This Northern Arizona Town Is the Gateway to a Thrillingly Unexpected Wilderness

Great beer and fantastic food at the edge of adventure.

Flagstaff, Arizona
Not the Arizona you were picturing. | Jacob Rushing / image source / getty images
Not the Arizona you were picturing. | Jacob Rushing / image source / getty images
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Forget everything you think you know about Arizona. The barren wasteland in the recesses of your imagination—those endless expanses of parched earth and tourist-trap trading posts—are mirages obscuring the state’s true beauty. For proof, look to Flagstaff. The vibrant town—where the craft-beer game is as strong as the sense of community—is the antithesis of your preconceived notions: A gateway to the Arizona wilderness scene unlike anywhere else in the US.

At an elevation of 6,909-feet, Flagstaff claims Arizona’s largest mountain, Humphrey’s Peak, and biggest ski resort, Arizona Snowbowl. The town is positioned right in the middle of the world’s largest ponderosa pine stand, a national forest that spans 1.8 million acres. Locally-owned butcheries, bakeries, breweries, and bike shops line the streets, with urban trails and bikeways looping around the perimeter. And unlike its big-city neighbor to the south (no shade, Phoenix), out-of-towners and residents alike can experience all four seasons in Flagstaff, from the long, sunny summertime days to the winter season’s brisk air and blankets of snow. 

Flagstaff is so much more than just a day’s stop along Route 66: It’s a welcome dose of the unexpected that demands to be explored.  Here are the best things to see, eat, and do when you’re here.

Hotel Monte Vista is the perfect Flagstaff Base Camp. | Matt Baxter / unsplash

The Monte Vista originally swung open its doors in 1927, and today the fully-restored anchor of downtown Flagstaff holds a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. Former guests include the likes of John Wayne, Harry Truman, and countless Route 66 roadtrippers. The suites and bed & breakfast-style suites are an ideal basecamp for exploring the town: The hotel is located among  downtown’s bars, restaurants, storefronts, boutiques, allowing you to walk between artisan soap retailers, crystal dealers, vintage clothing outlets, and bike shops in between bites and beers (more on those later).

Oh, and it’s also supposedly one of the most haunted places in Arizona. The hotel has been at the center of Flagstaff’s metamorphosis, from its current vibrancy to its days hosting a speakeasy during Prohibition. As such, it’s taken on some permanent guests. Grab a classic cocktail at the Rendezvous Bar or lounge and, according to lore, you might catch the sight of a spectral couple on the dance floor, or a deceased bank robber guzzling his last cocktail for eternity. Spooky, sure. But at least it means that the hotel is cozy and welcome enough that nobody really wants to leave.

Go full carnivore at Proper Meats + Provisions

Locally sourced artisanal meats, charcuterie, cheeses, and fresh-baked breads are the star attractions at this downtown Flagstaff butcher shop and community eatery. In addition to an abundance of snacky things, Proper Meats + Provisions also offers a lineup of small plates, housemade soups, and tasty sandwiches like the muffaletta, and pastrami—all of which pair perfectly with their curated wine and craft beer list. Yes, even the housemade hot dogs hiding under the golden batter of the corn dog. 

Grab a pint at Mother Road Brewing Company

Downtown Flagstaff’s craft-beer stalwart, family-owned Mother Road Brewing proudly serves beer drinkers an array of hoppy favorites, including year-round favorites like a double black IPA and a crisp kolsch, as well as a shortlist of seasonal offerings like its current ninth-anniversary Belgian Tripel. Utilize Mother Road’s roadside pickup to snag some cans en route to your next outdoor adventure, or score a seat on the sprawling patio.

Yes, Arizona has its own winter wonderland. | Arizona Nordic Village

Strap on some snowshoes at Arizona Nordic Village

With 108-inches of annual snowfall, Flagstaff’s status as Arizona’s winter wonderland is a firm rebuttal to anyone who thinks the entire state is one big, blistering desert. Here, wintertime activities like cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, fat-tire biking, and hiking are never too far away. Arizona Nordic Village offers all that, plus onsite lodging options including campsites and yurt rentals. Grab a pair of snowshoes: more than 24 miles of snowy trails await a quick 20-minute drive from downtown Flagstaff.  

Gorge on the best breakfast in Flagstaff

There’s arguably no more an iconic taste of Flagstaff comfort than MartAnne’s. Stacked high with avocado, cheeses, eggs, salsas, and green onions, the dishes here are just as colorful as the vibrant decor found throughout what locals call Flagstaff’s best breakfast place. This is a dyed-in-the-wool Flagstaff institution. Beloved for it’s over-the-top burritos and drenched-in-salsa chilaquiles, this one-of-a-kind breakfast spot checks all the boxes when it comes to food, service, and atmosphere

Flagstaff’s answer to Vesuvius. | DeepDesertPhoto / RooM / getty images

Explore the aftermath of an ancient volcanic eruption

Today, Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument is a serene setting brimming with ponderosa pines and wildlife. But sometime between the year 1040 and 1100, this peaceful naturescape 20 miles outside Flagstaff was the scene of a chaotic volcanic eruption that forever changed the landscape. More than 900 years later, Sunset Crater remains the youngest volcano on the Colorado Plateau, and it’s just minutes from some of the best camping in Arizona. The national monument is open to visitors looking to explorable its vast hiking trails, however, most travelers opt to see the monument by traversing the 34-mile scenic loop by car. To get in, secure a pass online or pay at the gate.

