Born and raised in Flagstaff, I’m still a local, even though my license plates carry the crest of a neighboring state. My transient lifestyle as guide/student/scientist/freelancer has loaded miles on my rust-coated vehicles, but Flagstaff is my epicenter. I’m more of an iterant resident now, following rivers and embracing the challenge of change. Despite my physical distance, the cords that connect me to this well-loved mountain town are robust.
My dad used to say I could walk to school from preschool to a PhD—truth. I grew up thinking weekend trips to the Grand Canyon were standard, having a coffee shop 200 yards from your house was normal, and 300+ days of sunshine a year coupled with 100+ inches of snow was typical. After seasonal stints in Wyoming, California, Utah, Idaho, Mexico, and Colombia, I realized what I often took as banal was the Holy Grail for many in the West.
A significant amount of residents worry Flagstaff is becoming too popular for its own good, a tick mark in the list of forever-changed Western towns. A large service economy, burgeoning second-home market, and university population exacerbate development and gentrification, as more and more people chase the Flagstaff special sauce: multi-sport days followed by local vittles, under the cover of sparkling sunshine and clear air, in the midst of the largest Ponderosa Pine forest in the U.S.
But it’s still here. And it’s still good: really good.
A Southwest hub on the Colorado Plateau, Flagstaff is well-known along the outdoor circuit. Climbing? Check. Hiking? The tallest peaks in the state. Beer? Five microbreweries in the historic downtown, with more distilleries, and vineyards a short drive away. Arts? Festivals abound. Paddling? Well, the river runners around town affectionately refer to Flag as “the biggest river community in a town that doesn’t actually have a river.”
Diehard local paddlers may stubbornly try to convince you the Rio de Flag is a viable run, during the two or three days per year when it’s more than a dry ditch during the spring snowmelt or summer monsoons. Much of the Flagstaff river scene is centered on the Grand Canyon. Commercial guides, private boaters, and educational organizations have focused their downriver dreams here. If you’re coming to town for a trip down the Big Ditch and want to fill out your itinerary, or if you need a long-weekend escape, welcome to my forever hometown.
In tourist towns, some suggestions are constant for a reason. Caffeine up at Macy’s European Coffeehouse. Yes, it’s crowded. Yes, I always see at least two people here I know. Yes, the entire menu is vegetarian: savor the biscuits and gravy with the Macy’s Special, espresso with hot chocolate and whipped cream. The line often expands to the door, but don’t be afraid to jump to the second register when they open it in the back. You can order all the same things there. Really.
Walk just up the street from Macy’s to stock up on hiking snacks and gear needs at Peace Surplus. Next, drive up to the San Francisco Peaks to hike the seven-mile-roundtrip Abineau-Bear Jaw Loop. The turning aspen leaves create a picturesque fall backdrop, and you can see the Grand Canyon seventy miles away.
For its relatively modest size, the arts community is disproportionately large. If it’s the first Friday of the month, go Art Walk (both a noun and a verb!) in historic downtown. Creatives from the breadth of disciplines fill studios, galleries, and shops with their work and free wine and snacks. Once you’ve noshed on enough free vittles, Annex Cocktail Lounge has a bomb shandy and some of the best fries—and my favorite catsup—in town.
If it’s later in the month, the Orpheum Theater hosts national touring acts in a renovated historic theater. Wear your flannel-best and get down to bluegrass, hip-hop, and indie favorites.
The Weatherford Hotel is both stately and charming; it’s both internationally inspired and casually Flagstaff. The third-story patio of Zane Grey is great for people-watching (definitely not for throwing the free popcorn off onto them). If you want to keep expenses down, try the Grand Canyon International Hostel. And if you’re a true dirtbag, head out to the Coconino National Forest to camp.
Flagstaff weekends start early and end late. To get moving, grab some pre-run carbohydrates from Biff’s Bagels before joining Northern Arizona Trail Running Association for one of their weekly jaunts. If you’re like me and would rather drink more coffee instead of needlessly move your legs in rapid succession, go to Firecreek Coffee. Tell the baristas hi from me.
If you’re preparing for an extended Grand Canyon paddling adventure, and need “just one more thing,” Flagstaff River Equipment is the local go-to for river gear. Many a guide has spent the winter sewing for Jason, the river-running owner. If you’re feeling bold, ask them about the story behind their old name.
Now that your dry bag is heavier and your wallet is lighter, you can prepare for your whitewater adventures by hanging out on a lake. Yes, that’s correct: a lake. Don’t turn into a snobbish paddler now. Lake Mary is local reservoir where the city gets drinking water, but it’s also a blast for a mellow afternoon.
It’s less than 20 minutes from downtown, so you can head out, paddle around, and return for the holy, greasy, cheesy experience that is Fratelli Pizza. Order the Flagstaff pizza, a hippie favorite, to go. Take it across the street to Mother Road Brewing Co and enjoy the final wisps of fall on the patio with a Tower Station IPA. If your beer stoke is still high, Historic Brewing Company is a short ramble away.
Once in college, my friends and I decided to stay at the haunted Hotel Monte Vista for a night. If you want to scare yourself needlessly, you can convince yourself anything is supernatural. But it’s Flagstaff, so the locals at the bar downstairs are just as wacky as the supposed-spirits roaming the premises.
Like any stereotypical Sunday Flagstaffian, start at MartAnne’s Burrito Palace. The Christmas chilaquiles more than attenuate the hour-long wait. Once sufficiently stuffed, go for breakfast dessert at Tourist Home Urban Market, where the pastry case is the glory of all things sugar by Kat The Baker. You might as well get some breakfast burritos to go. They are stuffed with tater tots. You’re welcome.
If you’re in the mood for a vertical exploration, the good folks at Flagstaff Climbing can either direct you the local crag or set you up to pull on plastic inside. Despite the somewhat deleterious name, The Pit has super-fun limestone sport routes with a short approach.
You’re probably sore from your weekend of physical and gastronomical adventure. Northern Arizona Yoga Center is a low-key studio. Lest you think Flagstaff isn’t a small town, one of my high school teachers instructs there. Winter Sun has more salves and tinctures than you knew existed, and they know just the right stuff river lovers need.
Finally, the crown jewel in your Flagstaff fun: Diablo Burger. During one impressive collegiate year, I went there so frequently that I was on a first-name basis with the employees and managed to wrangle a date from just showing up there all the time. Dirtbag prices? No way. Worth it? 100%.
Of course, one of the main reasons people visit Flagstaff is as a launch point for their Grand Canyon escapades. Proximity to the Canyon is a major draw for those of us who live and thrive in this mountain town. Give the Big Ditch our love.