The laid-back, cultured and pine-studded college town of Flagstaff has plenty going for it and makes a terrific base for exploring northern Arizona.
The largest city on Interstate 40 between L.A. and Albuquerque, Flagstaff is known for its seemingly endless supply of inexpensive chain motels and restaurants. Sadly, too many road-tripping visitors never get much beyond the exit ramp before continuing on with their journeys. In fact, this well-kept, historic city of about 66,000 is worth getting to know — it’s renowned for cool, dry summers and snowy but sunny winters, and has enough diversions and attractions to keep you busy for several days.
The presence of Northern Arizona University infuses Flagstaff with a youthful, bohemian personality that’s enhanced by the many outdoorsy types who have settled here from smoggier and more crowded parts of the West. The gay scene is subtle but pronounced — plenty of gay men and lesbians live here or nearby, and the rest of the population seems largely split between those who embrace diversity and those who simply don’t care much about their neighbors’ gender, race or sexual orientation.
Activity in Flagstaff often revolves around the picturesque downtown, which is rife with Victorian and early 20th-century redbrick buildings that date to the city’s early years as an Old West railroad hub. The Arizona Historical Society’s Pioneer Museum, housed in a 1908 building constructed of rock deposited by an ancient volcanic eruption, traces the region’s growth with a variety of artifacts and exhibits. The AHS’s Riordan Mansion, an ornate Arts and Crafts mansion, is also open for tours — it was built by the same architect responsible for the Grand Canyon’s iconic El Tovar Hotel.
Be sure to see the Museum of Northern Arizona, which contains an outstanding collection of Native American arts and crafts and natural history exhibits. And keep your eyes and ears open for any events scheduled for the Coconino Center for the Arts, whose arts exhibits, musical performances and workshops draw on different aspects of the American West, from Native American history to the contemporary cowboy’s lifestyle.