By Andy Lenartz
A Phoenix summer tradition is escaping the desert inferno for the cooler climate of Flagstaff, 150 miles and 6,000 feet above Phoenix with the temperature consistently 25 degrees cooler.
As a former resident of Minnesota, I can attest that the midwestern winters would be far more tolerable if you could reach 70-degree weather in those freezing January days with a short drive. To make the most of these brief weekend escapes, here is a Flagstaff travel guide.
The drive from Flagstaff takes only about 2.5 hours from Phoenix. Heading up the I-17 is the only direct route to the mountains, there are a couple of detours possible, but these add hours to the trip.
The highway gets crowded causing substantial delays. The traffic is busiest on Friday afternoons headed north and Sunday afternoons headed south. If possible, try departing on different days and times, or be prepared for a potentially lengthy delay.
Another issue to be aware of is road closures on the I-17 due to brush fires or accidents. Both of these occur on a regular basis and can lead to the highway being entirely closed in one or both directions for hours. Make sure to check the traffic in advance to avoid getting stuck on a highway that has been shut down. And make sure to bring extra water on this drive, just in case of a road closure or car trouble. It will be sweltering hot until you reach Flagstaff.
What to do
Visit the Grand Canyon. People spend tens of thousands of dollars and travel across the world to visit the Grand Canyon. But you can do so on a day trip from Flagstaff, one of the amazing things about living in Arizona.
Hiking to the bottom is not advised during the summer, as the temperature will be similar to the Phoenix weather that you left behind. The temperature on the rim, however, is generally lovely. The Grand Canyon’s weather is similar to that of Flagstaff, which means it is typically perfect in the summer.
Explore Wupatki/Sunset Crater
A two-for-one National Monument experience allows you to visit the site of a (relatively) recent volcanic eruption as well as an archeological site containing numerous pueblos.
The road between the two serves as a popular scenic drive or bike ride.
Check out Walnut Canyon
Walnut Canyon National Monument combines archeological sites with a magnificent canyon view.
Buffalo Park. Located just outside downtown Flagstaff, Buffalo Park is great for running, hiking, and teaching kids to ride bikes on dirt. You can access many miles of hiking trails from here, making it a good place to kick off anything from a quick stroll to a multiple day adventure.
Abineau-Bear Jaw Loop. A 7-mile loop on the north side of the San Francisco Peaks, this is a tough hike with a big climb. Well worth the exertion though, it is a beautiful, fun trail with great views. Bear encounters are possible on this trail, it is a good idea to bring either bear spray or a friend who’s slower than you.
Fisher Point. Part of the Arizona National Scenic Trail, the Fisher Point area provides hikes in Walnut Canyon and caves for exploration.
Snowbowl. The wintertime ski resort also serves as a summer playground with hikes for every level. Those interested in an easy hike can try the 4-mile Aspen Nature Loop, a great place to see wildflowers. Starting at 9,000 feet, the elevation does provide a bit of a challenge, but the hike is not difficult.
For an intermediate level hike at Snowbowl, try the Kachina Trail, a 10-mile round trip hike providing spectacular views, some of the best in Flagstaff. Stepping up to an advanced level of hiking takes you on the challenging Humphreys Trail, a 10-mile round trip hike that goes from 9,000 feet to 12,633 feet.
Flagstaff Urban Trail System. A city-wide system of paved and dirt trails making it possible and accessible to bike anywhere in the city. One of the things making Flagstaff truly special, the FUTS connects downtown Flagstaff with endless miles of mountain bike trails. Maps are available for free at the Flagstaff Visitor Center.
Fort Tuthill Recreation Area. Home to a dirt bike park containing flow trails for all levels of riders, and mountain bike trails connecting to the full Flagstaff trail system.
Campbell Mesa. Easy, mostly flat looping trails totaling approximately 9 miles. This area provides beautiful scenery for a ride and is perfect for riders without much experience.
Eating and drinking
Flagstaff is serious about their beer! My personal favorite is Dark Sky Brewing, located in the middle of downtown with a constantly rotating selection of innovative beers, served alongside food from Pizzicletta.
Historic Brewing Company and Wanderlust Brewing Company also have a frequently changing list of taps, ensuring you will be able to try something new.
Beaver Street Brewery, Lumberyard Brewing Company and Mother’s Road Brewing Company are all well-established favorites with a solid lineup of beers. For those not interested in beer, the newly opened downtown Drinking Horn Mead Hall provides a welcome alternative.
If you plan on checking out multiple breweries during your trip, pick up a Flagstaff Brewery Trail passport and earn a prize.
Flagstaff takes its food almost as seriously as the beer. Most renowned for pizza, the three-block section south of Route 66 known as the pizza triangle contains Pizzicletta, NiMarco’s and Fratelli Pizza.
My personal favorite spot is Bandoleros 66 (formerly Bandura), serving a range of creative and tasty tacos and BBQ alongside some of the best guacamole you’re going to find.
Flagstaff also is home to two excellent sushi places, Lotus Lounge and Kanye West’s favorite, Karma Sushi. The Tourist Home Café and Toasted Owl Café both serve tasty breakfast items all day and have expansive patios to take full advantage of the perfect weather during your Flagstaff visit.
For coffee, Macy’s European Coffeehouse and Bakery is an institution, a key stop for many visitors. Late for the Train is a local favorite serving coffee by the cup or beans by the bag.
Downtown Flagstaff eateries are frequently opening, closing, and changing, so don’t be afraid to try something new!
Where to stay
Owner-rented properties through sites such as Airbnb are thriving and plentiful in Flagstaff and hotels are opening rapidly. Despite this, there remains a shortage of places to stay.
Summer weekends and holidays in particular will create a challenge in finding a place to rent unless you book in advance. Rooms and houses will tend to be expensive this time of year as well, somewhere around the February-March rates you’d expect to pay to vacation in Scottsdale.
If you plan on spending time downtown, stay in or near downtown as driving and parking is an expensive hassle in Flagstaff.
For alternative lodging, consider camping. There are developed campsites at Fort Tuthill, Lake Mary, and private campgrounds such as the KOA, along with yurts at the Arizona Nordic Village.
For the best value, dispersed camping is available in the National Forest around Flagstaff and by the lakes outside Williams. Camping in the National Forest requires no permit, fee, or reservation. And the whole point of the trip was to experience that cooler Flagstaff weather, right?
Whichever type of Flagstaff vacation you choose, enjoy your time away in the cool pines of the Coconino Forest.
Ahwatukee resident Andy Lenartz is an avid hiker and mountain biker.