Get a high score while drinking beer cocktails

The beers at Historic Brewing are exemplary, including a crisp salted-lime lager and a belly-warming chocolate/vanilla holiday porter. But the team behind the bar is pouring more than just suds at this downtown Flagstaff barrel and bottle house: Historic puts an extra focus on beer cocktails. The standout is the Piehole Porter Old Fashioned, a bourbon-heavy sipper made with their signature cherry porter. Or warm up with a seasonal Tepache Hot Toddy, constructed with pineapple rum, lemon, and housemade chai bitters. Whether you’re chilling on the patio with your pooch or engaged in an epic SkeeBall tourney (yes, there are arcade games too), you’ll feel like you’ve found your new home.

Snowbowl’s gondola is thrilling on its own. | Arizona Snowbowl

Rocket up and down the mountain at Arizona’s biggest ski resort

Outsiders might mistake Arizona for being all desert. But the Grand Canyon State is actually home to three unique ski resorts, and the largest is just 14-miles from Downtown Flagstaff. Arizona Snowbowl impresses with its 2,300-foot vert, and its annual 260-inches of snowfall ain’t too shabby either. 

While the park offers a shortlist of black diamond runs, its 55 runs include ideal slopes for beginners too. Regardless of your skill level, or if you’re just in it for the apres ski, the high-speed Arizona Gondola is your ticket to the top. The enclosed gondola provides passengers with sweeping panoramic views of the mountain and snow covered trees all without ever having to leave its seriously snug cabin. After the ride, hit up Hart Prairie Lodge, Agassiz Lodge, or Fremont Restaurant and Bar, all of which offer open-air seating. 

Sample some Cajun BBQ

Cajun classics meet craveable barbecued eats at Satchmo’s, blending styles to create a flavor wholly unique to FlagstaffThe po’ boys, of the shrimp, sausage, or catfish variety, are unmissable. And sides like the tots and mac-and-cheese are a must order. Really hungry? Full racks of ribs, brisket, and pulled pork are at the ready, along with a signature andouille-loaded jambalaya. Whatever you do, before you roll yourself out be sure to leave your mark on the chalkboard wall.

The flavor is forged in fire. | Pizzicletta

Devour some wood-fired pies at Pizzicletta

Pizza aficionados are known to make the 2.5-hour drive from Phoenix for a taste of the extraordinary wood-fired pizza at Pizzicletta—and considering Phoenix is home to world-famous Pizzeria Bianco, that should be a hell of a compliment. Yet that’s a testament to the craft that geologist and self-taught pizza dough-tosser Caleb Schiff has brought to this humble Italian-inspired pizzeria, which has been slinging pies since 2011. The menu spans from a vegan-friendly pie to a bacon and shallot stunner, and is rounded-out by an assembly of standouts like marinated olives, prosciutto, and gelato. 

Explore Arizona’s most unique forests and trails

Spanning 1.8 million acres outside Flagstaff and embodying varied landscapes and elevations, the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pines is positioned within the boundary lines of Coconino National Forest. A serious pair of waterproof snow boots, crampons, or, better yet, snowshoes will be required for your winter season excursions, but don’t let the elements discourage you from exploring the region’s epic trails. 

Lace up your boots and venture out on Kachina Trail. This moderate out and back trail is accessible year-round and descends a high lava cliff and crosses several canyons over its scenic 10.2-miles. Ancient pines stretch into the sky at its higher elevations and as you descend into Weatherford Canyon you’ll dip into groves of ponderosa. Or traverse the north slope of the San Francisco Peaks along the seven-mile Abineau-Bear Jaw Loop, where you’ll peep the Grand Canyon 70 miles away.

For a trail that’s close to the creature comforts of your hotel room, look to Fatman’s Loop. Spanning 2.5-miles, it  provides unobstructed views of the Flagstaff suburbs and far-reaching countryside. There’s lots of interesting things to see on this trail, including remnants of Mt. Elden’s volcanic origins, upland trees, and a posse of forest critters.

For stargazers, this is the Louvre. | Dominic Jeanmaire / shutterstock

Go stargazing at Lowell Observatory

Stargazing is one of Flagstaff’s favorite pastimes. This is, after all, the world’s first International Dark Sky City, a designation awarded by the International Darky Sky Association. And the centerpiece of all this celestial wonderment is Lowell Observatory, the iconic dome that serves as a training ground for astronomical researchers and educators. In 1905 Pluto was discovered here, and today the observatory operates a series of programs designed to inspire people to look up to the stars and ponder what’s out there. Currently, it’s opened in a very limited capacity, so be sure to check here before you set your heart on seeing the stars. 

Day trip to the Grand Canyon

Like we said, Flagstaff is a gateway to adventure. Now that you’ve seen the underrated and underexplored, might as well move on to the state’s most famous site. Arizona’s grandest natural wonder is just a quick trip from the heart of Flagstaff. We don’t need to tell you why you need to see this world-famous hole in the ground, though you should probably listen to us about how to do it right. Caravan your way about 80-miles north and you’ll arrive at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park.

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Lauren Topor Reichert is a Phoenix-based writer and photographer with a sudden desire to go forest bathing. Follow her around Arizona, and beyond, on Instagram.