Explore Flagstaff Arizona – history, culture & the great outdoors

“Flagstaff, Arizona, Don’t forget Winona” from the song (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 — Bobby Troup

Flagstaff, set on Historic Route 66, is the perfect base for exploring Northern Arizona.  Spend a few days here while you explore Flagstaff Arizona and the surrounding area. It’s also a gateway to Grand Canyon and close to other must-see places including Hopi Mesa and the Arizona portion of Route 66.

Come explore Flagstaff Arizona with us

Riordan Mansion State Park

The Craftsmnn-style Riordan Mansion built in 1903 at Riordan Mansion State Park, Flagstaff AZ was once home to two brothers and their families , photo Steve Collins

The Craftsmnn-style Riordan Mansion Flagstaff AZ photo/Steve Collins

Riordan Mansion State Historic Park is home to the Craftsman-style house that the Riordan family (pronounced Reardon), one of Flagstaff’s most prominent families, once called home. Matt Riordan was the first of the brothers to relocate to the town from Chicago arriving in the early 1880s. He became the manager at the Ayer Lumber Mill, which he later bought and turned into The Arizona Lumber and Timber Company. His brothers Mike and Tim joined him and later took over the business. Mike and Tim married Elizabeth and Caroling Metz, two sisters from Cincinnati. In 1904, they hired architect Charles Whittlesey, the man who designed El Tovar at Grand Canyon for Fred Harvey, to built them a family home. The 13,000 square foot building houses two almost identical dwellings – Tim’s family lived on the house’s east side and Mike’s family on the west. The two sides are connected by a large common room where both families would gather.

The imposing structure, called “Kinlichi,” a Navajo (Diné) word meaning “red house,” was built from native stone, log planks and wood shingles. The Arts and Crafts style log mansion is an ode to that genre. The home is furnished with a combination of Mission style (they have wonderful Stickley pieces as well as those from other furniture-makers) and Craftsman furnishings and accessories many of which are museum quality. There were also southwest decorative accents including American Indian pottery.

The Riordan family donated the mansion and much of its contents to Arizona State Parks in 1978 The residing members of the family retained life estates. The East side of the house was opened to the public as Riordan Mansion State Park in 1983. Blanch Riordan Chambers continued to live in the west wing until her death in 1985. It was opened to the public in 1986.

The interiors were pretty much intact when the state took over. Luckily, the houses stayed in the family and little was done in the way of renovation and modernization over the years. The east side where Tim and Carolyn and their children lived in is still furnished, much as it was back in the day. The side where Mike and Elizabeth lived is now a museum. Riordan Mansion, now an Arizona State Park overseen by the Arizona Historical Society, can only be seen on a group tour. Check the park’s website for hours of operation and tour times as they vary seasonally. There is a charge for the tours and reservations are recommended as space is limited.

Northern Arizona Museum

Hopi mural at Northern Arizona Museum Flagstaff AZ, photo Billie Frank

Hopi mural at Northern Arizona Museum, photo/Billie Frank

The Museum of Northern Arizona tells the story of the native peoples of the Colorado Plateau, mainly the Navajo (Diné) and Hopi. The museum is renowned for its collection of Hopi overlay jewelry. The museum was founded in 1928 by Harold Colton and his wife Mary-Russell Ferrell Colton. He was a scientist and she was an artist. The museum reflects both of their passions. Mrs. Colton worked with the Hopi to help develop a unique silversmithing style for their jewelry. She encouraged them to use the iconic symbols from their pottery on the jewelry and the Hopi overlay style was born.

The Babbitt Gallery, underwritten by the Babbitt family (former Governor Bruce Babbitt was descended from them), pioneers in Flagstaff, houses Histories in Clay, a permanent exhibition featuring over 150 prehistoric and contemporary ceramic vessels, a comprehensive collection of Zuni pottery from on ancient to modern times as well as 170 pieces of handmade Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, and Rio Grande jewelry. Pottery and basket fragments discovered in Tim’s Cave, a site near Sedona, abandoned for 500 years and rediscovered in 1991, are also on display in the gallery.

The Ethnology Gallery follows the history of the peoples of the Colorado Plateau, an area which covers a large part of the southwest radiating from the Four Corners region. There’s also a book store and gift shop. Besides that museum building, the campus encompassing over 200 acres campus is also home to research facilities and extensive walking trails. They offer a behind the scenes tour once a month. Reserve your space as tours can fill up.

San Francisco Peaks and the Arizona Snowbowl

Autumn view from chairlift at Arizona Bowl San Francisco Peaks, photo Steve Collins

Autumn view from chairlift at Arizona Bowl San Francisco Peaks photo/Steve Collins

San Francisco Mountain, comprised of a series of peaks and known locally as the San Francisco Peaks is a sacred place to many area tribes. For the Navajo who call it Dook’o’oosłííd (the summit that never melts), it marks the western boundary of their lands. The Hope believe the Kachina spirits live at the top of the mountain. It’s also a sacred place to the Zuni, Havasupai and Yavapai-Apache. Each has its own name for the dormant volcanic peaks

In winter, the Arizona Snowbowl attracts skiers, who come for the over 260 inches of snow they average annually. It’s 9,500 feet above sea leave at the at the parking lot and 11,500 at the top of the main chairlift. The resort engendered a bit of controversy for using reclaimed treated waste water to make snow which some Native Americans feel is a desecration of this area that is sacred to them. This practice also has come under fire from environmentalists.

