Last Updated on January 18, 2021 by Janet Frost
Flagstaff, AZ is the perfect base camp to explore the beauty of Northern Arizona. In easy daytrips, you can visit Sedona, experience the Grand Canyon, travel Route 66, and explore the San Francisco Peaks. After 3 days in Flagstaff you will fall in love with the variety of history, communities, landscapes and wildlife of Northern Arizona.
Let’s Go! Learn Things about Northern Arizona and Flagstaff…
The Four Seasons of Flagstaff
Flagstaff is located on the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau. The San Francisco Peaks to the north, tower over the city. This region is covered with ponderosa pine forests, cool canyons and red sandstone formations. Flagstaff, with its four seasons, is unique in the state of Arizona. It is often called one of the “sunniest and snowiest” city in the U.S.
Desert-dwellers escape to the cool forests in the unbearable summer heat and 3 days in Flagstaff is just the right amount of time for snowy adventures in the winter. The flamboyant colors of fall in Northern Arizona is a special treat and all of Arizona is ablaze in the spring.
Go! Learn Things about Arizona’s Blooming Desert...
DAY 1: Wagons, Trains and Automobiles through Flagstaff
For the first of our 3 days in Flagstaff we are going to discover the history of Flagstaff. This will include following in the tracks of camels and hopping the rails. I recommend starting at the wonderful Flagstaff Visitor Center in the historic Santa Fe Railroad Depot. This is a great spot to start your historic tour of the area.
The Depot is located at 1 E. Rte 66.
Wagons roll across northern Arizona
Flagstaff, like so many cities in the West, were founded along transportation routes headed to California. In 1860 Lt. Edward Beale was commissioned by the U.S. government to establish an interstate road from Fort Smith, Arkansas to the Colorado River crossing at Fort Mohave, CA. The majority of his work was across northern New Mexico and northern Arizona. One interesting note about Beale’s work; he imported camels to the area to assist with the trail breaking.
Today portions of the Beale Wagon Road can be hiked from the northeast corner of Flagstaff to Law Springs, AZ. It is a 45-mile hiking trail that travels through the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests. Be sure to look out for the trail signs marked with the unusual camel icon. You can find the trailhead info on the HikeArizona website.
Trains pull into Flagstaff
Although Lt Beale was successful in his mission, his passageway was never heavily traveled. Beale’s report gave a glowing review of the resources available around Flagstaff. Unfortunately, the cattle and lumber resources would prove to be too difficult to transport to markets via the rudimentary wagon trail. It would be another form of transportation to bring Flagstaff to its glory.
Transcontinental railways were racing to complete their lines after the Civil War. In 1869 the Union Pacific Railroad brought the two coasts together at Promontory Point in Utah. A myriad of failed partnerships and financial crisis delayed the more southern rail line of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. Following the old Santa Fe Trail and portions of Beale’s Trail the AT&SF finally arrived in Flagstaff in 1882.
At last, the rich resources of northern Arizona could be transported across the country. Cattle and sheep ranchers bought up land and a booming lumber business took off. Quickly, Flagstaff was bustling with merchants, cafes, hotels and saloons to serve the sheepherders, cowboys, lumberjacks and train travelers.
You can still explore these historic buildings in modern day Flagstaff. At the Visitor Center you can find a self-guided Historic Downtown Walking Tour. Also quite entertaining is a self-guided tour with the Flagstaff Public Art Map. There are over 70 pieces of diverse public art all over the Flagstaff area.
Get Your Kicks on Route 66
Route 66 was one of the first U.S. cross country highways. Often referred to as the Mother Road, US 66 was established in 1926. The highway ran 2448 miles, from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, CA. Route 66 was the primary path of migration during the Great Depression. Over the decades, businesses along the route became prosperous due to the growing popularity of the highway.
But, just as railways replaced wagon trails, faster more efficient interstates replaced highways like Route 66. The road was officially replaced in 1985. Today, it remains a part of Americana pop culture. Portions of Route 66 have been designated as a National Scenic Byway.
Discover Flagstaff offers several ways to relive the heydays of Route 66. Dial into the “Walk this Talk” with your phone and let Ted Danson guide you along the Mother Road. AND, be sure to stop in at the Mother Road Brewery for some of my favorite refreshments.
A stroll through the Northern Arizona University (NAU) is the perfect way to round out your walk through Flagstaff history. Just to the south of Mother Road Brewery, you can pick up the NAU Trail which meanders through campus. This university opened in 1899 as a teacher’s college and later advanced to university status in 1966. Be sure to check out the Old Main, the original college building which now houses the NAU Art Museum.
DAY 2: Outdoor Adventure around Flagstaff
The first day covered much of downtown Flagstaff. Now on day 2, we will venture out into the spectacular beauty of Northern Arizona. You could easily spend all 3 days in Flagstaff exploring this outdoor playground. With the San Francisco Peaks in their backyard, and the rare experience of four seasons in Arizona, Flagstaff will meet your hiking, biking, camping, climbing, skiing, off-roading…desires!
