Arizona's surprise hit of the season
Even for many Arizonans, a visit to Flagstaff comes as a revelation. This lush northern mountain town near the Grand Canyon defies the state’s desertic image—or at the very least, gives distinct oasis vibes. Not the traditional kind, mind you: In place of palms, you’ll find pines. Many thousands, in fact, given the city’s privileged position amidst the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest.
Flagstaff's position is also elevated: 6909 feet above sea level, to be precise, where you feel the four seasons as you rarely do elsewhere in the state. And with one of the most magical times of year right around the corner, now is the moment to be plotting your own journey of discovery. Of course, if you’ve already been to Flagstaff, you’ve got plenty to come back for this fall, from the golden oldies (i.e., the abundant aspens in all their autumnal glory) to the new and noteworthy (the ever-escalating foodie scene, in particular).
Point is, however you get here—perhaps on an iconic Route 66 road trip, or a quick, direct flight from Dallas or Phoenix—put Flagstaff on your fall fun list. Here’s a sampling of what awaits you if you do.
Anyone who discounts the fall foliage potential of Arizona has clearly never spent the season in Flagstaff (or Flag, as the place is known to locals and loyalists).
For the best possible overview, literally, ride the Scenic Gondola at Arizona Snowbowl on Mount Humphreys just outside of town. One of the nation’s oldest continually run ski areas—where, yes, you’ll risk wanting to stay straight through till winter—Snowbowl pairs aerial views of the gloriously gilded aspen and fir canopy with glimpses of the Grand Canyon and the red rocks of Sedona (at least on a clear day).
For a more down-to-earth view, and some rich reds sprinkled into the mix, hike the maple-adorned West Fork trail in nearby Oak Creek Canyon. But even with zero exertion—right in Downtown Flagstaff—you can wander amid a dazzling display. For all the most kaleidoscopic options when you’re in town, check the local LEAFometer; it’ll show you what’s up (as in, overhead) everywhere from the Arboretum to the inner basin trail of Flagstaff’s famed San Francisco Peaks.
There’s something about this particular change of season—parents might say back to school, but we leave the specifics to you—that heightens the celebratory spirit in the air. And Flagstaff is a great place to experience that shift, with a full lineup of festivals.
At the somewhat traditional end of the spectrum, there’s the Flagstaff Oktoberfest on October 1, when the burgeoning brewery scene (more on that soon) is paired with live polka, brat eating and stein holding competitions. At the nontraditional end, there’s the Flagstaff Shakespeare Festival, better known as FlagShakes—a modern take on old-school Bard productions, with The Comedy of Errors on stage October 6-16. For something totally different, there’s the festival that devotees call the Best 10 Days of the Year: The Flagstaff Festival of Science (September 23-October 2), believed to be the longest, continuously running totally free science festival on earth. This year’s headliner is esteemed Egyptologist Zahi Hawass, but you can also find a whole range of scientific workshops, presentations and tours by local talent, too.
Night sky magic
That last festival, which aims to “showcase the outstanding research and science that occurs in and around Flagstaff,” hints at one of the city’s biggest claims to fame: Lowell Observatory. Dubbed “the home of Pluto” because the planet was discovered here in 1930, this National Historic Landmark has contributed to our understanding and appreciation of the cosmos for nearly 130 years. Indeed, Flagstaff’s 2001 designation as the first ever International Dark Sky City came as the result of the observatory’s efforts, which have also helped cement Flag's reputation as one of the world's best astrotourism destinations.
As you’ll discover when you visit the Mars Hill campus, it’s still at the vanguard of astronomic exploration—and unless you’re a pro, there’s probably little in your experience that can prepare you for the stargazing you’ll do from the six telescopes of the Giovale Open Deck Observatory. Of course, given the city’s aforementioned dark sky status, anything happening overhead at night is going to look especially dazzling (weather permitting). In October and November, that includes various meteor showers plus the best night of the year to view a fully lit blue-green Uranus.
Long beloved for its hearty comfort food staples—this is a mountain town and a college town, after all—Flagstaff has taken a noticeable turn for the refined of late. Not that comfort food has become any less abundant, and though you could spend an entire trip on the full menu of favorites, at the very least try the freshly baked treats at Macy’s European Coffeehouse and Bakery or Tourist Home All Day Cafe; the egg breakfasts at The Toasted Owl; the Chilaquiles Christmas style at MartAnne's Breakfast Palace; the Arizona-sourced beef at Diablo Burger and the wood-fired Neapolitan pies at Pizzicletta.
