6 Best Sights in Flagstaff, North-Central Arizona

Lowell Observatory

Fodor's choice

In 1894 Boston businessman, author, and scientist Percival Lowell founded this observatory from which he studied Mars. His theories of the existence of a ninth planet sowed the seeds for the discovery of Pluto at Lowell in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. The 6,500-square-foot Steele Visitor Center hosts exhibits and lectures and has a stellar gift shop. Several interactive exhibits—among them Pluto Walk, a scale model of the solar system—appeal to children. Visitors can peer through several telescopes at the Giovale Open Deck Observatory, including the 24-inch Clark telescope and the McAllister, a 16-inch reflector telescope. The observatory is open and unheated, so dress for the outdoors.

Arizona Snowbowl

Although the Arizona Snowbowl is still one of Flagstaff's biggest attractions, snowy slopes can be a luxury in times of drought. Fortunately, visitors can enjoy the beauty of the area year-round, with or without the fluffy white stuff. The chairlift climbs the San Francisco Peaks to a height of 11,500 feet and doubles as a 30-minute scenic gondola ride in summer. From this vantage point you can see up to 70 miles; views may even include Sedona's red rocks and the Grand Canyon. There's a lodge at the base with a restaurant, bar, and ski school. To reach the ski area, take U.S. 180 north from Flagstaff; it's 7 miles from the Snowbowl exit to the sky-ride entrance.

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Historic Downtown District

Storied Route 66 runs right through the heart of downtown Flagstaff. The late Victorian, Tudor Revival, and early Art Deco architecture in this district recalls the town's heyday as a logging and railroad center. The Santa Fe Depot now houses the visitor center. The 1927 Hotel Monte Vista, built after a community drive raised $200,000 in 60 days, is one of the Art Deco highlights of the district; today it houses a restaurant, live music venue, and a combination coffeehouse and cocktail bar. Across the street, the 1888 Babbitt Brothers Building was constructed as a building-supply store and then turned into a department store by David Babbitt, the mastermind of the Babbitt empire. (The Babbitts are one of Flagstaff's wealthiest founding families.) The Weatherford Hotel, built in 1900, hosted many celebrities; Western author Zane Grey wrote The Call of the Canyon here. Most of the area's first businesses were saloons catering to railroad construction workers, which was the case with the 1888 Vail Building. Nowadays, downtown is a bustling dining and retail district, with restaurants, bakeries, and alluring shops. Across the railroad tracks, the revitalized Southside is home to popular eateries and craft breweries.

Rte. 66 north to Birch Ave., and Beaver St. east to Agassiz St., AZ, USA

Recommended Fodor's Video

Lava River Cave

Subterranean lava flow formed this mile-long cave roughly 700,000 years ago. Once you descend into its boulder-strewn maw, the cave is spacious, with 40-foot ceilings, but claustrophobes take heed: about halfway through, the cave tapers to a 4-foot-high squeeze that can be a bit unnerving. A 40°F chill pervades the cave throughout the year so take warm clothing.

To reach the turnoff for the cave, go approximately 9 miles north of Flagstaff on U.S. 180, then turn west onto Forest Road (FR) 245. Turn left at the intersection of FR 171 and look for the sign to the cave. Note: these forest roads are closed from mid-November to March due to snow. The trip is approximately 45 minutes from Flagstaff. Although the cave is on Coconino National Forest Service property, there are no rangers on-site; the only thing here is an interpretive sign, so it's definitely something you tackle at your own risk. Pack a flashlight (or two).

Museum of Northern Arizona

This institution, founded in 1928, is respected worldwide for its research and for its collections centering on the natural and cultural history of the Colorado Plateau. Among the permanent exhibitions are an extensive collection of Navajo rugs and a Hopi kiva (men's ceremonial chamber).

A gallery devoted to area geology is usually a hit with children: it includes a life-size model dilophosaurus, a carnivorous dinosaur that once roamed northern Arizona. Outdoors a life-zone exhibit shows the changing vegetation from the bottom of the Grand Canyon to the highest peak in Flagstaff. A nature trail, open only in summer, heads down across a small stream into a canyon and up into an aspen grove. Also in summer the museum hosts exhibits and the works of Native American artists, whose wares are sold in the well-stocked museum gift shop.

Riordan Mansion State Historic Park

This artifact of Flagstaff's logging heyday is near Northern Arizona University. The centerpiece is a mansion built in 1904 for Michael and Timothy Riordan, lumber-baron brothers who married two sisters. The 13,300-square-foot, 40-room log-and-stone structure—designed by Charles Whittlesley, who was also responsible for El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon—contains furniture by Gustav Stickley, father of the American Arts and Crafts design movement. One room holds "Paul Bunyan's shoes," a two-foot-long pair of boots made by Timothy in his workshop. Everything on display is original to the house. The inside of the mansion may be explored only by guided tour (hourly on the hour); reservations are suggested. You can explore the exterior on a self-guided tour.

409 W. Riordan Rd., AZ, 86001, USA
Sights Details
Rate Includes: $12 for guided tour, Closed Tues. and Wed. Nov.–Apr.