World Facts Index > United States > Flagstaff

Downtown Flagstaff

For any visitor new to town, the first stop should be the Flagstaff Visitor Center. You'll find a friendly staff ready to advise you on what to do and see during your stay in Flagstaff, including access to their abundant supply of maps and brochures. Leave your car at the depot parking lot and walk across Santa Fe Avenue to explore the downtown area.

Downtown Flagstaff is presently undergoing a resurgence. Turn-of-the-century buildings are being renovated, new cafes and jewelry stores extend into recently bricked sidewalks, and narrow alleys are turned into arcades. Many of the old structures bear markers detailing their history. With curio shops, restaurants, and cafes lining the major streets, this is the best area to shop for American Indian crafts and souvenirs.
Don't forget to stop at the Hotel Monte Vista to admire the nostalgic decor commemorating the times when Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracey, Jane Russell, and other Hollywood stars of yesteryear lodged here. On your way back to the parking lot, note the handsome modern brick structure of the Flagstaff Civic Complex and the pleasant park surrounding it, where street musicians can be seen performing almost any time of the day, weather permitting.

Northern Arizona University

Back at the Visitor Center, turn south on Beaver Street and drive or walk (its not a very long walk) across the railroad crossing towards the Northern Arizona University campus. The area immediately south of the railroad is dominated by bars, cafes, hostels, and shops catering to the student crowd, with Macys European Coffee House on Beaver being the favorite hangout for both locals and visitors to exchange notes over an excellent cup of latte. Enter the northern end of the campus and explore it on foot, or board the free shuttle bus that takes visitors around campus during the school year at 15 minute intervals. The University inspires all kinds of arts and crafts exhibits as well as theater and music peformances both on and off campus. To get an overview of activities, pick up a copy of the free newsletter Un-tv, The Northern Arizona Arts and Entertainment Guide, at any of the cafes.

Adjacent to the campus, Riordan State Historic Park marks an interesting sight for history buffs. Its actually two homes once occupied by lumber tycoons Michael and Timothy Riordan, furnished in appropriate turn-of-the-20th century style with several exhibits detailing the lifestyle of the period. State Park Rangers conduct regular tours of the imposing fieldstone structure.

Hands-on Astronomy

Lowell Observatory sits about a mile west of downtown atop a pine-covered mesa. This is where , in 1902, amateur astronomer Percival Lowell found that there must be another planet beyond Uranus and Neptune. In 1930, the object was later actually discovered here and named Pluto. Park on the spacious parking lot in front and explore the Visitor Center, which features an interactive astronomy exhibit as well as a multimedia presentation. Evening visits are particularly interesting, as one of the telescopes is open for nighttime star gazing. On the way back down, stop and pause at Thorpe Park to explore its play and picnic areas or the trails leading into the wooded hills.

Lodging on Route 66

Drive east from downtown on that stretch of old Route 66 that is now called Santa Fe Avenue. You'll find budget motels lined up along the strip; take your pick. Lovers of Western lore may want to stop at the Museum Club of Flagstaff, also called The Zoo because of its large collection of stuffed animals. The place has evolved into a funky cowboy bar, featuring country music nightly, plus a Route 66 gift shop. Now, continue eastward to get to the huge Flagstaff Mall complex, the largest shopping and dining center in town. Hotels and motels of a more upscale variety are located in this district around Butler Avenue, parallel south to Santa Fe Avenue. More lodging facilities are clustered around the NAU campus on Milton Avenue south of downtown, which is also another shopping district, especially around the freeway interchange at Milton.

Fine Arts and Fresh Mountain Air

Again, using downtown as your point of reference, head north on Fort Valley Road (Highway 180) to pay a visit to the Coconino Center for the Arts and the Arts Barn, one of the focal points of cultural activity in Flagstaff. The Center houses a fine arts gallery, a bookshop, and an auditorium for special events, while the Arts Barn next door contains a very good collection of Indian arts and crafts including silver and turquoise jewelry. A little further up the road, surrounded by shady Ponderosa Pines, the Museum of Northern Arizona offers an excellent display of the geology and anthropology of the Colorado Plateau.

