Finding Family Fun in Flagstaff: Canyons, Craters, and Outer Space

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A gust of wind and a frenzy of snow reduce my line of sight, simultaneously turning my hair into a hurricane of blonde. Having neglected to put on my jacket’s zipper, it’s now a rising balloon that my little girl Brooklyn deftly evades, walking beside me for shelter. “There it is,” she exclaims, pushing through the unassuming doorway, seething, “I thought Arizona was supposed to be hot!” While drenched in a river of mascara, I’m crafting a soothing response when the sunny girl in the hat working the counter at Diablo Burger chimes cheerfully, “Oh, not in November; we have the four seasons here in Flagstaff.” Well, here’s a hard lesson we learned – our mother-daughter journey is off to an excellent start.

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Perched 2,133m high on the Colorado Plateau, Flagstaff’s rugged landscape and Ponderosa forests—and weather—are in stark contrast to sun-drenched Scottsdale, two hours south. But here’s the thing, being a different business. And this charming town, rooted in outdoor adventures, has undoubtedly found its niche – you just need to dress for it. So, after warming up and enjoying “the best burgers in the state,” we donned our winter clothes and set off to discover Flagstaff’s mix of sights, sights, and historic landmarks.

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Learn more about space at Lowell Observatory in Arizona.  Courtesy, Lowell Observatory
Learn more about space at Lowell Observatory in Arizona. Courtesy, Lowell Observatory jpg

Astronomical adventures

As the world’s first international obscura city, stargazing in Flagstaff is unparalleled, and Lowell Observatory takes the lead for interplanetary exploration. Wealthy Boston businessman and astronomer Percival Lowell founded the pioneering Astronomical Research Center in 1894 to discover extraterrestrial life on Mars. Although unsuccessful in its inaugural mission, Lowell Observatory has pioneered research and education, to connect people to space, for more than 125 years. For Brooklyn and I, seeing the gas giant Jupiter and four of its 79 moons through Lowell’s original 24-inch Clark’s refractor was truly amazing, as was learning about how the telescope was instrumental in creating detailed maps of the moon for the Apollo 13 mission. We’ve also gazed at globular star clusters and counted craters on the moon’s surface. However, seeing Saturn’s flash from 1.47 billion kilometers away was an eventual stopping point.

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Members of the NASAs Desert Research and Technology Studies team practice on a prototype lunar rover for future Artemis missions at Black Point Lava Flow near Flagstaff, Arizona, on October 24, 2022. Olivier Touron / AFP
Members of the NASAs Desert Research and Technology Studies team practice on a prototype lunar rover for future Artemis missions at Black Point Lava Flow near Flagstaff, Arizona, on October 24, 2022. Olivier Touron / AFP Photo by Oliver Turon /AFP via Getty Images

National Monuments and Navajo Culture

Located a half hour north of Flagstaff, Sunset Crater National Monument is the latest eruption of San Francisco’s 1,800-square-mile volcanic field. Donning hats and gloves, Brooklyn and I set out on the self-guided 1 mile Lava Trail for a first-hand look at the catastrophic devastation. We soon discovered that the site’s rugged terrain was a training ground for astronauts preparing for the Apollo missions in the 1960s. Donning their heavy spacesuits, the NASA team navigated other rock formations in the lava field and learned how to pilot the lunar rover. From Sunset Crater, we zip along the stunning 55km scenic loop, moving from open meadows and pine groves to shimmering grasslands with sweeping views of the colorful desert to reach the red rock landscapes of Wopatki National Monument. The site’s ancient artifacts and architectural remains of the multi-level pueblo dwelling, with a community room and ceremonial ball court, are an impressive 800-year-old feat of engineering. With our self-guided tour complete, we continued north to Cameron Trading Post, overlooking the Little Colorado River Gorge. The century-old site is a lively tourist attraction, housing an impressive collector’s gallery and shop with contemporary Native American art, as well as a hotel and restaurant, where we grabbed a quick lunch of homemade chili and Navajo fried bread.

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Historic Downtown, Ted Danza and Route 66

Cheers favorite bartender and Ted Danza is the official tour guide for the city’s Walk This Talk tour, offering visitors a unique walk down a section of America’s famous Route 66. We start at the visitor center at the historic Flagstaff Warehouse, picking up a detailed booklet containing a toll-free number to listen to a pre-recorded TED talk. With Brooklyn in tow, I only made the first three stops out of 10, as it was still a bit small due to the fact-heavy narrative, and the quaint shops lining historic downtown Flagstaff were too distracting. The Bustling Brightside Bookstore was our favorite find, with its floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with toys, trinkets, treasures, and countless handwritten book recommendations. An eclectic array of 70s-inspired gifts and apparel found in the Old Town shops, as well as gourmet handcrafted apple and caramel treats at The Sweet Shoppe, were also welcomed.

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Black Barts in Arizona.
Black Barts in Arizona. jpg

Black Bart, a local institution

Flagstaff is full of surprises, and Black Bart’s Steakhouse, Saloon, and Musical Revue were great offerings. We arrived at the unassuming Roadhouse Restaurant, located in an 11-acre RV park, with no expectations and left with our hearts and stomachs full. The Flagstaff institution is named after the famous Wells Fargo robber, Charles E. While chatting with our waitress, we discovered that most of the hitchhikers are students—or alumni—of Northern Arizona University’s music and theater programs. During our hour-long meal, the performers entertained us with songs from the 60’s and 70’s and songs from Broadway, jazz and Disney classics. Brooklyn was amazed the whole time, making Black Bart her best experience in Flagstaff.

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Return of the car inn

Flagstaff’s roadside inns are a nod to Route 66’s roots, and the newly opened High Country Motor Lodge puts an elegant twist on this classic concept. The retro retreat feels contemporary while boasting a well-defined vintage vibe. Our spacious courtyard-facing room was outfitted with two comfortable plush beds, a small dining table, and plenty of thoughtful modern touches, like coat hooks, down lights, and USB charging stations. I was also pleased with the Vietnamese-style pour-over coffee and sweetened condensed milk creamer – delicious in-room amenities. While the outdoor pool was not heated thus of little use, the hot tub and sauna was a perfect way to end a day of outdoor exploration. Provisions for pizza and fast food from the general store were also useful for the nights we felt like staying over.

Spending three days in Flagstaff left us craving more. We’ve barely touched the area’s outdoor recreation and missed winter activities—including beloved holiday attractions like Little America’s light-up display and the North Pole Experience—for about a month. More reasons to come back with warmer clothes and a renewed sense of adventure.

For more information about the destination, visit @arrivals_travel.

Flagstaff general store and lounge.

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