The main lift is open for scenic rides from around Memorial Day through peak leaf season in October. We rode the chair on a sunny October day as guests of the Snowbowl. The ride takes about a half-hour each way. While there is some scenery to enjoy on the way up, the return journey has truly spectacular views. On a clear day you can see Grand Canyon’s North Rim. It was a bit hazy, but we were just able to make it out. The fall colors on the mid-October morning were a vibrant yellow from the aspen trees which were mostly at their peak. There are lots of hiking trails in the area as well.

Lowell Observatory

Slipher Building Rotunda a Lowell Observatory Flagstaff AZ, photo courtesy Lowell Observatory

Slipher Building Rotunda a Lowell Observatory, courtesy Lowell Observatory

We meant to get to the Lowell Observatory to view the night skues when we visited Flagstaff but our time got away from us. We’re including it in this post as it is an important part of the Flagstaff visitor experience and plan make getting there a priority on our next visit. To get information, I spoke with Josh Bangle their media liaison and did a bit of online research.

The Lowell Observatory was founded in 1894 by astronomer A. E. Douglass at the behest of Percival Lowell, a member of Boston’s prestigious Lowell family. His sister Amy was a renowned poet and his brother Abbott was President of Harvard. Douglass traveled to Arizona looking for the perfect spot for his telescope. He wanted a place that offered high elevation, clear night skies and accessibility. Flagstaff, under the leadership of Matt Riordan, courted Douglass, offering the project 10 to 15 acres of their choosing for one dollar and also pledged to build and maintain a wagon road between the railway and the observatory.

The Clark Telescope, a registered National Historic Landmark, has been at the Lowell Observatory since 1895. Lowell commissioned the state-of-the-art 24-inch refracting telescope from Massachusetts firm Alvan Clark & Sons. Many significant astronomical findings were made using this powerful tool. The Clark Telescope was so advanced it still in service in the 1960s when it was used to create detailed maps of the moon later used by the Apollo Moon Mission. The telescope, no longer used in astronomical research, is open to the public both during dedicated daytime tours and evenings for night sky-watching. You’ll find information on tours and other activities on their website.

Walnut Canyon National Monument

Walnut Canypon National Monument Flagstaff AZ Photo Steve Collins

Welcome to Walnut Canyon, photo/Steve Collins

Walnut Canyon National Monument, east of Flagstaff, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2015, is a small site. As early as 600 A. D, hunter-gathers were in the area. Later it was home to the people known as the Sinagua. These early people that archeologists named for Sierra de Sin Agua (mountains without water), the old Spanish name for the area, lived there from 1100 to 1225. They constructed cliff dwellings which remain today. To see these take the one mile loop Island Trail which descends into the canyon via about 240 steps- the equivalent of climbing an eighteen story building. You can do them gradually. Remember that at 6,700 feet above sea level it could be more challenging than you might think if you live at sea level. Once in the canyon the trail is flat. The trail will take you past a series of rooms from the cliff dwellings. If the descent is too steep for you there is an easy, wheelchair accessible rim trail that is easier to navigate that will take you past several ancestral cliff dwellings. There’s also a small museum to visit.

Walk historic Flagstaff

"America's Highway part of a colorful mural we found on Phoenix Street on Flagstaff AZ'a Southside

We found this colorful Mural on Phoenix on Flagstaff’s historic Southside”, photo/Billie Frank

If you like historic buildings as we do, you’ll enjoy wondering through downtown Flagstaff where business buildings date from the late 18th and 19th century. Many now house shops or restaurants catering to college students and tourists, but some treasures remain pretty much as they were. The Monte Vista Hotel and the Hotel Weatherford are two historic hotels that are still in business. The late Victorian Weatherford on Leroux Street, opened in 1900, has an inviting wrap-around porch on the second story and is topped with a pointed cupola. An increase of tourism along Route 66 in the 1920s catalyzed the Monte Vista which opened in 1927. The ghost sign on the side of the building that used to house Babbitt Brothers is another remnant of a bygone era. It’s on the side of their former business. If you look carefully, you’ll also see other ghost signs around town. Walk west on Leroux Street and you’ll be in a historical residential district with Craftsman-style bungalows and other historic homes. The blocks around this section of Ledoux also have great buildings to see.

Don’t miss the really interesting Route 66 era area locals call “Southside” to the south of the railroad tracks. Walk along Phoenix Street from San Francisco Street to Beaver Street where you’ll encounter Route 66. There are some great former motels, motel signs and murals along the way. Here’s a full walking tour.

