The best way to take in Cathedral Rock is by car.
Stay in the heart of the Historic District — a neighborhood filled with craft-beer pubs and inspired southwestern dining — at the Weatherford Hotel. Dating back to the 19th century, the Weatherford (queen suites from $145) has all the accoutrements and storied history of a bustling Old West establishment. In its early days, the place served as a frontiersman’s watering hole, and it was the favored inn — and rumored inspiration — for the prolific 1870s-born Western writer Zane Grey. The Weatherford is filled with cozy nooks, cupola arches, and burnished wood, and the rooms are spacious, simple, and tastefully appointed. Renovations over the past few years have allowed for the necessary upgrades without losing the old pioneer charm. The hotel’s Zane Grey Bar has a third-story wraparound balcony over the Historic District’s main intersection; it’s a perfect place to perch with a cocktail and people watch as the sun sets over the surrounding mountains.
Channel the bygone days of the celluloid cowboy at the Hotel Monte Vista (king suites from $135), where the likes of Jane Russell, Humphrey Bogart, and John Wayne stayed during the heyday of the Hollywood Western, when scores of films were shot with the Flagstaff area’s stunning landscapes as settings. As with all Flagstaff accommodations in the Historic District, the rooms are more quaint and quirky than reminiscent of the Four Seasons, but character goes a long way. Grab a map and head down to the friendly Rendezvous café on the first floor, where locals, experienced hikers, and fellow travelers gather all day to swap information on great trails, new restaurants, and local breweries. At night head to the Monte Vista Lounge under the lobby, a speakeasy dating back to Prohibition, to whet your appetite before heading out (get out of there early or you’ll get pulled to the stage during the twice-weekly karaoke).
Head for the tranquility of the woods at the Little America Hotel Flagstaff. These large, well-appointed rooms offer a little more plush and quiet than the excited bustle of the Historic District. Situated in a wooded 500-acre retreat a few miles from the city center, the Little America offers a resortlike experience. Maybe it’s an Uber ride to Flagstaff’s nightlife, but that’s well worth it for the festive, comfortable grounds and pool, which can be a fine way to freshen up after a day exploring.
The sleek, modern Shift Kitchen and Bar might be one of the most recent additions to Flagstaff’s culinary row, but Shift’s married owners, Dara and Joe Rodger, have been active members of the city’s emerging food scene for years. The locally sourced menu changes frequently, but recent offerings have included lamb tartare ($13), Duroc-pork shank ($40), and a celery panna cotta with peanut butter and pickled raisins ($11).
Grab one of the bar seats and commune with the locals at Root Public House. The whitewashed, airy dining hall is cheery and well-suited for decompressing after an active day out. Conversation flows easily over cocktails like the Root Down ($11), the house’s signature drink, which blends gin, carrot juice, jalapeño bitters, and IPA foam. And don’t skip the kitchen offerings: Braised pork jowl ($12) and the updated Hoppin’ John ($8) of black-eyed peas, local produce, adzuki beans, and bacon make perfect noshing for the trail-fatigued.
Go formal, Flagstaff style — which essentially just means no T-shirts, folks — at the Tinderbox Kitchen. A consistent local favorite, the Tinderbox Kitchen is at the epicenter of the Flagstaff culinary awakening. Small, pleasantly lit, and more date-oriented than neighboring options, Tinderbox serves up well-executed spins on the classics: fried-duck-leg confit ($22); masa-dusted shrimp with jalapeño and pecan polenta ($21). If you’re feeling too commitment-shy for a full dinner or just craving a good cocktail, head next door to the Annex, Tinderbox’s laid-back sister establishment. Essentially a cocktail lounge with food, Annex is an ideal way to get a little taste of the action next door while imbibing smoked drinks or signature shandies ($7). Try the cheesy churro with cheddar chili dust and avocado cream ($7) and the duck-fat doughnuts ($6).
Lace up the kicks and head for the stunning high desert of Sedona, where the famed Cathedral Rock stands illuminated over the otherworldly landscape. Just about any venture outdoors in the Flagstaff area is going to be rewarding, but by far the best way to get around here is by car. The switchbacks along Route 89A toward Sedona cram as much beauty into a 45-minute drive as you’re going to get anywhere in the contiguous United States. Given the sheer number of hiking options in the area, the seasonal variations, and the extremely knowledgeable, oft-opinionated local community, it’s a good idea to ask the nearest Patagonia-clad outdoorsman at any of Flagstaff’s stellar outdoor suppliers for the best hiking picks that week (try Babbitt’s Backcountry Outfitters or Mountain Sports Flagstaff, on North San Francisco Street). Nevertheless, perennial favorites abound: Warm weather brings thrill-seekers to Slide Rock State Park to experience nature’s waterslide. For a tamer outdoor ramble, Red Rock State Park offers easy-to-moderate hikes with gorgeous vistas of Sedona’s famed red sandstone canyons.
Head east along Old Route 66 for a day trip to the Petrified Forest National Park and Painted Desert. Take the park’s jaw-dropping 28-mile auto loop and pass through a staggering variation of landscapes from the petrified fallen giants of millennia-old forests to the Painted Desert’s stunning ochre-stained canyons to the haunting, Mars-like landscape of the purple badlands. This national park’s impressive drivability (you can view nearly all the top gems from the passenger seat), lends itself nicely to mixed groups; make sure you get out of the car for the short jaunts along the Blue Mesa and Painted Desert Rim Trails. More intrepid explorers should check out the visitor’s center for the first-come-first-served day permits to explore the petroglyphs along Martha’s Butte Hike or the eroding bluffs of Devil’s Playground. For those hankering for the flavor of the dustier days of road travel, follow the markers for old Route 66 along the way, where shops — and a few leftover mom-and-pop diners — pepper the deteriorating storefronts, offering up great examples of Navajo handicrafts, petrified wood specimens, and an endless array of mid-century Americana curios.
After dinner head to the Lowell Observatory, set in the hills about a quarter-mile above the Historic District. Flagstaff’s designation as the “world’s first international dark sky city” means star-viewing is taken very seriously. Join in the wonder of the cosmos nightly with the observatory’s powerful Clark telescope, open to the public until 10 p.m. Visitors new to star-peeping need not fret: Educators are on hand to acquaint and assist the celestially illiterate.
From Kyle Merritt, the proprietor of the Historic District’s craft-beer bar Hops on Birch.
A great day trip is up to the Snowbowl on the scenic chairlift. On a clear day, you can even see the Grand Canyon from there. There are two really good trails up there if you feel like hiking: Humphry’s and Kachina. Afterward, you can head to the lodge for a beer.
A cool way to see Flagstaff is on the Urban Trails. I like to head up to the lookout tower on Elden Trail, which has a great view of the city. I’ll do that in the morning and stop in at Wanderlust brewery on the way down to sample some local beers.
The next morning, Martanne’s is the place for a hangover cure.
For the funky and kitschy side of Route 66 and the Flagstaff area, there is no better quick resource than Roadside America, which will certainly steer you toward photo opportunities for your new Facebook profile pic.
Try All Trails and Wander Wisdom for superb guides to local hikes in the Flagstaff and Sedona area (including maps for most trails).
Those fleeing the bright lights of the big city for the wonders of the evening sky would do well to visit flagstaffdarkskies.org, which has great advice about the wheres and whens of the best local star-gazing.