Surrounded by ponderosa pine forest in the center of northern Arizona, Flagstaff (pop. 68,000) has long served as an important stop for Native Americans, ranchers, and travelers. The older, downtown part of Flagstaff still offers a bit of frontier feeling, expressed by its many historic buildings. Other parts of this small city may seem like endless lines of motels, restaurants, bars, and service stations, but even here one can find reminders of old Route 66 that once linked Flagstaff with the rest of America.
Downtown is an enjoyable place to stroll, to admire the architecture, and perhaps to sample some of the unique restaurants and shops. Many of the old structures have plaques describing their history. To visit the distant past, when the land rose up, volcanoes erupted, and the early tribes arrived, drop by the Museum of Northern Arizona. To learn about the pioneers of 100 years ago, head over to the Pioneer Historical Museum and the Riordan Mansion State Historic Park. To see the current art scene, swing by Northern Arizona University's galleries, downtown galleries, Coconino Center for the Arts, and the Artists Gallery. For a trip out of this world, visit Lowell Observatory, where astronomers discovered Pluto, or the U.S. Geological Survey, where astrogeologists map celestial bodies.
For the great outdoors, head for the hills—Arizona's highest mountains begin at the northern outskirts of town. In summer, the mountains, hills, and meadows offer pleasant forest walks and challenging climbs. Winter snows transform the countryside into some of the state's best downhill and cross-country skiing areas.
As a local guidebook, Coconino County, the Wonderland of America, put it in 1916, Flagstaff "offers you the advantages of any city of twice its size; it has, free for the taking, the healthiest and most invigorating of climates; its surrounding scenic beauties will fill one season, May–Nov., full to overflowing with enjoyment the life of any tourist, vacationist, camper or out doors man or woman who will but come to commune with nature."
It's obvious that Flagstaff was named for a flagpole. The question is, which one? The first group of settlers to arrive from Boston claimed to have erected a flagpole in April or May of 1876, before the July 4th celebration held by the second Boston group later that year. The stripped pine tree left by the second group at their Antelope Spring camp may have been the pole that served as the town's namesake. Later travelers referred to the spot as the spring by the flag staff. As the first sheep ranchers settled nearby, the area became known as Flag Staff, then finally Flagstaff.
However some early settlers regarded a tall tree, trimmed of all branches, at the foot of McMillan Mesa as the flagstaff. Others disputed this idea, stating that Lieutenant Edward Beale had delimbed the tree in the 1850s or that it was the work of a later railroad-surveying party. No record actually exists of a flag ever flying from the tree. At any rate, citizens gathered in the spring of 1881 and chose the name "Flagstaff" for the settlement.
Flagstaff has many free parking spaces along the streets, by the Visitor Center, and in a few lots; these generally have a two-hour limit. Two free all-day lots lie just south of the railroad tracks near the Visitor Center: turn south on Beaver Street from Route 66, then make the first right; RVs can park in an adjacent lot by turning right on Phoenix Avenue (the next street) then right into the parking area.
Museum of Northern Arizona
Set beside a little canyon in a ponderosa pine forest three miles northwest on US 180 from downtown, this active museum (3101 N. Fort Valley Rd., 928/774-5213, www.musnaz.org, noon–5 p.m. Sun. and 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.-Sat., $10 adults, $9 seniors 65+, $7 students with I.D., $6 ages 10–17, $6 American Indians 10+) features excellent displays of the geology, archaeology, anthropology, cultures, and fine art of the Colorado Plateau. The attractive building of dark volcanic stone and tile roofs encloses courtyards filled with native flora. A visit is highly recommended for anyone planning to visit the reservations of northern Arizona, to buy Native American crafts, or to better understand the natural history of the Grand Canyon area.
Turn right in the lobby to see the Archaeology Gallery, where a timeline of Native Americans illustrates their stages of development during prehistoric times. Pottery, jewelry, a kiva mural from Awatovi, and other beautiful findings show the creativity of these early peoples. Next, the Ethnology Gallery introduces the modern tribes, along with impressive jewelry displays. The Kiva Gallery displays Hopi kachina dolls, textiles, pottery, and a kiva with a contemporary mural. Changing exhibits in other halls always have something new about the land and people of the region. You'll also see a variety of paintings and sculpture by Native American and Southwestern artists. The Babbitt Gallery contains superb prehistoric pottery collections and modern work by tribal artisans.
