Once you’ve lived in a city long enough, it’s easy to dismiss the activities that others come from all over the world to enjoy as “for tourists.” At some point, it’s simpler to make excuses than to just go check it out.
I’m embarrassed to admit that it took me 10 years to visit The Museum of Northern Arizona, and it was only when out-of-town guests came to visit that I finally made a trip to Lowell Observatory. Let me tell you—I was kicking myself after the fact. The experiences were better than I could have imagined, and if I hadn’t spent the last decade making excuses, I would have enjoyed them much sooner (and probably more than once)!
For World Tourism Day, I’m here to tell you to stop with the excuses and, as Nike would say, JUST DO IT. We live in one of the prettiest towns in the world, and we are so lucky to call this magical place home. We’re even luckier that we have a variety of activities and day trip options within a short drive. To help you be a better tourist in your own town, I’ve put together a checklist of all my favorite things to do in Flagstaff. If there’s any on this list that you’ve been putting off, consider this the push you need to make it happen.
1. Go see (and hike) the Grand Canyon
Did you know less than 1 percent of the Grand Canyon’s five million annual visitors hike below the rim? As someone who visited the canyon more than half a dozen times before hiking in, take my word for it: it’s worth it. It really is hard to fully grasp the scale and scope of how grand the Grand Canyon really is from the rim. So, plan a trip to make the trek in. (Day hikes do not require a permit.) The most popular hike is Bright Angel Trail, which offers spectacular views, shade and bathrooms every mile and a half. If you’re not ready to commit to a full 15.3-mile hike, Ooh Ahh Point on the South Kaibab Trail is a much more manageable 1.8-mile out-and-back trail, that gets you just far enough below the rim to be able to appreciate the Grand Canyon in all its glory. Remember, pack more water than you think you’ll need—even the shorter hike is categorized as a moderately challenging route, and with little shade, it can be extra draining.
2. Spend a (preferably cloudless) night at Lowell Observatory
This astronomical observatory where Pluto was discovered is out of this world! OK, maybe not literally, but it provides the tools necessary to get a glimpse into it. This Flagstaff staple has been around for more than 125 years for good reason—it is overflowing with information, hands-on exhibits, lecture opportunities and telescope viewing. There truly is something for everyone to enjoy, and if you’re like me, you’ll be so jazzed about space and stars and galaxies after your visit that you can’t wait to go back. Don’t forget your ID when you visit so you can get the local discount
Plus! Construction is underway on a 40,000-square-foot facility that will be SIX TIMES the size of Lowell’s current visitor facility and will offer an open-air planetarium (with heated seats), a rocket-launching station for kids and the Universe Theater! I, for one, cannot wait.
3. Drive through Bearizona Wildlife Park
Bearizona is not your typical zoo. This 160-acre drive-thru experience allows you to get up-close and personal with wolves, bears, bison, mountain goats and more in their natural environments. (My colleague would tell you there’s nothing quite as exhilarating as having a 400-pound black bear post up on the hood of your car.) Plus, most of the animals you’ll see are rescues who would otherwise not survive in the wilderness. (Just read The NAU Review’s heartwarming story of Lucky the Elk.)
4. Visit Meteor Crater
Did you know that Meteor Crater is the best-preserved meteorite impact site on Earth? It is so well preserved, in fact, that astronauts train here before visiting the Moon. The large depression is impressive in itself, but also on site is the Meteor Crater Museum that is packed full of historic photos, stories and exhibits.
5. Take a day trip to Sedona
Less than an hour’s drive from Flagstaff, Sedona is known for its red rock buttes, beautiful vistas and steep canyon walls. Whether you spend a hot day at Oak Creek, enjoy the breathtaking views from Cathedral Rock (my favorite Sedona hike) or mountain bike the abundance of singletracks, it is well worth a visit. Plus, with tons of local coffee shops, eateries and shopping in Uptown, it’s easy to spend a full day enjoying the vibrant arts community. Because there has been an increase in tourism over the last few years, it’s best to visit on a weekday to avoid the crowds.
6. Visit the Museum of Northern Arizona
If you’re interested at all in the history of northern Arizona, you must plan a visit to the museum. One of my favorite things about this museum is that the featured exhibits are always changing, so you can return multiple times a year and get a completely different experience. I was lucky enough to visit during “The Force Is With Our People” exhibit, and as someone who has an appreciation for “Star Wars,” it made learning about this region and land so much fun.
7. See Wupatki National Monument
This archaeological site, rich in Native American history, shows the remains of Pueblo communities that date back to the early 1100s. For those into photography, visit the monument at night. The ruins make for a beautiful foreground and the remote location ensures light pollution won’t get in the way of your star photos.
8. Hike the Lava Tubes
If you’ve never been on an underground hike, this is your chance! These lava tubes north of Flagstaff make for an epic adventure—they’re about a mile long, dark and cold and will leave you feeling like you’re in a different world. It’s worth noting that the terrain is very rocky, and you are required to crouch and slide your way over loose rocks and boulders. Make sure to pack a jacket, no matter what time of year you go—temperatures in the cave range from 35 to 45 degrees—and wear durable hiking shoes. And, with no natural light in the cave, it is recommended to bring at least three light sources a person, one of which should a headlamp. It will allow you to keep your hands free to maneuver the terrain.
9. Snap some photos at Grand Falls (aka Chocolate Falls)
This Instagram-worthy waterfall is wow-inducing and makes the wash-board dirt drive totally worth it. Before you visit Grand Falls, be sure it is running—it can range from a dry trickle to cascading falls. (Prime viewing times are after the snow melt in spring and throughout monsoon season). The view from the top is spectacular, but you won’t fully grasp the scale of the falls until you hike down the canyon. If you plan to hike, be sure to wear good shoes. Through it’s an easy, short trek, it tends to be pretty muddy (which is where the Chocolate in the name comes from). Don’t forget your camera and visit during sunrise or sunset to get the award-winning shots. It is worth noting that because Grand Falls is located on the Navajo Nation, backcountry day permits are required to visit and hike around the falls.
**Please note: Since this story was published, the falls were closed to the public at the beginning of 2023.
10. Tour Riordan Mansion
Conveniently located just west of Northern Arizona University, this state historic park, which dates back to 1904, provides a glimpse into the homelife of Flagstaff entrepreneurs, the Riordan brothers. Much of Flagstaff today, including NAU, is reflective of their influence on the community. This beautiful, American Arts and Crafts-style architecture is full of preserved history that will transport you back in time.
Carly Banks | NAU Communications
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