Flagstaff, at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, is a beautiful town surrounded by a forest of pines and a field of dormant volcanic cones. The Peaks are between 1.8 and 2.8 million years old, depending on the source you read, and are actually one stratovolcano that, according to the latest theory, was originally about 16,000′ high before it blew out like Mt. Ste. Helens did. The result was an inner basin on the east side, with several peaks left on the western side.
All around the Peaks are cinder cones and other volcanoes like Elden Mountain. The shot below is of Sunset Crater, named for the sunset colors of the rock around its top (hard to see on a cloudy day). Sunset is less than a thousand years old.
The history of Flag, as it’s shortened, goes back to the Beale Wagon Trail, which followed a route laid out by Edward Beale and some camels in the 1850’s, though it became a town much later. Pioneers traveled the trail west, and then stagecoaches, and then the tracks of the transcontinental Atlantic and Pacific railroad passing through. Later, Route 66 came to town. Many of the buildings built along Route 66 are still there and Flagstaff is proud of its heritage.
The town is also home to the Lowell Observatory, famous as the place where Pluto, the minor planet, was located. The Museum of Northern Arizona is located northwest of town along US-180. Southwest of town is the Arboretum at Flagstaff, a beautiful and quiet place, filled with flowers, trees, birds and other wildlife.
The Riordan Mansion State Historical Park preserves a unique home, preserved in a turn-of-the-twentieth-century state. It’s a fun place to visit in December, when the mansion is decked out with period Christmas decorations.
After you’ve checked out the town itself, there are lots of things to do in the surrounding area.
It’s just a few miles south to the edge of the Mogollon Rim. I-17 southbound comes out of the trees to the vista of the Verde Valley and the Black Hills mountain range in the far distance.
HINT: Take the time to pull out at the overlook and really look across the valley and look off toward the west and see the red rocks off toward Sedona.
Alternatively, take Alt. AZ-89A from an exit off I-17 just few miles south of Flagstaff and follow it through the forest to an overlook above the top of Oak Creek Canyon.
From there, you can descend into the canyon and have a wonderful drive down to Sedona.
If you’re really feeling brave, you can go down I-17 to exit 320 and take the Schnebly Hill Road into Sedona. I’ve started up that hill and it’s a bouncy ride. 4X4 definitely recommended, for psychological comfort if nothing else!
Westward, I-40 takes you to Williams and on toward Kingman. Eastward,
Walnut Canyon National Monument, Winslow and Holbrook. To the northwest, US-180 runs past Humphreys Peak, the highest point in the state (12,630′ or so (Internet disagreements on the height)) and a sacred mountain for the area tribes. A ski lift climbs the side of Agassiz Peak and it gives a great view out over the plateau to the north and west. The ski lift is open during the summer excepting during periods of lightning. In the fall, the mountain and the surrounding area is decked out in the yellow of Aspens.
The trip north from Flag on US-89 goes along the east face of the peaks and west of
Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments as it heads off toward Cameron, the east entrance to the Grand Canyon south rim, Page, and the Grand Canyon north rim.
The Southwest Chief Amtrak service stops in town too.