By Jennifer Broome
After spending three days road tripping from Prescott to Sedona, Northern Arizona offers plenty of other things to see and do with just a little drive farther north to Flagstaff. Explore the city’s lunar legacy, its rich Route 66 history, and see the grandest landscape in America at nearby Grand Canyon National Park.
This was my third visit to Flagstaff, and, this time, I wanted something more unique for my accommodations—the historic Inn at 410. Built in 1894 as a single-story one-bedroom residence, this AAA Three Diamond-designated bed and breakfast is in Flagstaff’s “Nob Hill” district, and only a couple blocks from the heart of downtown.
Owner Gordon Watkins told me “it was pushed out and up” in 1907, when it was converted into a two-story Craftsman-style bungalow. Over the years, Inn at 410 has gone through a series of renovations, including once a fraternity house, but now offers nine spacious rooms that are uniquely decorated in early 1900s décor.
I stayed on the ground floor, in the Southwest Room, which has an oversized king bed next to one of the original brick walls, a kiva-style fireplace, and separate seating room with a jacuzzi tub. It’s the perfect place for a solo traveler or couples. If you’re traveling with kids or pets, the AAA Three Diamond-designated Residence Inn by Marriott in downtown Flagstaff is a great place to stay.
If it’s your first time to Flagstaff, I suggest heading to the Grand Canyon. It’s an easy 90-minute drive to the South Rim Visitor Center. Grab a quick breakfast at Eat n’ Run on Route 66. The cycling-themed eatery is equal parts coffee bar and artisan sandwich shop. My picks are the breakfast tacos and Arizona sunrise smoothie. And if you order a sandwich to go, you’ll be covered for lunch.
In my opinion, winter is the best time to visit the Grand Canyon, as you’ll avoid droves of tourists—90 percent of which visit the South Rim. Plus, a dusting of snow on the colorful red rock landscape is extra special. December through February is the only time 7-mile Hermit Road is open to private vehicles, and the 22-mile Desert View Drive, east of the visitor center, is dotted with pull-off spots. The Desert View Watchtower is temporarily closed because of COVID-19, but Grandview, Moran, Lipan, and Navajo Points offer spectacular panoramic views.
If you go, currently the South Rim is the only accessible entrance to Grand Canyon. The East entrance (Desert View) is in Navajo Nation and is currently closed because of COVID-19, and in winter, the North Rim (5.5 hours from the South Rim) is only accessible for day use by foot, skis or snowshoes.
I have already been to the Grand Canyon, but I wanted to check out three other nearby national monuments. I started my day at MartAnne’s Breakfast Palace. This colorful family-owned eatery is “the house that chilaquiles built,” and the huevos a la Mexicana is my favorite Mexican breakfast. Go hungry because the dishes are huge.
I thought it was an overachieving feat to visit all three monuments in a half-day, but I found it easily doable. Walnut Canyon National Monument is a 10-minute drive from downtown Flagstaff, where the Sinagua people lived between 1100 and 1250. After taking in the view from the visitor center’s overlook, I hiked down a 273-step staircase and along the Island Trail. You can see more than 300 dwellings, including about 70 living spaces along the one-mile loop trail.
From Walnut Canyon, I drove to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, about 19 miles north of Flagstaff. The volcano erupted between 1040 and 1100. You can see the cinder cone that formed during the eruption’s early stages. I hiked the one-mile Lava Flow Trail to explore the unique topography where every astronaut, who has walked on the moon, has trained.
Continuing my drive along this scenic loop to my last destination of Wupatki National Monument. My first stop here was the grandest pueblo in the national monument–Wukoki Pueblo, a castle-like dwelling towering over the desert landscape. I walked the half-mile trail at Wupatki Pueblo and made quick stops at the Citadel and Box Canyon Ruins, which I had to myself.
After a 40-minute drive back to downtown Flagstaff, my next stop was the Museum of Northern Arizona, which has worked with native tribes for more than 90 years. I was enthralled with the museum’s anthropology, biology, fine art, and geology collections. My favorite gallery was the Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau, which tells the stories of the 10 area through clothing, pottery, and daily life objects. I could have easily spent hours in this gallery, as well as the Babbitt Gallery, filled with handmade jewelry by the Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni tribes. If you visit, advanced tickets are required due to COVID-19.
I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Route 66 and Flagstaff’s historic downtown. I headed over to the Flagstaff Visitor Center, in the historic train depot, grabbed a couple of self-guided walking tour pamphlets. and bought the guidebook Flagstaff Historic Walk: A Stroll Through Old Downtown. Of course, while I was here, I had to take a picture with the Route 66 mural and in the life-size astronaut suit.
I began exploring Flagstaff’s Southside Historic District listening to the Walk This Talk audio tour. After seeing some of the iconic drive-in hotels and other sites, I wandered north of Route 66 and admired the architecture of buildings dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. On my leisurely stroll, I warmed up with a masala chai tea at Steep Leaf Lounge, then popped into a couple of boutiques and galleries. Don’t miss two more beautifully painted murals: the Mother Mural, which takes you through the history of the iconic road, and the Sound of Flight mural, near the Orpheum Theatre—at 4,500 square feet, it’s the largest mural in Arizona.
For dinner, I ordered to go from Brix, a AAA Three Diamond-designated, wine bar and restaurant housed in the carriage house, adjunct to Inn at 410. The cheese board and charred cauliflower made for a delightful light dinner, as I relaxed in my spacious room.
Feeling fueled and rejuvenated, I was ready for one last escapade before turning in for the night. Flagstaff was the world’s first international dark skies city, so I bundled up for an evening of stargazing at Lowell Observatory, home to the historic Clark Refractor built in 1896, and where Pluto was discovered in 1930. The observatory was used to create lunar maps for the Apollo moon missions. Looking through the telescopes to see galaxies thousands of light years away had me dreaming of space travel. Currently the observatory is only taking reservations for private stargazing sessions for groups of 10 or less in its phased reopening.
To cap off the night, I couldn’t pass up a long soak in my room’s jacuzzi tub. It was the perfect ending to an adventurous day in Flagstaff.
Jennifer Broome is a frequent contributor to EnCompass, and a freelance television personality, speaker, travel journalist, and blogger. She has traveled to all 50 states and 37 countries. She’s an avid hiker, skier, and adventurer. Follow her on Instagram @jenniferbroometv.