A 14-mile dive from downtown Flagstaff on Highway 180 will take you to the alpine meadows of Coconino National Forest, and all the way up to the dizzying heights of the San Francisco Peaks if you hop the sky ride or hike from the base at 9,500 feet to 11,500 feet at the top. While climbing, admire awesome vistas of the Colorado Plateau and the volcanic cones jutting out fom the plain. Although the Arizona Snow Bowl and the Flagstaff Nordic Center are primarily winter ski areas, the mountain is certainly worth a visit any time of the year, but particularly in the fall when nature turns the forest into a glorious symphony of colors.

Then, if you continue north on Highway 180 and get past new urban developments into beautiful forests of birch and aspen, you are well on your way to the worlds greatest gorge, the Grand Canyon.

The Native American Heritage

The Colorado Plateau is rich with remnants of the ancient people that populated Northern Arizona long before the arrival of European settlers. Just seven miles east of Flagstaff on I-40, you'll find the cliff dwellings of Walnut Canyon, the long-abandoned home for a band of Sinagua Indians who found shelter in its limestone caves 800 years ago. You can reach the caves on a rather strenuous step trail, or just enjoy the impressive view of the canyon from an easy half-mile rim trail.

For another day trip devoted to exploring the geological and historical wonders of the region, head north from Flagstaff on U.S. 89, a road lined with numerous campgrounds and RV parks. After twelve miles, turn right into Sunset Crater Volcanic National Monument. Tinged orange-red by iron oxide, this cinder cone is an impressive reminder of the areas violent geological past. Although Sunset Crater last erupted about 900 years ago, the jagged lava fields look like they were created just recently. As the entry fee to the park includes Wupatki National Monument, you might as well continue on north to see the Southwests largest Indian ruin. The Wupatki Pueblo is a four-story village created from sandstone, with a ball court and an amphitheater whose function still puzzles anthropologists and archeologists. Intrigued by the mysteries of the ancient past, you may want to poke around the less popular sites in the park known as Wukoki Pueblo, Lomaki, and the Citadel. You may even come across a rare archeological find, but be aware that you are expected to disturb nothing you see. Looking north, you can now catch a glimpse of the vast expanses of the Painted Desert with the lands of the Navajo and Hopi nations beyond.

Nor does the list of cultural and natural attractions in the Flagstaff area end here. Depending on your schedule, you may now go on to explore the southern outskirts of town around St. Marys Lake and watch herds of elk emerge from the forests at sunset, or spend long hours at The Arboretum studying the local flora. Finally, if you still have time, take a ride past Pulliam Airport, the regional Northern Arizona air-service facility for both airlines and private aircraft, and continue south on Highway 89A alongside the towering cliffs of Oak Creek Canyon into the thriving -and very touristy art colony of Sedona, the town with one of the most spectacular settings in the U.S., situated at the base of the Canyons famed red rock ramparts. But be forewarned: once you have acquired a taste for this most unique part of the world, you will always feel the urge to come back for more.

History of Flagstaff

Surrounded by vast Ponderosa Pine forests at the base of the majestic San Francisco Peaks, perched high on the Colorado Plateau, Flagstaff offers a beautifully mixed landscape of forests, high deserts, lakes, and volcanic craters, a scenery unparalleled in all of Arizona. The first settlers to the area, drawn to the cool pine forests around 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, shared the land with bison, antelope, and camel, supporting their people by hunting and foraging, until they settled into an agricultural way of life to get their proteins from a diet of beans, squash and corn.

From those early settlers, the Sinagua evolved, a tribe that moved into the area of present-day Flagstaff and south to Oak Creek Canyon around the year 1,000 A.D. They derived their named fom the Spanish word for "no water", a reference to the leaky, porous limestone cliffs where they built those dwellings noted by the first Spanish explorers. The Sinagua constructed an eloborate system of irrigation and adobe pueblos in the nooks and niches of protective cliffs such as Walnut Canyon, but by the time the Spaniards discovered the region in the 16th century, they had already abandoned their homes for reasons that remain uncertain to this day. Historians keep wondering whether they were driven away by drought, disease, or hostile Athabascan tribes invading from the north. Hundreds of ruins like Wupatki National Monument have been found to prove they were there, but nothing to confirm why they left.

European American settlers did not move into the area till the 1870s, right after the war-like Apaches had been driven to southeastern Arizona. A few colonizers arrived in 1876 and established a settlement called Agassiz near San Francisco Peaks, but, lacking the knowledge and technology of the Sinagua, decided that the area was not good for farming. Finally, a shepherder named Thomas Forsythe MacMillan came, concluded that this was a great land for raising sheep, and stayed. By 1880, the areas population had grown to 67.

