Our new series on weekend road trips aims to inspire you for what's to come as we slowly return to travel.
Covid-19 Disclaimer: Make sure to check the status of the states, regions, and establishments in which you’re planning to visit prior to travel. Many regions continue to see high infection rates and deaths, while many states and counties remain under varying stay-at-home orders. Those traveling from areas with high rates of Covid-19 should consider avoiding travel for now in order to reduce spread.
Wrapped in breezy, beautiful Arizona pines, Flagstaff is a haven for outdoor recreation and laid-back college culture. With national forest and other preserved land on every side, it’s all about getting outside here: Winter storms bring crowds to the Arizona Snowbowl resort, while warm weather means hiking, biking, and rock climbing.
Grand Canyon National Park is just an hour and a half north, so it’s easy to add a jaunt to the spectacular South Rim if you’ve got an extra day to play. And while Flagstaff isn’t known for raucous nightlife, there’s plenty going on after dark; designated an “International Dark Sky City” in 2001, Flagstaff has incredible stargazing that rewards travelers who stay up late.
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From Phoenix, go north on Interstate 17 (2 hours and 22 minutes, 149 miles). The cliff-dwellings at Montezuma Castle National Monument make the perfect stopover, with a .3-mile paved trail to a viewing area where you can check out the ruins.
From Albuquerque, take Interstate 40 East (4 hours and 46 minutes, 323 miles). Make a pit stop at the utterly trippy Petrified Forest National Park, where you’ll find a scattershot landscape of trees fossilized by rainbow-hued minerals.
Settle into the college-town energy at teeny Diablo Burger, whose thick, juicy patties are made with local, organic, grass-fed beef. Patties are on an English muffin, which keeps the focus on the meat and toppings. (Don’t miss the hatch chile mayo.)
Next, tie on your hiking boots for a trip into Coconino National Forest, where you can go underground to walk the Lava River Cave. Bring a flashlight, then venture into the three-quarters of a mile-long lava tube, which tapers from a cavernous, 40-foot ceiling to a tight squeeze that requires hikers to duck low.
If an underground hike isn’t your thing, opt for the popular Kachina Trail. Threading along the southern flanks of the San Francisco Peaks, this 5-mile path weaves through aspen groves that turn golden in autumn, plus a fascinating lava flow, lush fern meadows, and a series of pretty canyons.
For dinner, check out the Neapolitan-style pies at Pizzicletta, known for crusts that blister a mottled black in wood-fired ovens. While pizza is the main event here, the house-made gelato and burrata appetizers win serious raves from locals.
Instead of going out, head to the historic Lowell Observatory to check in with the night sky. Six high-tech telescopes on their public observatory deck offer views of faraway celestial objects. Nightly stargazing sessions offer guided tours of the twinkling constellations; inside the visitor center, evening programs fill you in on the secrets of the stars and galaxies.
Founded in 1926 as a boardinghouse for Basque shepherds, the Tourist Home All Day Café is now a Flagstaff breakfast institution. The overstuffed breakfast burrito alone is worth a trip to Flagstaff, but there are also fresh-made donuts, egg dishes, and a full lineup of pastries.
Start there: It’s fuel for a day in Grand Canyon National Park, whose South Rim queues up oversized views of red-rock layers and the Colorado River below. It’s also a site that draws visitors from around the world; that means it’s worth hatching a strategic plan to avoid spending the day in traffic.
Start by renting a pair of wheels from Bright Angel Bikes, a shop located right by the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. That gives you access to the wiggling curves of 7-mile long Hermit Road to the west. It’s closed to private-vehicle traffic from March through November, and features a series of nine overlooks. Stop at all of them!
By the time you make it back to the bike shop, it will be time for lunch at the El Tovar Hotel, a historic landmark that opened in 1905 of the edge of the canyon itself. While the food is a bit concessionaire-generic, it’s well worth making advance reservations to enjoy a meal in a lodge-like dining room with unmatched views.
Next, hop the Kaibab/Rim Route shuttle bus east to the South Kaibab Trailhead. It’s the starting point for a leg-burning hike that drops all 4,780 feet to the Colorado River, but that’s too far to go with just an afternoon to hike. Enjoy some of the finest parts of the trail, without the epic trek, on a 1.8-mile, round-trip walk down to the perfectly named Ooh-Aah Point. (Bring plenty of water, as there’s none available along the trail.)
It’s worth sticking around for sunset—that’s when the colors really get bright—and there’s plenty more on the South Rim to occupy the late afternoon. One of the literal high points of the area is the 70-foot Desert Watchtower, where vistas stretch to the distant Vermilion Cliffs and Painted Desert. Another worthwhile destination is Kolb Studio, a photography workshop-turned-museum that features early footage of Colorado River exploration.
When the sky starts to get dusky, stake your claim on a sunset spot; both Hopi Point and Yavapai Point are justifiably popular. After the show, start the drive back to Flagstaff, for dinner along the Flagstaff Brewery Trail. (Print out a passport that doubles as a map.)
Start with a Hazy Angel IPA at Lumberyard Brewing Company, the perfect pairing with a plate of chicken wings or the breaded cauliflower “wings.” Just across the street is Flagstaff Brewing Company, offering small-batch beers that range from a crisp, single-hop Kolsch to the creamy Sasquatch Stout. (Food and ping-pong tables are great, too.) If you can manage one more brewery, make it the nearby Dark Sky Brewing; they’ve made hundreds of beers, and are known for experimental flavors.
Wake up for one more day of weekend with a cappuccino from Macy’s Coffee, a beloved hangout whose sign is a local touchstone. (Note the naked guy bathing in a steaming cup of joe.) From there, it’s a quick stroll to The Artist’s Gallery, a cooperative arts and crafts space featuring work by a long list of local artists. This is an excellent place to pick up souvenirs, including jewelry, pottery, and prints.
Next, head to the Riordan Mansion State Historic Park, an American Arts and Crafts-style mansion designed by the same architect who created the Grand Canyon’s El Tovar. Hour-long guided tours take in the beautifully detailed home’s original Craftsman furnishings; the free-to-access visitor center has historic photographs and a collection of period tools.
Make your final sightseeing stop the extraordinary Museum of Northern Arizona, whose permanent collections explore the Indigenous art, history, and cultures of the entire Colorado Plateau. (There’s a great museum gift shop, too.) After you see the exhibits inside the museum, check out the gardens: The medicinal plant garden features a wide range of the healing plants traditionally used in the region.
Before you hit the road, duck into the deceptively named MartAnne’s Breakfast Palace, where breakfast—and lunch—are served all day. Southwestern favorites including burritos, enchiladas, and chilaquiles arrive in hefty portions here. If you can, save room for the house-made desserts, or just take an order of mini Mexican donuts to go.
WHERE TO STAY
Many Flagstaff accommodations cater to tourists moving quickly to other destinations, but there’s character to be found here, too. Channel vintage road-trip vibes at Motel du Beau, a quirky and basic budget pick located on historic Route 66 in downtown Flagstaff. (It was built in 1929 to host the new “auto tourists” hitting the road in their own cars.) If it’s in your budget, the upscale Inn at 410 is the town’s coziest bed and breakfast, with comfortable themed rooms and a location that’s easy walking distance from downtown.
WHEN TO GO
Mountain air keeps Flagstaff cool through the summer, when highs are in the high 70s and low 80s. It’s a great time to visit, but summer also brings crowds at the Grand Canyon. Fall and spring have a magical blend of warm weather and uncrowded trails. By November, things get chilly; ski season generally lasts from mid-November through late April.