Explore the Most Unique Attractions in Flagstaff (Arizona)

Flagstaff beckons with rich history, space exploration and outdoor entertainment

The city of Flagstaff, a jaunt of 250 miles from Las Vegas and less than a four-hour drive, is often overlooked as a destination for visitors looking for a break from the summer heat or a chance to frolic in the beautiful snow-covered playground during winter. The historic 6,909-foot-elevation mountain town grew from its origins as a railroad stop, to a byway on Route 66, to a college town that is home to Northern Arizona University, to a city with an ample supply of breweries and a healthy craft beer culture.

The reasons for making the trek are many, and if you’re a beer fan, exploring the breweries will be an added bonus. Let’s take a look at a few of the city’s claims to fame.

Space Exploration and Star Gazing

Two of the city’s claims to fame are its famed Lowell Observatory, established in 1894, as well as its notoriety as having been the closest to the training grounds for the astronauts training for lunar exploration. Between 1963 and 1972, scientists based in Flagstaff led more than 200 separate geologic field-training exercises for NASA’s astronauts, and every single human that has ever stepped foot on the moon spent time training in Flagstaff. Many were at nearby Sunset Crater, where a version of the Apollo Lunar Roving Vehicle was tested on terrain similar to what would be encountered on the moon.

As for the famed observatory, the historic telescope was where, in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh first discovered the mysterious planet X, later given the name Pluto. Also noteworthy is the fact that in 2001, Flagstaff became the first city in the world to be designated an International Dark Sky City. It’s a haven for stargazers that is enhanced by ordinances dating back to 1958 that limit how many lumens lights in the city limits can emit. 

 I Heart Pluto Festival

My recent trip to Flagstaff in mid-February coincided with both Arizona Beer Week and the I Heart Pluto Festival with its inaugural Cheers to Pluto event and Pluto Pub Crawl, so there was no shortage of special brews for both occasions. This year commemorated the 93rd anniversary of Tombaugh’s discovery of the disputed planet. Flagstaffians take the subject of Pluto’s planetary status quite seriously and virtually everyone I encountered was extremely adamant that Pluto IS a planet.

Although Pluto’s planetary status was long accepted due to the fact that it orbits the Sun and has enough mass (and therefore gravity) to be round, in 2006, members of the International Astronomical Union voted on a resolution that added a third requirement for planethood: that a planet has “cleared the neighborhood” around its orbit. As Pluto shares its orbit with other objects in the Kuiper Belt, the new definition resulted in the reclassification of Pluto to dwarf planet status. But it’s clearly not settled, and remains one of astronomy’s most controversial questions, with numerous planetary scientists firmly implanted on the side of Pluto being a full-fledged planet.

Clark refractor at Lowell Observatory / Courtesy of Lowell Observatory

Dr. Danielle Adams, who happens to be the Lowell Observatory’s Chief Marketing and Revenue Officer and a cultural astronomer, agrees with these planetary scientists.

She says, “There are several fundamental problems with the IAU’s definition, including the requirement that a ‘planet’ must orbit the Sun [which means that not one of the more than 5,000 exoplanets that have been discovered so far are ‘planets’] and the assertion that dwarf planets are not ‘planets’ [yet dwarf galaxies are ‘galaxies’ and dwarf stars are ‘stars’]. Furthermore, the requirement that a ‘planet’ must clear its neighborhood should also exclude the Earth as a planet, as we are continuously discovering and monitoring near-Earth objects (NEOs) that regularly intersect our own orbit.”

For the annual celebration, several of the breweries brew Pluto-themed and -named beers. One of them, Mother Road Brewing, not only brewed Still Air, a fruit ale made with passionfruit (a nod to Tombaugh’s passion for astronomy), but also hosted Cheers to Pluto. This event included a slide presentation of Tombaugh’s life and discoveries by his son Alden and Lowell Observatory Historian Kevin Schindler, as well as the unveiling of the brewery’s limited-edition beer.  

Haunted Digs

While there are several sites reputed to be haunted throughout the city, for a place to stay that has the lion’s share of strange happenings, look no further than the Hotel Monte Vista. It’s centrally situated on San Francisco Street, just a block from the rail station in the heart of the downtown district and is walking distance to several attractions, restaurants and breweries. The ghoulish occurrences are mainly non-threatening and include noises, furniture being moved around, voices and sightings.

But the most disturbing event occurs in room 306, where two prostitutes from Flagstaff’s old Red Light District were murdered in the 1940s. Some have felt they are being watched while in the room and occasionally male guests have reported feeling like they are being smothered—as if someone has put a hand over their mouth and throat. This hotel was my base during my stay and I didn’t experience any of the aforementioned hauntings, but I also did not have the fortune (or misfortune) of staying in the infamous room 306. For a full immersion into the city’s ghostly past, you can check into Freaky Foot Tours (www.freakyfoottours.com), which offers several guided tours to paranormal sites.   

Flagstaff Brewery Trail Passport

A fun way to earn a free pint glass while checking out the city’s breweries is by printing out a copy of the Flagstaff Brewery Trail Passport or picking one up at one of the two Flagstaff Visitors Bureau locations. Simply visit at least five of the city’s breweries, have your passport stamped at each (no purchase required), and then trade in your completed passport for a commemorative souvenir pint glass at one of the two Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau locations. The Passport includes a listing and map of all of the local breweries and the two Visitor centers. 

Nearby Excursions

Just a short half-hour drive from the city is a National Park Service site with two attractions, one natural and one cultural. Sunset Crater is a cinder cone where a volcano erupted around 1085 CE, which you can see for yourself on the one-mile self-guided Lava Flow Trail. Continuing further on the road, you’ll find the Wupatki National Monument, with 800-year-old pueblos dotting the landscape where thousands survived by farming, hunting and gathering.

There are also opportunities for skiing just minutes away at the Arizona Snowbowl on the western slope of Mount Humphreys in the majestic San Francisco Peaks. Slopes are open from mid-November through late April with 777 skiable acres, 55 trails and 8 lifts.

Arizona Snowbowl / Courtesy of Discover Flagstaff

This rundown barely touches the surface of nearby attractions with activities such as hiking, biking, camping, yearly festivals, museums, dining and wildlife viewing. There are too many to fit in all the mentions here, so once you arrive, visit the Flagstaff Visitor Center located in the historic Santa Fe passenger train depot at 1 East Route 66. To help plan your trip beforehand, check out the official Flagstaff Visitor Guide at www.flagstaffarizona.org.

For more vacation ideas, check out these places to escape the heat and hit the beach this summer.

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