Popular museum-sponsored events showcase the finest arts and crafts: Hopi Marketplace runs on the weekend nearest July Fourth; Navajo Marketplace is on the first weekend in August; Native Artists Marketplace represents Zuni, Pai, and other Colorado Plateau tribes on the first weekend in September; and the Hispanic Festival Celebrations de la Gente takes place on the last weekend of October, close to the Day of the Dead.
A bookstore stocks an excellent selection of books, posters, and music related to the region. The museum shop sells high-quality Native American work, including Navajo blankets, jewelry (by Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni), Hopi kachina dolls, and pottery by several tribes. Rio de Flag Nature Trail introduces local flora in the little canyon beside the museum; borrow the trail booklet—both adult and children's versions are available—from the ticket desk. To delve deeper into Southwest topics, visit the museum's excellent library (928/774-5211, ext. 256, call for hours) across the highway in the Research Center.
After completion in 1908, this venerable stone building served 30 years as the Coconino County Hospital for the Indigent. Townspeople also knew it as the "poor farm"—because stronger patients grew vegetables in the yard.
Permanent and changing exhibits (2340 N. Fort Valley Rd., 928/774-6272, www.arizonahistoricalsociety.org, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Sat., $6 adult, $5 senior 65+, $3 youth 7-17) illustrate many aspects of life in Flagstaff's pioneering days. Old photos and artifacts tell the stories of ranchers, timber men, scientists, explorers, and families. A giant stuffed bear greets you on the second floor; slip by the beast to see a restored nurse's room and more galleries. Exhibits here may include memorabilia of Percival Lowell and his observatory and the camera gear and photos of Emery Kolb, who came to the Grand Canyon in 1902, set up a photo studio with his brother Ellsworth, and continued showing movies and stills until 1976.
Downstairs, there's a small gift shop with books, pioneer-style toys, and crafts. On the last weekend in May or the first weekend in June, the Wool Festival features shearing and other skills. The Independence Day Festival demonstrates traditional crafts on the weekend nearest July Fourth. Playthings of the Past marks the winter holiday season.
Outside, you can peer into the restored early 20th-century Ben Doney Cabin, moved here from a site east of town. A working blacksmith shop, often in use in summer, and old farm machinery lie behind the museum. The powerful 1929 steam locomotive out front once served the logging industry. From downtown, the museum lies on the right just past Sechrist School, about two miles northwest on US 180.
Coconino Center for the Arts
Located at 2300 N. Fort Valley Road behind the Pioneer Museum, this arts center (928/779-2300, http://flagartscouncil.org/) stages a variety of performances and exhibits through the year. Some pieces are for sale. Call or check the website first, as the Center may close between exhibitions.
Percival Lowell (1855-1916) founded the observatory in 1894, using his personal fortune to fund a search for signs of intelligent life on Mars. The observatory's early contributions to astronomy included spectrographic photographs by V.M. Slipher that resulted in the discovery of the expanding universe, and Clyde Tombaugh's 1930 discovery of Pluto. Research continues with telescopes here, at Anderson Mesa 12 miles southeast of town, and at other locations.
In the Steele Visitor Center (928/233-3211, www.lowell.edu, $12 adults, $11 university students and seniors 65+, $6 ages 5–17), you can explore the field of astronomy with interactive exhibits and see many examples of instruments used by astronomers over the years. Informative 90-minute tours begin with a multimedia program illustrating the history and work of the observatory; you'll then visit the 1896 24-inch Clark refractor telescope used to study Mars and the expanding universe and to map the Moon for lunar expeditions. The tour continues to the Rotunda, designed as a library by Lowell's wife but completed only in 1916—the year of Lowell's death. Inside you can see the spectrograph used in the discovery of the expanding universe and other historic exhibits, such as the Pluto photographic plates, with the same view Tombaugh enjoyed at the instant he found Pluto. The final stop on the tour visits the specially designed telescope used to discover Pluto. You're free to join and leave the tours as you wish and explore the grounds on your own, but you can see interiors only with the tour guide. A solar viewing program takes place daily if the clouds cooperate; call for the time.
