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Heritage Square
Courtesy Shutterstock

Heritage Square

Flagstaff: Next Door, But Worlds Away

Desert Companion

Once a sleepy railroad town, Flagstaff is all grown up

Long before you reach historic Flagstaff on undulating Interstate 40, the gorgeous San Francisco Peaks pierce the skies far in the distance. Rising more than 12,000 feet above the picturesque Colorado Plateau, the volcanic spires and their shining snowfields make for a sublime welcome sign. An easy four-hour drive from Las Vegas, the small city of 70,000 abounds with vacation attractions and activities in a wondrously green, ponderosa pine-filled landscape.

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Sunset Crater
Courtesy of National Park Service

Sunset Crater

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FLG X
Michelle Oechle (MK Studios)

FLG X

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Lowell Observatory
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Lowell Observatory

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Mother Road Brewing Company
Courtesy of Mother Road Brewing Company

Mother Road Brewing Company

LIVING IN THE PAST

But the drive is part of the destination. Flagstaff began in the 1880s as a railroad town, and decades later it became an important automobile rest stop along Route 66. After arriving, stretch your legs and learn about the city’s motorized heritage at the handsome Visitor Center (One E. Route 66, 928-213-2951). The restored Tudor Revival-style Santa Fe Railway depot offers a mother lode of brochures, maps, and all kinds of touristic tchotchkes. While you’re there, boxcars might rumble along iron tracks, or vintage Ford Model Ts might cruise down the highway just outside its red brick walls. Now those are  authentic atmospherics.

Outdoor ambiance is a few steps in any direction. Just a block from the Visitor Center, Heritage Square (on Aspen Street between Leroux and San Francisco streets) is the al fresco heart of Flagstaff. Lined with even more lovely red-bricked architecture from the city’s early days, it’s the place to stroll about and embrace summer’s warmth (but always have a rain jacket handy in this unpredictable mountain environment). All season long, the plaza is home for live musical performances, art demonstrations, and even free movies in the evening.

Night time is also the right time to look to the stars for after-dark entertainment. How’s this for scientific bragging rights: Pluto (the once and former planet) was discovered from Flagstaff’s famed Lowell Observatory (lowell.edu). Celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, the science center is perched on a bluff overlooking Downtown. It features the informative Rotunda Museum and the movie set-like 24-inch Clark Refractor, which was built in 1896 and keeps on working. There’s more modern technology in stock, too, including the new Giovale Open Deck Observatory, which is set to open this summer with six powerful telescopes for visitors to peer through into the vastness of the universe. As a celestial bonus, Flagstaff became the world’s first International Dark Sky Place in 2001 to preserve its inky, star-filled vista above.

Closer to terra firma, there’s plenty of local history to learn about. The beautiful and informative Museum of Northern Arizona (musnaz.org) is one of Flagstaff’s cultural gems. Housed in an impressive 1930s edifice built with local lava rocks, it features a stunning and thought-provoking collection of works representing regional native cultures, including the Zuni, Acoma, Southern Paiute, Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai, and Navajo. There are also lots of natural history on display, and current exhibits range from the DesertArt LAB ecological installation to Ant Empire: Strength in Community, a fun look at Arizona’s big-bellied honeypot ants.

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FUEL UP FOR FUN

With all those soaring and swaying ponderosa pines about, Flagstaff is ideal for outdoor adventures like FLG X (flagstaffextreme.com), an extreme zip line and obstacle-course destination. Fly on wires 80 feet above the forest floor, and test your athletic skills on a suspended web of rope swings, scrambling walls, hanging nets, wobbly bridges, and more. Vacations aren’t just for relaxing, right?

After such a calorie burn, luckily Flagstaff has a lively food and drink scene to match its amazing natural surroundings. In the morning, get caffeinated for all-day adventures at Matador Coffee Roasting Company (matadorcoffee.com), or fill up on inventive breakfast dishes at the Toasted Owl (thetoastedowl.com). For weekend lunches and daily dinners, the McMillan Bar & Kitchen is key (mcmillan.us; it has a great game room on the side, to boot). Twirl into plates of fettuccine at La Vetta (lavettaitaliano.com), a modern Italian eatery. Mother Road Brewing Company (motherroadbeer.com) puts tasty suds on the map, and the tradition of clinking glasses at the Hotel Monte Vista Cocktail Lounge (hotelmontevista.com) is as timeless as its glowing neon sign.

The souvenirs on offer go well beyond snow globes and fridge magnets. Like any great vacation destination, Downtown Flagstaff abounds with local shopping spots, including Puchteca Indian Goods (928-774-2414), a purveyor of Native American arts and crafts. For your home, pick up a locally poured soy candle scented with natural botanicals at Salt + Peak Boutique (saltandpeakboutique.com). Peruse regional writers at Bright Side Bookshop (brightsidebookshop.com). And, if you need some bomb hiking gear, head to Babbitt’s Backcountry Outfitters (babbittsbackcountry.com).

It’s unlikely you’ll run out of things to do. But just in case: Flagstaff makes a perfect basecamp for exploring Northern Arizona’s significant natural and cultural beauty. Head east of town on Route 66 to lush Walnut Canyon National Monument. The rugged ravine is filled with cliff dwellings left behind more than 700 years ago by the vanished Sinagua culture; they can be viewed from two hiking paths, the Rim Trail and the Island Trail. Then, head northeast on Highway 89 to gaze at the geological splendor of Sunset Crater National Monument, which features dramatic cinder cones and rugged lava flows that shine like fire in the lambent sunbeams of dawn and evening. Before returning to Flagstaff, take the Loop Road to the astounding Wupatki National Monument, an immense swath of abandoned stone villages built by the Ancestral Puebloans roughly 1,000 years ago. With rich history, fine food, and heart-thumping adventure, Flagstaff is a nearby getaway that feels worlds away.

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