Flagstaff is easy to navigate. Historic downtown is the most popular area for visitors and locals to gather. It’s bustling with live music, shopping, festivals, even free movies on the square in the summer. From downtown it takes about 15 minutes to get to the northeast side where the mall is located, about 10 minutes to get to the Snowbowl access road, and 5 minutes (unless you hit the lunch rush) to get to Interstate 40 and Interstate 17 on-ramps. The city also has a host of parks sprinkled throughout many neighborhoods with playgrounds, hiking trails and disc golf courses, all free to the public. The city’s year-round ice rink used to be located just north of downtown but is in the process of being rebuilt after collapsing in a snowstorm in January 2010. In the winter, you can find snow play areas all around, in addition to cross-country skiing at the Nordic Center and downhill skiing/snowboarding at the Snowbowl.
If you’re eager for some mall shopping, head to the Flagstaff Mall and Marketplace in the far northeast part of town. Stores here include Best Buy, Cost Plus World Market, Sears, Dillard’s, JCPenney, and many others. Farther out of town, heading northeast on Arizona Highway 89, you’ll find a KOA campground, the neighborhood known as Doney Park, and several hiking areas. Schultz Pass Road (aka Forest Road 420) is the spot to go for a scenic drive above Flagstaff in the fall and summer, as well as for hiking and biking. It can be accessed from Highway 89 a few miles past the mall. You can take Shultz Pass Road, a bumpy, narrow dirt road to U.S. Highway 180 on the other side of town. Near that access point you'll have a striking view of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and its dramatic cinder cone. If you’re looking to get a little golfing in on your vacation, seek out Continental Country Club, close to town just south of I-40. It’s the only place in town with public tee times for 9- or 18-hole rounds of golf. About 30 miles east of the country club, just off I-40, is the Meteor Crater impact site. Nearly one mile across, the Meteor Crater is the result of an asteroid impact nearly 50,000 years alo.
Downtown is Flag’s gathering place. It’s the best place to really get a feel for Flagstaff’s charm and character. Stroll around the central block area, and then stop in at the train station. The railroad was central to Flagstaff’s story, and it’s located smack in the center of downtown. Amtrak, in fact, shares the same building as the visitor’s center, which is a good spot to start your visit. Stop in and pick up some free area maps and brochures of nearby attractions. South of the tracks downtown you’ll find many popular restaurants, as well as two travelers’ hostels. While now a hostel, the DuBeau was the first motel in Arizona when it was built in 1927. North of the tracks is the historic Heritage Square area, which is home to live music and other community events throughout the year. Heritage Square has lots of little shops, eateries, bars and other entertainment options, as well as the city’s theatrical playhouse. You can also find the main library downtown, with free events for kids offered year-round. Another fun free spot to visit is Thorpe Park, which has a big playground, tennis courts, picnic areas, disc golf and hiking trails. Other attractions in or near the downtown region include Lowell Observatory, and shops where you can rent skis, snowboards and snowshoes, hiking gear and bicycles. The Greyhound Bus station is also nearby. Flagstaff Medical Center is located just north of downtown.
Driving east from downtown on Route 66 is like stepping back in time. Many areas in this section of town are rundown; others are thriving. All the restaurants and motels on “The Mother Road” play up their location. Some are campy, others just old. On the eastside, try the low-cost indoor rock climbing or go for an indoor swim at the relatively new, city-run Flagstaff Aquaplex. Perfect for that rainy or snowy day, the Aquaplex is open year-round, and features an indoor pool with slides, a splash area for smaller children, a “lazy river,” lap lanes, gym with basketball and volleyball courts, indoor rock-climbing wall, weights, indoor track and an exercise area. It is open to visitors and residents for a small fee for the entire day. For free outdoor hiking and biking, check out the family-friendly Buffalo Park a few miles north and east of downtown. This 215-acre area has several easy trails with mountain views, exercise stations along the trails, a picnic area and portable restrooms. Buffalo Park is part of the Flagstaff Urban Trail System, which connects many sections of town with a paved trail. Buffalo Park is accessible on foot or bike from downtown if you don’t have a car, but do note that you’ll be going up a pretty big hill, so prepare for extra hard work on your bike and a laborious hike. At 7,000 feet you’ll get more winded, compared to lower altitudes.
Northern Arizona University is situated just a few blocks south of downtown. This part of Flagstaff has a vibrant feel when students are bustling around during the school year, but in the summer it can feel like a ghost town. The university is home to the Lumberjacks sports teams, including football, basketball and other sports. NAU’s theater department puts on several plays each year, and offers opportunities to attend student opera and symphony performances. Be sure to check NAU’s performance schedule, as it also hosts cultural performances of nationally known stand-up comedians and musical acts in intimate venues. The NAU Art Museum is a hidden treasure on campus, with hundreds of works from the 1700s to the present, including works by Miró, Picasso and others of international note. Near the university, you’ll find several coffee shops, restaurants, chain stores (including Target and Wal-Mart) and the town’s multiplex movie theater. The Riordan Mansion, a state park that tells the history of Flagstaff and one of its founding families, is located just west of NAU; it’s worth a stop if you love architecture and living history. On the western edge is The Arboretum at Flagstaff and the U.S. Naval Astronomical Observatory Flagstaff Station. Thirty-five miles west, on I-40, Williams is the departure point for the Grand Canyon Railway.
More year-round outdoors enjoyment can be found heading southeast out of town on Lake Mary Road. Only a few miles outside of town, Lower Lake Mary and Upper Lake Mary are right off the two-lane byway. Both have picnic areas and campgrounds. Upper Lake Mary also has boat ramps, making it a good spot to take to the open water. The Marys are two of six lakes in the area, including Mormon Lake, Arizona’s largest natural lake (when not in a drought), about 30 miles outside of town. When Arizona is in a drought, water play can be scarce here. Water or not, the tiny community of Mormon Lake has mountain biking, horseback riding, ATV trails, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling—all with rental equipment available in season at Mormon Lake Lodge. Sample the cowboy pancake breakfast at the restaurant before starting your day. We love their buttery shortstacks. Just off Lake Mary Road, near Lower Lake Mary and Marshall Lake, sits the dark-skies site of Lowell Observatory, home to the U.S. Navy Prototype Optical Interferometer and other telescopes that search the skies for near-Earth objects. These telescopes aren’t open for public viewing, but now you’ll know what they are when you drive past.
If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, you should head north to maximize your experience in Flag. In the winter, check out the Flagstaff Nordic Center for cross-country skiing, the Arizona Snowbowl for downhill fun, and several free snow play areas: Peak View, Crowley Pit and Walker Lake. In the summer, the Snowbowl also offers disc golf, mountain biking and a skyride to the highest point in Arizona. To get to this recreation-rich area, head north from downtown toward the Grand Canyon on U.S. Highway 180. All year ‘round, the Museum of Northern Arizona has exhibits featuring the anthropology, biology, geology and fine art of the area, dating back to ancient times. Also on this route is the Pioneer Museum, which collects and displays items relating to the history of the area, with exhibits on ranching, logging and transportation. This can be kind of boring to non-pioneer history buffs, but the kiddos will like hopping on the old train, and strolling through the old pioneer house.