Hiking is probably the most popular and accessible of the outdoor options. There are over 130 trails in the area ranging from paved paths to rugged backcountry bushwhacking. You can enjoy mountain meadows, elusive slot canyons, exhilarating canyon rims and staggering climbs. I recommend using either Alltrails or Hikingproject for the specific details of each trail. Keep in mind that downtown Flagstaff is already at 7000 ft elevation and most trails go up from there. Please do your research before heading out, be honest about your hiking skill level and stay hydrated. Also, start early! As I said, hiking is very popular and the trailheads have limited parking.
My most recent hikes have been:
- Red Mountain Trail for an easy but very rewarding end point of slot canyons
- Sycamore Canyon Rim Trail for a moderate hike with great vistas
- Lockett Meadow/Inner Basin Loop for a more difficult climb through amazing aspen forests
My expertise is in hiking, but I can certainly feel the pull of fat tire biking in Flagstaff. Residents of Flagstaff are very committed to their biking whether it be road or fat tire bikes. So there are paved trails throughout the city and out into the forests. There are a plethora of bike shops also that offer rentals.
One important thing to note; most Arizona trails are multi-use, which means you will be sharing with hikers, dogs and in some cases, horses. The great thing about that is that there are just as many choices for bike trails as there are hiking trails. The MTBproject has all the details and ratings for the trails.
Flagstaff sits in the middle of Coconino National Forest, with Kaibab National Forest just to the north around the Grand Canyon and plenty of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land in between. Coconino NF has 11 developed campgrounds. Both Coconino NF and BLM allow dispersed camping along Forest Roads. Dispersed camping means you can camp without a designated or developed site.
There is plenty of wide open spaces in northern Arizona. Maybe your 3 days in Flagstaff will start in the forest.
I cannot cover the wilderness of Northern Arizona without mentioning Dark Skies and star-gazing. There is no better activity after your day of outdoor adventuring. Much of Arizona has been designated as Dark Skies and as such the communities are protective against light pollution. Flagstaff was an early adopter of the concept and has been a Dark Skies City since 2001.
Flagstaff also boasts the Lowell Observatory, an active astronomy center since 1894. In addition, the area has a fascinating piece of astronomy history. A meteorite collided with Earth about 42 miles away from downtown Flagstaff, and it left a giant crater. It continues to be used for US astronaut training, tours, and space education. Meteor Crater and Barringer Space Museum.
Day 3: Beyond Flagstaff
Obviously, there are plenty of options to fill 3 days in Flagstaff. On this third day we will check out some of the other attractions in northern Arizona. Each of these options are full daytrips.
The south rim of the Grand Canyon National Park is the most popular daytrip from Flagstaff. An 1.5 hour trip gets you to the park. You can head north on Hwy 89 and enter the east side of the park, or head north on Hwy 180 and come in on the west side right near the park facilities. Note, that in the winter the east entrance road is closed. Leave Flagstaff early because there is plenty to see at this iconic destination.
There are dozens of viewpoints and free shuttles with several different routes. Keep in mind that hiking in the Canyon is no joke. It is steep and rigorous and temperatures vary dramatically from the rim to the canyon floor. As with all the National Parks, lodging is limited and expensive.
Note: the North Rim is a much longer drive, 4 hours, and as such I don’t consider that a “daytrip”. Do not plan to visit both sides of the canyon in one trip.
I have details on the North Rim in this post.
Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon
Oh, I love Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon! They claim to be the center of some special cosmic energy. While that goes a little far for me, it is certainly a special place. Driving 30 minutes south out of Flagstaff on Hwy 89A is one of Arizona’s best scenic drives. Sedona is a small town nestled in the Oak Creek Canyon and surrounded by the most amazing red rock formations. The weather is near perfect and the outdoor adventures near limitless.
All that being said…unfortunately, Sedona has grown in popularity beyond its small infrastructure. Traffic is a nightmare in town and along the picturesque Hwy 89A.
My answer to this issue is to keep your base camp in Flagstaff rather than in Sedona and plan to get there early in the morning. Just be aware and stay patient because it is place not to be missed!
Visit Cliff Dwellings
There are two options to get a glimpse of cliff dwellings near Flagstaff. Walnut Canyon National Monument and Montezuma’s Castle National Monument.
Walnut Canyon National Monument is closest, just 20 minutes east of Flagstaff. I have not visited this site but I have been to Montezuma’s Castle National Monument and they are very similar. Both sit down in a shaded canyon with paved accessible paths that circle about a mile around the dwellings. The dwellings at Montezuma are built high into the canyon walls and at Walnut Canyon they are lower under canyon ledges.
3 Days in Flagstaff
Certainly 3 days in Flagstaff goes fast. I fell in love with Arizona after I spent a week traveling from Phoenix to Flagstaff. The variety in climates, landscapes, and communities is like no other place I have ever visited. Northern Arizona is truly an outdoor playground and I hope you put aside time to spend 3 days in Flagstaff soon!