The visitor center is open 9 a.m.–10 p.m. daily in summer (June–Aug.), 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Sun. and 9 a.m.–9:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat. in spring (March–May) and autumn (Sept.–Oct.), then noon–9:30 p.m. Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat and noon–5 p.m. Tue, Thu, Sun. in winter (Nov.–Dec.). A bookstore has good reading along with posters and videos. The entry fee includes the Mars and Pluto guided tours that alternate hourly on the hour.
At night, the visitor center reopens for multimedia shows and telescope viewing (weather permitting); the cost is the same as for a daytime visit. Note that the Clark Telescope is closed for renovation through mid-2015, but will be included on the daytime tours when possible. The observatory offers many special events through the year, so it's worth checking the website or calling to see what's coming up.
The observatory sits atop Mars Hill, one mile from downtown; head west on Route 66 and continue straight on Santa Fe Avenue where the business route curves left. In winter the steep road up Mars Hill requires caution and often snow chains.
The ancients recorded five bright star-like wandering bodies. Later generations figured out that these—and Earth as well—are planets. While conducting star surveys in 1781, William Herschel discovered a seventh planet, now known as Uranus, which had been plotted on sky charts at least two dozen times as a star. Astronomers used these positions to plot the planet's orbit, but Uranus was not moving according to Newton's mechanics. In the early 1820s it was moving too slowly, but by the end of that decade it was moving too fast.
British astronomer John Couch Adams and French astronomer Urbain Leverrier, working independently, performed laborious calculations based on the assumption that the gravitational pull of an undiscovered eighth planet was affecting Uranus' movement. Both men's predicted positions for the new planet were very close and a short telescopic search soon revealed the "new" planet, which was named Neptune.
Neptune had also been plotted as a star on several charts before its 1846 discovery. Again, the planet did not seem to be following a perfect orbit. Several astronomers started calculations to find a ninth planet, which they dubbed "Planet X." Percival Lowell spent years figuring a position for Planet X but did not have suitable telescopes to search the sky for it. Since his main interest lay in finding signs of life on Mars, his instruments were powerful, but did not show wide-angle views, and they were so slow photographically that some exposures required guidance hour after hour—night after night in some cases—for a single photograph.
Lowell died before a suitable telescope could be built, and the sky search for Planet X did not begin again for more than a decade. Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell (Percival's brother) donated money to build a small but wide-angled and photographically fast telescope. This instrument exposed plates 14 inches by 17 inches covering a field 12 by 14 degrees and required less than an hour of exposure. Each plate showed between 40,000 and one million stars. Since the distant planet was too far away to be recognizable as one by any telescope, only its motion against the background of stars as it circled the Sun would reveal it as a planet. Thus, each plate would be duplicated several days later and then each star image would be compared from plate to plate until one of the "stars" was found to have moved a distance appropriate for a planet that far from the Sun.
Twenty-two-year-old Kansas farm boy and astronomy student Clyde Tombaugh set to work exposing the plates by night and using a blink comparator by day to conduct the search. The blink comparator would flash a view of part of one plate through a microscope eyepiece, then flash a view of the corresponding section of a second plate. If an object had moved, it would appear in the eyepiece as if it were jumping back and forth. That sounds easy, but Tombaugh examined hundreds of thousands of star images during a search of about nine months before finding one that moved an appropriate distance. He also found some asteroids and variable stars in the process.
Although Tombaugh discovered Pluto on February 18, 1930, using plates made on January 23 and January 29, Lowell Observatory cautiously waited to announce the new planet, studying its motion in the meantime to verify that it was truly the long-sought Planet X. The announcement was made on March 13, 1930—the 75th anniversary of Lowell's birth.
Many people wanted to name the new planet for Percival Lowell; others favored Clyde Tombaugh. An English schoolgirl sent in the winning suggestion "Pluto" in honor of the Greek god of the underworld, brother of Jupiter and Neptune. The planet's astronomical symbol became "P" with an "L" bottom stem. This abbreviation for Pluto also represented Percival Lowell's initials and honored his contribution.
