.
No matter when you visit, there’s bound to be something going on.
In 1998 a group of five locals made their vision of a central meeting place in the town a reality.
You can continue to support their venture and help with upkeep and continuing development by purchasing an engraved brick which will be added to the square!
6. Museum of Northern Arizona
Your visit to Flagstaff would be incomplete without a visit to the Museum of Northern Arizona, and it’s an ideal stop for an unexpected rainy day, even with the younger children.
The various exhibits take you on a journey through the history of Arizona, from dinosaurs and geology to tribes and indigenous peoples.
All contained in a beautiful lava stone building, the museum is overflowing with information on history, art and biology and features a central garden showcasing typical plants of the area.
7. The Arboretum
Explore the living museum of Flagstaff’s arboretum which has over 2,500 species of high elevation plants on display in various gardens, greenhouses and natural habitats within the 200 acre grounds.
Take an educational tour or guide yourself around the trails. The butterfly house is a favourite, especially among children, and you may even get the chance to see one emerging from its cocoon.
Only a few miles out of town, their open season runs from May to October and if you’re lucky you might catch a special event like a plant sale, concert or a festival.
8. Walnut Canyon National Monument
Just to the East of Flagstaff lies Walnut Canyon, so called due to its populations of Arizona walnut trees, among other walnut species.
The canyon harbours a diversity of nature including around 400 plant species and some interesting wildlife, too.
There are several trails around the national monument, the most interesting being the loop trail which descends into the canyon, allowing you to examine 25 ancient limestone cliff dwellings left by the Sinagua people.
The Sinagua people occupied the dry canyon for over 100 years but mysteriously disappeared around 1250, perhaps due to lack of water. They left over 80 cliff dwellings behind.
9. Lowell Observatory
Home to the discovery of Pluto, the Lowell Observatory is a working research centre open to visitors and currently houses the Discovery Channel’s telescope.
The people of Flagstaff were saddened when Pluto was demoted as a planet, however the observatory remains a great place to come and learn about the universe, discovery, and peer into space.
In 1989 the city developed a code to reduce light pollution in order to increase efficiency of the telescopes, which actually makes any spot around the city good for star gazing too!
10. Meteor Crater
Some 50,000 years ago when woolly mammoths still roamed the Colorado Plateau, the Earth crossed paths with a meteor who’s impact left this mile wide crater in Arizona’s landscape.
An impressive natural site to view alone, Meteor Crater also has an interactive and educational visitors centre where you can learn about meteorites through movies, exhibits, the Discovery Center and a trail around the rim.
You also have the opportunity to browse the interesting rock shop on site where you can purchase various minerals, crystals, quartz and petrified wood to remember your visit.
11. Riordan Mansion State Historic Park
In 1904, this pair of historic mansions were constructed in exemplary American arts and crafts style for the Riordan brothers and their wives, who ran the Arizona Lumber and Timber Company.
The family went on to be important contributors to the city, including the establishment of the first electricity company and involvement in banking and politics.
A tour of the mansion today will reveal a slice of the high life from back then, exhibiting the families original furniture and belongings and covers some history of the family and the area.
A key point of interest is the restoration of the unique photographic windows situated in the conjoining room of the mansions. The original negatives were tracked down in order to reproduce the effect on the windows in their full, original beauty.
12. The Geekery
Despite plenty of outdoor and adventure options in Flagstaff, the weather isn’t as reliable as the rest of Arizona where you can count on sun 300 days of the year.
In the event of rain it’s good to have some indoor options, like the Geekery gaming experience.
Tucked away in a mall close to the university, the family friendly games store invites enthusiasts and casual gamers to multiple events throughout the week or just to play with your friends.
Aside from offering a good hangout space for teenagers, it has a great selection of games on sale and you’re sure to find something exciting and new to play.
13. Flagstaff Extreme Adventure Course
For a day full of adventure between the trees, swing by Arizona’s only high ropes and zip line course.
Beat your fear of heights or get your adrenaline rush while suspended between the ponderosa pine, or whooshing down one of the many zip lines.
Located in Forthill Country Park, “FLG X” aim to provide fun and physical challenges in a safe environment for a fulfilling bonding experience between you and your group.
14. Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
The fascinating landscape around sunset crater offers some interesting trails through the volcanic aftermath of three different lava flows.
Getting its name from the pinky red colouration around its rim, the crater was formed after an eruption 900 years ago.
Pop into the visitors centre to learn about the formation of the volcano and how the eruption affected the ecology of the area – then head out or use an indoor viewpoint to see the effects for yourself.
15. Lockett Meadow
Located in the Flagstaff District of the vast Coconino National Forest, Lockett Meadow is an awe inspiring location, particularly in the autumn.
The Inner Basin Trail begins at the meadow which is full of flowers in spring, green with new leaves in summer, and turns a vivacious yellow as the leaves of the ash trees change.
However the gorgeous views are present year round as the San Francisco Peaks poke out behind the stands of aspens and the occasional clearings which often attracts wildlife.
When one day is not enough, there are several camping spots available at the site for overnighters.