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A trip to the Grand Canyon is at the top of the list for most visitors to northern Arizona. But it is just one of the many natural wonders to discover. There’s also the famous meteorite impact crater; the vortexes and red rocks of the Sedona area; volcanic lava trails to hike; Native American history to explore; the famous Lowell Observatory to visit, and don’t forget to delve into Flagstaff and its unique history. Immerse yourself in the natural beauty of Flagstaff’s San Francisco peaks with hiking, skiing, snowshoeing or taking a ride to the top of Arizona on the Snowbowl’s Skyride. Make time to take guided tours when possible. They will greatly enrich your experience of most of Flagstaff’s attractions. Most offer them at no additional charge, but what you’ll gain can’t be measured in money anyway. They’ll bring the history to life for you. Here is our list of top things to do in Flagstaff.
The top spot in Flag for outdoors enthusiasts year-round is the Arizona Snowbowl. As you might guess from its name, the Snowbowl opens for skiing and snowboarding once enough snow has fallen. This is generally in December. It stays open as long as snow pack levels allow, which is generally into March. Do check their website for current conditions. You can hit the slopes with your own skis/board or rent on site. You can also get adult and child lessons for boarding and skiing. Plan on arriving early because once maximum occupancy is reached, no one else is admitted, even if you have already bought a pass. From Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, weather permitting, the Snowbowl opens its skyride to the highest point in the state daily. After Labor Day, the skyride operates Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through mid-October. Look for discount tickets on their website. This is a fun, leisurely ride on the ski lift. All ages are allowed. If you have a squirmy little one who can’t or won’t sit still, it could be unsafe as you glide above the trees to the top of the mountain. There is a restroom up at the top as well as picnic tables with awesome views. During the summer months, free hiking trails are also open along with the Snowbowl’s premiere 18-hole disc golf course. It was the home to the 2005 World Amateur Disc Golf Championships. Be prepared because activities at this high of altitude are much harder. Drink plenty of water and bring a light jacket, as you’re likely to come across some snow in the middle of summer.
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A major modern astronomical research facility, the Lowell Observatory offers science-based fun for all ages. While probably most famous for the 1930 discovery by Clyde Tombaugh of what was once known as planet Pluto, Lowell is also the home of other notable discoveries in the decades that followed, including the detection of water in the atmosphere of a planet outside our solar system. This is a working laboratory as well as a museum of astronomical history. Check their activity calendar before you go so you can get in on tours and special telescope viewing times to see the wonders of the sky, from daytime solar viewings to viewing of stars, planets and the moon at night. During the summer months your admission is good all day, so check out the tours and museum portions during the less-busy daytime and return for stargazing at night. The museum portion is probably most interesting to students studying the planets in school, so it can be skipped if you’re short on time, though the educational films they show are worth watching. Lowell is open both day and night, June through August. Check their website for hours of operation at other times of the year. Unlike many other observatories, Lowell is not in a remote location. Because of Flagstaff’s elevation and International Dark Sky status, the observatory is located just up the hill from downtown. The road is a steep climb, so driving is recommended.
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Neighborhood: Northeast/Doney Park
The Wupatki and Sunset Crater National Monuments tell the stories of geological changes in the area and the effects those changes had on the people who lived here around 1000 AD. The monuments are located on the same 35-mile loop, and one fee gets you into both. Sunset Crater is closest to Flagstaff. Stop at the visitor’s center at the park’s entrance and wander through the exhibits to gain a better understanding of what you’ll see at the monument. Sunset Crater features dramatic landscapes that you can investigate first-hand with relatively easy hikes. The Lava Flow Trail has a paved portion that is accessible for wheelchairs and strollers. Don’t ignore the plaques along the paved portion of the lava trail; they provide insight and will make your visit more enjoyable. Wupatki National Monument is about 20 minutes farther along the looped roadway. It features several preserved Native American pueblos from the time period just before the eruption of the nearby volcanoes. The Wupatki pueblo area features a narrow paved trail that is steep in parts, but it should be fine for strollers or smaller wheelchairs. Pick up a pamphlet to read about each historical station on the path.
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The Grand Canyon is the number one reason people visit Flagstaff—and for good reason. You can’t really grasp its breathtaking nature until you’ve seen the Grand Canyon for yourself. The South Rim is the most-visited section of the canyon, and it provides those iconic views you’ve always seen. But don’t stop there. Take a guided ranger tour to learn about local bird- and wildlife. Eat along the rim at the Bright Angel Restaurant. Order the Santa Fe wraps while enjoying the majesty of the canyon in air-conditioned comfort. If you have a full day or two, take a jeep tour along the rim, a mule ride below the rim, a helicopter tour or a rafting trip through the canyon. Rafting through the canyon is one of the most memorable adventures you’ll ever experience; it’s a vacation all by itself. Each type of tour offers a different perspective of the beauty. If you have kids or love trains and aren’t in a hurry, hop aboard the Grand Canyon Railway to and from the canyon. The trip will take most of the day, and, unfortunately, there’s not a lot to look at along the tracks from Williams until you arrive at the canyon’s rim, but you can relax onboard before hopping out and looking around for a few hours. The most popular way to experience the canyon is to drive here, pay the entrance fee and walk up to the rim from the packed parking lots. Regardless of how you get here, remember the trails are steep and can be dangerous, even at the top of the rim. Stay aware of your footing and stay away from the edge of the trails. There are no railings or lines warning you to not step over. The canyon is at a high elevation, so you will tire more easily. Pack water for any hiking you plan to do here. There are a few hotels, as well as campgrounds, on park grounds. The well-known El Tovar, a grand and historic hotel, sits at the canyon’s edge. If you can afford the time, the experience of sunset and sunrise at the canyon’s edge is unforgettable.