U.S. Geological Survey Flagstaff Science Campus
Spectacular photos, maps, and other exhibits here (2255 N. Gemini Dr., Flagstaff, AZ 86001, 928/556-7000, http://arizona.usgs.gov/FSC/visitor.html, 7:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri., free) illustrate scientific work done here on Earth and beyond. When the facility opened in 1963, staff produced maps of the Moon for the Apollo lunar landings. Astronauts received geologic training and tested their equipment here, and were later guided while on the Moon by geologists from the Center. Since then, the Astrogeology Branch has broadened to map and study the planets and other solid bodies of our solar system using data collected from space missions. The geology of the Moon and most solid-surfaced planets and their satellites has been mapped in surprising detail. Even cloud-covered Venus gave up many of her secrets through radar images with computer-generated color. Scientists at the Center also investigate and monitor stream flows in the Grand Canyon and water resources on nearby Native American lands. Geologic maps created here help define our landscape and what lies beneath it.
Building 6, the Shoemaker Center for Astrogeology, displays recent color images from spacecraft in "A Walk Through the Solar System" and other hallway exhibits; you can delve deeper into science in the research library. You'll also learn about Eugene M. Shoemaker (1928–97), who organized and led the Center of Astrogeology. Exhibits in Powell Building 3 focus on the Earth, especially the geology and hydrology of the Grand Canyon region. Dutton Building 4 exhibits cover wide-ranging research in the Southwest and additional planetary exhibits.
Remember that the people working here are normally too busy to show visitors around. Also, don't enter offices or labs unless invited. Groups can arrange tours with advance notice. The Center lies atop McMillan Mesa off Forest Avenue/Cedar Avenue, 1.5 miles northeast of downtown. Nearby Buffalo Park is a good place to go for a walk or hike.
Riordan Mansion State Historic Park
The Riordan brothers, Timothy and Michael, arrived in Flagstaff during the mid-1880s and eventually took over the Arizona Lumber & Timber Company. Both became involved in the social, business, and political life of early Flagstaff. In 1904, they built a grand mansion just south of downtown. A "Rendezvous Room" connected the wings occupied by each brother's family. The architect Charles Whittlesey, who also designed El Tovar Hotel on the rim of the Grand Canyon, used a similar rustic style of logs and stonework for the mansion exterior. The brothers christened their joint home Kinlichi, Navajo for "Red House."
The park (409 W. Riordan Rd., 928/779-4395, http://azstateparks.com/parks/rima/index.html, $10 adults, $5 ages 7–13; 9:30 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Thurs.-Mon.; tours start at the top of the hour at 11 a.m., noon, 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m., and 4 p.m.; call for winter hours and to make recommended tour reservations) offers tours of 50–60 minutes in Timothy's side of the house that reveal life in Flagstaff during the early 1900s. All the rooms still display original furnishings, most in the Arts and Crafts Style. The wing occupied by Michael's family has exhibits that you can see on your own. You can compare the two sides of the house, which mirror each other.
Open year-round, it's best to phone in advance for tour reservations. There's no charge to see the exhibits in the visitor center or to take the self-guided tour of the grounds. You can picnic under the pines near the parking area. You'll find this piece of historic Flagstaff between S. Milton Road and Northern Arizona University, about a half mile south of downtown; turn east on Riordan Road toward NAU from S. Milton Road, then turn right at the sign, opposite Ardrey Auditorium.
Northern Arizona University (NAU)
Flagstaff's character and population owe much to this school, just south of downtown. The university began in 1899 as Northern Arizona Normal School, housed in a vacant reformatory building. Four young women received their diplomas and teaching certificates two years later.
In 1925 the school began offering a four-year Bachelor of Education degree and took the name Northern Arizona State Teachers College. The program broadened over the years to include other degrees, a program in forestry, and graduate studies. In 1966 the institution became a university. NAU's sprawling campus now covers 686 acres, supplemented by the School of Forestry's 4,000-acre laboratory forest. The High Altitude Training Center's programs attract athletic teams from around the world to improve their performance in the thin mountain air.
The 1893 Old Main building, on McMullen Circle in the northern part of campus, houses changing exhibits of the Old Main Art Gallery on the second floor and a permanent collection of fine art and furniture in the Marguerite Hettel Weiss Gallery on the third floor. Be ready for almost anything in the Richard E. Beasley Gallery upstairs in the Fine and Performing Arts Building, south on Knoles Drive, where changing shows feature contemporary art. Call 928/523-3471 or check www.nau.edu to find what's showing at the galleries; they're open Mon.–Sat. except between shows.