Grand Canyon

One of the ever-changing views from Grand Canyon South Rim, photo Billie Frank

The light at Grand Canyon creates an ever-changing view of the South Rim, photo/Billie Frank

Flagstaff is a great base for a day trip to Grand Canyon’s South Rim. While about an hour and fifteen minutes away (with no traffic), it offers more lodging and dining options than the small gateway town of Tusayan a few miles from the park. If you want to spend multiple days at the Grand Canyon, opting for one of their onsite lodgings or camping, if you can get reservations, are your best bets. Then you’ll be right there and can avoid having to drive through the park gates. In peak season, the wait to get through into the park can be well over an hour. On a holiday Monday in mid-October we waited over 45 minutes to get in at about 2pm. It cut our time at Grand Canyon down a bit.

There’s much more to do in and around Flagstaff and we keep discovering more. We hope to go back late this coming winter to explore Flagstaff AZ and the surrounding area further. Besides the many things to do in the city, it’s a great base to use while exploring Northern Arizona and the Route 66 corridor. For the 2016 Route 66 anniversary, the Flagstaff Convention & Visitors Bureau is creating 66 things to do on Route 66 to enhance your AZ Route 66 travel experience. It will be up on their website before the end of the year.

Author’s note: Our trip to explore Flagstaff Arizona was hosted by some Flagstaff area attractions as well as the Flagstaff Convention & Visitors Bureau. Opinions are our own. We enjoyed it so much we plan to go back and explore Flagstaff Arizona again!

16 Responses to “Explore Flagstaff Arizona – history, culture & the great outdoors”

  1. Donna Janke
    November 2, 2015 at 3:54 pm #

    I am saving this for when I visit Flagstaff. I haven’t made it there yet, but will one of these days. I think I would particularly enjoy Riordan Mansion and my husband will want to get to Lowell Observatory.

    • Billie Frank
      November 2, 2015 at 4:43 pm #

      We loved it. Can’t wait to get back. Keep discovering new things to see.

  2. Irene S. Levine
    November 2, 2015 at 7:27 pm #

    I visited Flagstaff many years ago and haven’t been back. Your post makes a compelling rationale for getting back there!

    • Billie Frank
      November 2, 2015 at 7:50 pm #

      It’s a great little city. Surprisingly, the population isn’t that much less than Santa Fe’s but it feels more like a small mountain town than a city. We love it and so close to so much including Grand Canyon and so many other interesting sites.

  3. Paula McInerney
    November 2, 2015 at 11:05 pm #

    Flagstaff looks a very interesting place to visit and one with a lot to see and do.

    • Billie Frank
      November 3, 2015 at 10:27 am #

      We loved it and can’t wait to go back.

  4. Anita @ No Particular Place To Go
    November 4, 2015 at 5:34 pm #

    Looks like you got plenty of kicks on this part of route 66! I’d love to visit the Reardon Mansion and Lowell Observatory as well as all the other landmarks you discussed. Flagstaff, Arizona looks like a place we need to visit when we take our next road trip. Gorgeous photos!
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go recently posted..The Great Document Round Up: Starting the Portugal Residency ProcessMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      November 6, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

      We loved it and recommend it to travelers with similar interest to ours- like anything else, nothing works for everyone. Thanks for the kind words about the photos.

  5. alison abbott
    November 8, 2015 at 6:01 pm #

    Although I’ve only visited this area of the country once, I loved the dramatic change of scenery in Flagstaff, unlike anything I had seen in person before. There is so much to explore, I’d love to go to the Grand Canyon again. Our visit there was much too short.

    • Billie Frank
      November 9, 2015 at 12:47 pm #

      It’s a wonderful area of the country! We want to go back and spend more time. There’s so much more for us to explore.

  6. Ryan Biddulph
    October 3, 2016 at 5:08 pm #

    Hi Billie,

    The Grand Canyon looks so epic. And it IS epic. Brilliant pictures and great story telling here. I got my kicks through it 😉


    • Billie Frank
      October 3, 2016 at 10:12 pm #

      Thanks, Ryan. It’s one of the most awe-inspiring places I’ve ever been to.

  7. Matt
    January 25, 2017 at 2:03 am #

    Hi both, this is a great guide, really helpful. I have shared it on my website (and will definitely be in touch should I return to the area. I passed close a few years back and loved Santa Fe, hopefully I’ll get to return sometime. Happy Travels!
    Matt recently posted..Best place for visiting the Grand Canyon and moreMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      June 17, 2017 at 1:19 pm #

      Happy trails to you! Thanks for sharing our post.

  8. Tea and Cake for the Soul
    July 28, 2018 at 2:37 pm #

    We passed through on the way to Sedona but didn’t stay. Maybe we need to go again.

  9. Justin
    August 25, 2018 at 9:07 am #

    My wife and I love living in Flagstaff. This city is amazing as are the people. Do you guys ever have a meet up here in the city?

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