After a long, hot, smoky Mojave Desert summer, it’s time for a brief change of scenery. This winter, swap out palm trees for soaring volcanoes, swaying ponderosa pines and sparkling snowflakes in picturesque Flagstaff, Arizona. There, eye-catching architecture, fascinating museums, sky-scanning telescopes, swooshing skis, clinking glasses and more await.
Located on the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau, Northern Arizona’s largest city is an easy four-hour drive from Las Vegas. To get there, head past Hoover Dam going south on Highway 93, turn left at Kingman, and then follow Interstate 40 past austere, arid landscapes until you reach the verdant flanks of the stunning, snow-topped San Francisco Peaks. There, smack-dab in the middle of the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world, the “City of Seven Wonders” — as it’s nicknamed — awaits you at a lofty altitude of 7,000 feet.
Born as a railroad stop and logging town in the late 19th century, this vibrant home of some 75,000 residents has retained a sizable portion of its early architecture, including its gorgeous Revival Tudor-styled wood-and-brick Visitor Center. From there, it’s a quick amble to the heart of Historic Downtown: Heritage Square. Surrounded by vintage structures like the handsome, two-story red sandstone Babbitt Brother’s Building, built in 1888, and the glowing Orpheum Theatre marquee, the open-air square draws locals and visitors alike with alfresco entertainment and twinkling holiday lights.
In the early to mid-20th century, Flagstaff became a major stop along Route 66 as it stretched from Illinois to California. “Mother Road” aficionados should cruise east of downtown to spy traces of the charming advertising — like the still-glowing Western Hills Motel sign, with its neon horse-drawn Conestoga wagon — that beckoned to road-weary travelers decades ago.
And, for Southern Nevadans who go gaga for the futuristic architecture of yore, the Lawrence Walkup Skydome is a Googie-inspired visual treat located just south of downtown on the Northern Arizona University (NAU) campus. The domed stadium’s parabolic entrances are aesthetic cousins to the exuberant La Concha Motel lobby at the Neon Museum.
A Culture and Scientific Bonanza
Flagstaff is a history-rich destination, and the excellent Museum of Northern Arizona puts much of it on thoughtful display year-round. Headquartered in the northern stretch of town in a large, magnificently designed 1936 hacienda made of local lava rock, the institution’s ongoing main installation is “Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau.” It was curated with members of regional Indigenous nations: Acoma, Dilzhe’e Apache, Diné (Navajo), Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, Southern Paiute, Southern Ute, Yavapai and Zuni. East of NAU, Riordan Mansion State Park gives a glimpse into the luxurious lifestyles of successful 19th-century nonnative settlers. And, on the northern edge of the city, the Coconino Center for the Arts has its finger on the pulse of creative culture, both with visual art displays and live music events.
With its inky-dark nighttime skies, Northern Arizona is ideal for looking upward into the vast cosmos, especially at famed Lowell Observatory, a U.S. National Historic Landmark. Situated on a mesa above downtown, its powerful telescopes have scanned the universe for more than a century. Notably, Pluto was first identified there in 1930. Even though it’s a modern, growing city, Flagstaff limits light pollution that interferes with astronomical work, and it was declared the first International Dark Sky Place in 2001. Be sure to reserve a stargazing tour of the observatory 30 days in advance.
Railroad traditions are alive and well in the Flagstaff region. In nearby Williams, the Grand Canyon Railway offers daylong, round-trip excursions to the Grand Canyon. Car choices range from basic Pullman to the luxury dome level. For the holiday season, there are shorter 90-minute, family-friendly Polar Express excursions in the evenings; they are extremely popular, so make reservations early.
Original Cultural Destinations
Flagstaff might date back nearly 150 years, but it’s far from the first settlement in the region. Human history dates back more than 10 millennia in the region, and archeological highlights include Wupatki National Monument, a large swath of Colorado Desert plain dotted with the ruins of an impressive 900-year-old pueblo complex. It’s located along a lovely loop drive that includes nearby Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and the Elden Pueblo Heritage Site. Head south of town for ruins of a different sort: the cliff-hugging stone houses of forested Walnut Canyon National Landmark, an unforgettable site abandoned by the Sinagua people some 600 years ago.
Of course, there’s the fantastic snow that makes Flagstaff such a superb winter wonderland. The city, on average, receives almost 109 inches of the fluffy stuff each year. Coupled with an average of 266 sunny days, it’s an ideal combination of atmospheric conditions for hitting the slopes at Arizona Snowbowl. The resort features eight lifts, including a gondola, and reaches up 2,800 feet to an exceptional lift-served elevation of 11,500 feet. The mountain is dominated by intermediate terrain for skiing, snowboarding and even ski biking. For the cross-country set, nearby Arizona Nordic Village has more than 20 miles of groomed trails for kicking and gliding; there’s snowshoeing available, as well. Finally, nature lovers will want to drive 80 miles north to winter hike in Grand Canyon National Park.
Eating and Drinking
Flagstaff’s food and drink scenes are on the rise, and vacationer favorites include modern American cuisine at Charly’s Pub & Grill; Asian fusion flair at Lotus Lounge; artisanal pizza and pasta at Fat Olives, and mom and pop breakfast goodness at Downtown Diner. Craft beer is also huge, with nine breweries pouring pints in this neck of the woods. There’s even a Flagstaff Brewery Trail complete with a passport — pick one up at the Flagstaff Convention & Visitors Bureau and start collecting stamps one glass at a time.
Flagstaff is filled with abundant lodgings, but it’s known to get booked out, making reservations a must, especially for families. In the historic core, two vintage establishments shouldn’t be missed — the Weatherford Hotel, with its Victorian covered balconies, and the ornate four-story Hotel Monte Vista with its unmistakable rooftop sign. For modern amenities (including an indoor pool), there’s a Residence Inn by Marriott just a couple of blocks away; the close-by Drury Inn & Suites is silver-level LEED certified for eco-travelers. Finally, on the southern edge of town, the immense, AAA Four Diamond-awarded Little America Hotel is situated in a 500-acre forest. Through the Christmas season, the resort is home to the delightful North Pole Experience featuring more than a million decorative lights and pretty much every Santa-themed celebration a wide-eyed child could dream up.
So grab a puffy coat and lace up your boots: Flagstaff calls.
If You Go
■ GENERAL INFORMATION
Discover Flagstaff: flagstaffarizona.org
■ THINGS TO DO
Lowell Observatory: lowell.edu
Museum of Northern Arizona:
Mid-century modern in Flagstaff:
Weatherford Hotel: weatherfordhotel.com
Hotel Monte Vista: hotelmontevista.com
Residence Inn Marriott: marriott.com
Lotus Lounge: lotusloungeflagstaff.com
Fat Olives Pizza: fatolivesflagstaff.com