Northern Arizona University Observatory (928/523-7170), built by the U.S. Air Force as an atmospheric research observatory in the early 1950s, is now an educational tool for university students and the general public. Volunteers, mostly astronomy club members, hold an open house most clear Friday nights at 7:30 p.m. with special open nights for astronomical events such as eclipses and occultations. It's off S. San Francisco Street adjacent to a high-rise dormitory and practice field.
Wall Aquatic Center (Franklin Ave. between S. Beaver and S. San Francisco Sts., 928/523-4508), on the north side of campus, contains a large indoor swimming pool that's open to the public. Call or check the Web for the schedule.
To learn about NAU services and events, call or visit the University Union Information Desk (928/523-4636, www.nau.edu). The university's FM radio station KNAU broadcasts classical music and National Public Radio programs at 88.7 MHz.
Mountain Campus Transit (928/523-5052) connects the northern and southern parts of the main campus; ask someone for the location of the stop nearest you. To park on campus, pick up a visitor's permit from the Parking Services/Visitor Information office (928/523-3591, 7:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Mon.–Fri.) in the Centennial Building at the southwest corner of Dupont Avenue and S. Beaver Street. After hours you can obtain a parking permit from the police office at Lumberjack Stadium off S. San Francisco Street.
The Arboretum at Flagstaff
At 7,150 feet elevation, the Arboretum (928/774-1441, www.thearb.org, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Sun.–Thurs. from April 1 to Oct. 31, $8.50 adults, $6 seniors 65+, $3 youth 5–17) is the highest botanical garden in the U.S. doing horticultural research. Plant researchers study native and non-native flora, including rare and endangered species that thrive in the cool climate of the Flagstaff area. About 2500 species of plants and trees grow on the 200-acre grounds, despite the short 75-day average growing season. You'll get a great introduction to the flora of the Colorado Plateau here, as well as learn about landscaping and gardening possibilities. Check the website for times of Wild Birds of Prey Demonstrations, family events, concerts, classes, workshops, festivals, plant sales, and other special programs. The variety of habitats attracts many birds; call or check the website for information on guided birdwalks. Summer (June–Sept.) is the best time to visit.
Tours of about 60 minutes, which begin at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., introduce ongoing projects and take you through the solar greenhouse and outdoor gardens, which you can also see on your own. Children enjoy exploring a garden based on the Peter Rabbit story and getting lost in the Maze. A nature trail through the ponderosa pine forest has a 0.6-mile inner loop and a one-mile outer loop. Exhibits in the visitor center rotate throughout the season between fine art and natural history exhibitions. A gift shop offers books, cards, a bird list (also available online), seeds, and gardening supplies.
You're welcome to bring a picnic (tables are available), but no pets. From S. Milton Road in Flagstaff, head west 1.9 miles on Route 66, then turn south four miles on Woody Mountain Road.
The resourceful Sinagua tribe lived at this site below Mt. Elden about A.D. 1150. Some of the pueblo, including a large community room, has been excavated. A leaflet explains and illustrates features of the ruin, open during daylight hours; free. From I-40 Exit 201, head north 2.1 miles on US 89 past the Flagstaff Mall and the Flagstaff Ranger District to the signed turn on the left, just before the Camp Townsend-Winona Road.
Scenic Sky Ride
Hop on this chairlift at the Arizona Snowbowl for the most leisurely way to the heights. You'll be swept from 9,500 to 11,500 feet and treated to fantastic views. The Sky Ride (928/779-1951, www.arizonasnowbowl.com, $15 adult, $10 seniors 65–69, $10 kids 8–12; free for seniors 70 and over and kids 7 and under) operates 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and holiday Mondays from Labor Day until mid-October, weather permitting; check website or call for special events. Be sure to bring a jacket as it's cool up here and storms can sweep in. A restaurant serves lunch. To reach the Snowbowl, drive northwest seven miles from downtown on US 180, then turn right seven miles up paved Snowbowl Road.
Although you're not permitted to hike from or to the upper chairlift station, hikers headed for Humphrey's Peak may take the Humphrey's Peak or Weatherford Trails, described under San Francisco Peaks. Agassiz Peak above you is closed to protect fragile alpine vegetation, including Senecio franciscanus, found only on the San Francisco Peaks.
On to Flagstaff Entertainment
On to Walnut Canyon National Monument