As for the ever more elevated end of the spectrum, the best places to taste what’s happening include Shift FLG (go for the chef’s tasting menu); Brix (where the boards are among the standouts); Atria (try the beet salad and short ribs if they’re on offer when you go in); and any outpost of That Place Project—the group that includes Tinderbox Kitchen, Tourist Home, the Annex Cocktail Lounge, Corn & Flour and soon, Teatro Italian Food & Wine.
Again, Flagstaff is both a mountain town and a college town. So even if the burgeoning brewery scene doesn’t entirely surprise you, it will delight you nonetheless. One way to get a broad sampling is to hit the aforementioned Oktoberfest, but you could also just head to the city’s historic downtown, where several of the best breweries are within walking distance of each other.
For the most Flag-specific tasting tour ever, string together three spots that play off distinctive elements of life around here: Mother Road Brewery, whose name is a reference to the local stretch of Route 66 (do yourself and all of Arizona’s endemic species a favor and try the Conserve & Protect Golden Ale); Dark Sky Brewing (where, in the spirit of exploration and experimentation, no recipe is too out there—as demonstrated by crowd favorites like Hot Chocolate Serrano Stout); and Lumberyard Brewing, a handsome architectural relic of Flag’s formerly dominant lumber industry (go for the iconic Flagstaff IPA). If you're a true aficionado—or anyone who'd like to go home with a cool, commemorative pint glass—pick up a passport and follow the craft brewery trail.
A bustling arts scene
As you might imagine, breweries aren’t the only occupants of the evocative old buildings in town. Some of the best performance spaces are worth experiencing for the storied venues alone.
For starters, check out whatever’s on at the turn-of-the-century Orpheum Theater, where this fall will bring everyone from Henry Rollins to Bonobo. At the 1923 Doris Harper-White Community Playhouse (originally the Elks Lodge, then the Flagstaff Library, now an intimate black box venue) the Theatrikos Theatre Company is celebrating 50 years in Flag with the likes of A Doll's House and Miracle on 34th Street. Meanwhile, at the 19th-century Weatherford Hotel, every weekend brings a mix of local and traveling musical acts to the site of a former speakeasy: the Gopher Hole Pub. And in Heritage Square at the heart of Historic Downtown Flagstaff, you can find not just performing artists doing their thing (depending on when you go), but a great intro to the local visual arts, too: The First Friday Artwalks here—which also involve live musical performances—will take you to local galleries, studios and other cool neighborhood businesses. Not that historic architecture is a prerequisite of an incredible arts space, of course.
If you’re going to hit one modern cultural space here, make it the iconic Coconino Center for the Arts.
Must-do day trips
Here in Flag, you’re about 80 miles (they call it a one-coffee drive) from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, so a visit to the iconic national park—complete with stunning hikes, rafting trips and even mule rides—is all but guaranteed while you’re in the neighborhood.
But here in Northern Arizona’s Navajoland, some of the most fascinating and worthy day trips are as much about cultural history as breathtaking landscapes. In fact, now is a particularly poignant moment to be traveling in the Navajo Nation. As you may have seen from the recent official celebrations in D.C., 2022 marks the 80th anniversary of the formation of the famed Navajo Code Talkers project of WWII, whereby local Marine Corps recruits turned their native Diné into an impenetrable code that helped lead the U.S. to victory in the Pacific, and the war at large.
At the Window Rock Navajo Tribal Park & Veterans Memorial, 187 miles from Flagstaff, you’ll find a moving sculpture of one such Marine against a gorgeous natural backdrop that includes the namesake Window Rock, where you can learn about the ceremonial, spiritual and geologic elements of the site. A bit closer to Flag, you’ll find a Code Talker exhibit so unusual and memorable that everyone from Atlas Obscura to Outside has covered it. The Kayenta Burger King—the first fast food restaurant to open in this small reservation town 150 miles from Flagstaff—houses more Code Talker memorabilia than, reportedly, even the Pentagon.
As you’ve no doubt gathered by now, Flagstaff is surrounded by amazing landscapes, and they’re as good at boosting your heart rate as they are your sense of awe—as long as you chart the right course. Considered one of the nation’s best mountain biking towns (and a great training center for Olympians), Flag is home to a number of epic trails.
If you’re a beginner, try the Hart Prairie Trail, where you’ll get some bonus leaf peeping in. If you’ve got more experience, consider the Slim Shady and Llama Trails, some of the best technical riding in existence, according to many a pro. If you prefer your adventure in the form of a hike, consider the Lava Tubes of the Lava River Cave—the result of a volcanic vent eruption near the aforementioned Hart Prairie.
No matter how you choose to adventure your way through the local nature, however, you can help protect it, too: Once you've enjoyed the epic outdoor goodness, you can text WILD4FLAG to 44321 and pledge to benefit the Flagstaff Trails Initiative to keep Flagstaff's wild places wild this fall and beyond.