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Nature lovers should visit the Arboretum at Flagstaff, where you’ll learn about the flora and fauna of the region. You may feel like you’re lost as you drive along a dirt road west of Flagstaff toward the Arboretum, but don’t worry. Just follow the signs and you’ll get there. Be sure to hit the daily raptor show, which features owls, falcons and other majestic birds up close. Take one of the guided nature walks to maximize your enjoyment of the Arboretum. The special events make a trip out here even more worthwhile, especially if you have kids. Check their website for a schedule of events, including free-entrance days, which generally include their first day of the season, in April, as well as Arbor Day. Easy trails allow you to view native birds around the arboretum grounds. Children will enjoy exploring the maze of trees that leads to a wooden tree fort at the center. The Arboretum is open April through October.
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Neighborhood: East/4th Street
Visit the most famous, best-preserved meteorite crater on Earth here in northern Arizona. Fifty thousand years ago before any human set foot in the region, a meteor traveling 40,000 miles per hour smashed into the ground, releasing energy equivalent to 20 million tons of TNT, and leaving a giant hole that you can still see today—although you can no longer walk inside the crater itself, as it is a living laboratory for several areas of scientific study. Meteor Crater is nearly a mile across, almost 2.5 miles around and deeper than the height of a 60-story building. Because the terrain is similar to the moon, Meteor Crater was an official training site for Apollo astronauts. With more than 200,000 visitors every year, Meteor Crater is one of the most popular vacation stops in the Southwest. To make the most of your visit, take the guided tour out to the crater’s rim. Be sure to bring water and wear sunscreen, as there’s no shade out on the rim. Closed-toed shoes are required to make the tour’s short hike. During summer, go early in the morning or in the evening when it isn’t as hot. It can easily be 80 degrees in Flagstaff but 95 degrees at the crater. Meteor Crater, about 35 miles east of Flagstaff, is open daily, except Christmas.
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Heritage Square is the gathering place for free fun in the community, with an outdoor amphitheater, picnic area and brick path that tells the story of Flagstaff’s history, biology, geology and anthropology. The flag pole pays homage to the Grand Canyon, with rocks that represent the canyon’s layers. In the summer you’ll find movies every Friday, live music on Thursdays, educational activities with music, art and more for children on weekdays. There are also art exhibits and other community events sporadically through the year here. Walking around the rest of downtown, you’ll find independent shops and boutiques, restaurants, a candy shop, hair salons and hotels. Stop at the visitor’s center (located in the railroad station) and pick up self-guided walking tours of the downtown area to add some historical flavor to your stroll. They also have a fun gift shop with locally made products and Route 66 trinkets. Be sure to stop for a drink on the Hotel Weatherford’s balcony, where you can relax in the shade (likely to live music) and people watch on the streets below.
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Tour back through Flagstaff’s past at the Riordan Mansion State Historic Park. The guided tour is a must-do, though they have self-guided brochures you can follow around part of the park if you’re short of time. Tour guides share the history of the Riordans, one of Flagstaff’s founding families, and the town in which they helped build. Tours meet at the top of the hour and last 1 to 1 ½ hours. Along the way, you’ll see well-kept furnishings and everyday items from the turn of the 20th century, as well as a beautiful example of Arts and Crafts architecture work by Charles Whittlesey, who also designed the famous El Tovar hotel at the Grand Canyon. Currently the park is open Thursdays through Mondays. Check the website for current tour times.
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In Oak Creek Canyon, you can see how quickly the landscape changes from cool pines to warm red rocks. Take the scenic drive down Arizona Highway 89A through Oak Creek canyon heading south out of town on 89A. First, stop at a scenic overlook of the canyon (about 10 minutes from town). Snap a few photos of the canyon you’re about to descend into, and browse the Native American crafts and jewelry that are often for sale here. Then take the winding road down to Oak Creek. The water is chilly year-round because it comes from snowmelt. Sometimes the creek is rushing, other times it’s just a trickle. In the canyon, you’ll find campgrounds, hiking trails, Slide Rock State Park, and even some hotels and restaurants. If you want to get out and hike around, you’ll need a Red Rock pass to park on the side of the road. At the south end of the canyon just before you get to Sedona, you can find lots of great coupons in the market area next to Dairy Queen. These coupons can get you 10 percent off many of Sedona’s restaurants, including the tasty Sonoran food at Javelina Cantina and others. The majesty of Sedona’s red rocks are worthy of exploring on foot if you have enough time to spend longer in the area. Be sure to check out the famed vortex spots—sites where many believe the energy of the area is concentrated—among the red rocks while you’re there.
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The Museum of Northern Arizona is the place to go for insights on the land and people of the Colorado Plateau region. The museum has three galleries with visiting collections and five with permanent collections. Our favorite stop is the “Native People of the Colorado Plateau” exhibit, an award-winning collection spanning 12,000 years of history of the Hopi, Navajo, Zuni and other Native-American tribes from the Colorado Plateau. The “Life Zone” exhibit, in the Old Courtyard, is all about the biology of the area. Stroll the Nature Trail and check out the Amphibian Pond to learn more about local wildlife. We also like the Geography Gallery, which discusses the fact that our San Francisco Peaks were once a volcano; the gallery is also home to a life-size skeletal model of a dilophosaurus. The museum’s fine-art galleries feature paintings and sculpture.
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