Two years later, the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad (now the Santa Fe) arrived, and the towns future was secured. The sound of trains has remained Flagstaffs acoustic trademark to this day, as any visitor will confirm after listening to the whistle of the many freight trains that pass through Flagstaff every day.

According to local lore, the town acquired its name from a pole that may or may not ever have existed. Some say that a Ponderosa Pine tree was stripped and a flag hoisted on July 4, 1876, to mark the Centennial of U.S. Independence, others insist that it was used as a marker to guide travelers west, but no matter what happened, the pole is lost forever, as it was turned into firewood for one of the many saloons. What we know for sure is that the name Flagstaff was selected by a group of citizens meeting at a tent store in 1881.

In 1886 and 1888, fires destroyed the settlement. Fortunately, enough lumber was around for rebuilding, and in 1891, Flagstaff became seat of the newly created Coconino County. In 1894, the city was incorporated, and Lowell Observatory was established, destined to become one of the leading astronomy institutions in the world.

Lumber quickly grew into the main industry in Coconino Forest, making some entrepreneurs very rich in the process, notably lumber magnate Michael Riordan, whose legacy is well preserved in his mansion at Riordan State Historic Park. The man also gained some notoriety for being one of the first known pot-hunters, exploring and looting the Walnut Canyon ruins until local citizens became alarmed at the extent of the destruction wreaked on the cliff dwellings. The Chamber of Commerce, now acknowledging the tourist value of the ruins, denounced the mutilation in 1891, and in 1904, the site became part of the San Francisco Mountain Preserve.

While timber still remains one of the backbones for Flagstaffs economy, and the county provides more than half of Arizonas domestic sheep, tourism has now become the citys most important enterprise. Located at an altitude of more than 7,000 feet, in close proximity to the Grand Canyon in cool, fresh mountain air, Flagstaff has long attracted health seekers as well as people from around the world eager to explore its natural beauty. Today, the town is much more than just an overnight stop for tourists on historic Route 66 en route to the Grand Canyon. Inhabitants of the megalopolis of Phoenix, just a two hours drive to the south, frequently come here to escape the stifling summer heat of the Southern Arizona deserts.

In 1912, Flagstaff just barely missed the opportunity to become the movie capital of the world, when director Cecil B. DeMille came looking for a location where outdoor shooting was possible all year round. Unfortunately, a snow flurry descending on the town convinced him that this was not the place, and he moved on further west to a region with more agreeable weather. However, Flagstaff has been frequently featured in film and TV productions since. One room at The Monte Vista Hotel was in fact used for a scene in the movie Casablanca, and you can spend the night there, too.

Since 1899, when the foundation of Normal School, forerunner of Northern Arizona University (NAU), added a new cultural and intellectual dimension to the timber town, metropolitan Flagstaff has slowly developed into the main center of cultural activity in Northern Arizona. Numerous events and festivals, such as the Coconino County Fair and the Flagstaff Winterfest, attract enough visitors to create serious traffic congestion during summer months. NAU itself, which is now the towns biggest employer, hosts a variety of art and music events throughout the year. The city also takes great pride in featuring the best venue for learning about the geology, history, biology, and art on the Colorado Plateau. A visit to the Museum of Northern Arizona is an absolute must for anyone remotely interested in the history of the area.

While most of the shopping has moved to the suburbs , new cafes and specialty stores have sprung up inside well-tended old structures in the historic downtown district. With around 65,000 inhabitants and growing, Flagstaff, just like many other cities in the country, suffers from symptoms of urban sprawl, but there is little of the downtown sleaziness and scruffiness that characterizes so many other places trying to cope with the problems of rapid growth. At the time of writing, restoration and expansion in downtown Flagstaff is still going on, and the best way to keep current and get a feel for the history of this town is to get out of the car and take a leisurely walk around the historic district along Santa Fe Avenue, the street also known as Route 66.

The Weather

  Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Avg. High 42 45 48 57 67 78 81 78 74 64 51 44
Avg. Low 15 17 21 26 34 41 50 48 41 31 22 15
Mean 28 32 35 42 50 60 66 64 57 47 37 30
Avg. Precip. 2.0 in 2.1 in 2.6 in 1.5 in 0.7 in 0.4 in 2.8 in 2.8 in 2.0 in 1.6 in 2.0 in 2.4 in


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