Family Fun in Flagstaff: Canyons, Craters and Outer Space

Family Fun in Flagstaff: Canyons, Craters and Outer Space

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A gust of wind and a frenzy of snow diminish my field of vision, simultaneously turning my hair into a tornado of blonde. Having neglected to zip up my jacket, it is now an inflated balloon that my daughter Brooklyn deftly dodges, trudging alongside me in search of shelter. “That’s it,” she shouts, pushing through the unassuming, bubbling entrance, “I thought Arizona was supposed to be hot!” Dabbing on a river of mascara, I formulate a soothing response when the girl in the sun-kissed hat who works the counter at Diablo Burger happily chimes, “Oh, not November; we get all four seasons here in Flagstaff. Well, that’s a hard lesson learned – our mother-daughter road trip is off to a good start.

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Given its 2,133-meter elevation on the Colorado Plateau, Flagstaff’s rugged landscape of ponderosa forests — and weather — stand in stark contrast to sun-drenched Scottsdale, two hours to the south. But here’s the thing, being different works. And this charming city, steeped in outdoor adventure, has undoubtedly found its niche – just dress up for it. So, after warming up and munching on the “best burgers in the state,” we put on our winter clothes and set off to explore Flagstaff’s unique mix of sights, attractions, and historic landmarks. .

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Experience space at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona.  Courtesy of Lowell Observatory
Experience space at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona. Courtesy of Lowell Observatory .jpg

Astronomical Adventures

As the world’s first international dark sky city, Flagstaff’s stargazing is unparalleled and Lowell Observatory ranks first for interplanetary exploration. Wealthy Boston businessman and astronomer Percival Lowell founded the main center for astronomical research in 1894 to discover extraterrestrial life on Mars. Although it failed in its inaugural mission, the Lowell Observatory has pioneered research and education, connecting people to space, for more than 125 years. For Brooklyn and me, observing gas giant Jupiter and four of its 79 moons through Lowell’s original 24-inch Clark Refractor was truly awe-inspiring, as was learning how the telescope was instrumental in creating detailed maps of the moon for the Apollo 13 mission. We also observed globular star clusters and counted lunar craters; however, seeing Saturn twinkle 1.47 billion miles away was the highlight of the show.

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Members of NASA's Desert Research and Technology Studies team train with a prototype lunar rover for future Artemis missions at the Black Point Lava Flow near Flagstaff, Arizona on October 24, 2022. Olivier Touron / AFP
Members of NASA’s Desert Research and Technology Studies team train with a prototype lunar rover for future Artemis missions at the Black Point Lava Flow near Flagstaff, Arizona on October 24, 2022. Olivier Touron / AFP Photo by OLIVIER TOURON /AFP via Getty Images

National Monuments and Navajo Culture

Half an hour north of Flagstaff is Sunset Crater National Monument, the last volcanic eruption in San Francisco’s 1,800-square-mile volcanic field. Outfitted in hats and mittens, Brooklyn and I set off on the self-guided 1 mile Lava Trail for first-hand insight into the catastrophic destruction. We soon discover that the site’s rugged terrain was the training ground for astronauts preparing for the Apollo missions in the 1960s. Wearing their cumbersome spacesuits, the NASA team navigated the rock formations of another world of the lava field and learned to pilot the lunar rover. From Sunset Crater, we cruised along the stunning 55 mile scenic loop, passing open grasslands and pine forests through glistening juniper meadows with stunning views of the Painted Desert to reach the red rock landscape of the National Monument of Wupatki. The site’s ancient artifacts and architectural remnants of a multi-level pueblo dwelling, complete with community hall and ceremonial ball court, are a remarkable feat of engineering dating back 800 years. After our self-guided tour was over, we continued north to the Cameron Trading Post, overlooking the Little Colorado River Gorge. The century-old site is a vibrant tourist attraction, home to a fine collectors gallery and contemporary Native American art shop, hotel and restaurant, where we had a quick lunch of homemade chili and Navajo fried bread.

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Historic Downtown, Ted Danza and Route 66

Cheers’ favorite bartender and Flagstaff native, Ted Danza, is the official guide for the city’s Walk This Talk tour, taking visitors on a unique walk along part of America’s iconic Route 66. We started at the Historic Flagstaff Depot Visitor Center, picking up a detailed brochure with a toll-free number to listen to Ted’s pre-recorded speech. With Brooklyn in tow, I only made the first three stops out of 10, as she was still a bit young for factual storytelling and the quaint shops lining historic downtown Flagstaff kept her very distracted. Brightside’s bustling bookstore was our favorite find, with its floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with toys, trinkets, treasures, and a myriad of handwritten book recommendations. The eclectic range of 70s-inspired giftware and clothing found in Old Town boutiques, as well as the caramel apples and handmade gourmet confections in The Sweet Shoppe were also very well done. welcomed.

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Black Barts in Arizona.
Black Barts in Arizona. .jpg

Black Bart’s, a local institution

Flagstaff is full of surprises, and Black Bart’s Steakhouse, Saloon and Musical Revue was a must. We arrived at the unassuming roadside restaurant, set in an 11 acre RV park, with no waits and left with full hearts and bellies. Named after infamous Wells Fargo stagecoach robber Charles E. Boles – aka Black Bart – the Flagstaff institution is best known for its steak dinners, eccentric Wild West decor and singing waiters, accompanied by a pianist with quick fingers. While chatting with our waitress, we discovered that most of the song staff are students—or graduates—of Northern Arizona University’s music and theater programs. During our hour-long meal, the performers regaled us with songs from the 60s and 70s and Broadway, jazz and Disney classics. Brooklyn was amazed throughout, making Black Bart its best Flagstaff experience.

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A motel resurgence

Flagstaff’s roadside inns are a nod to its Route 66 roots, and the brand new High Country Motor Lodge puts a chic twist on this classic concept. The retro retreat feels contemporary while boasting a well-defined vintage vibe. Our spacious courtyard-facing room was outfitted with two comfy, plush queen beds, a small dining table, and plenty of thoughtful modern touches, like coat hooks, dimmable lights, and USB charging stations. I was also delighted with the Vietnamese style coffee sachets and sweetened condensed milk cream – a delicious in-room amenity. While the outdoor pool was unheated and therefore underutilized, the hot tub and sauna were a perfect way to end a day of outdoor exploration. Take-out pizza and groceries from the general store also came in handy on nights we felt like staying.

Spending three days in Flagstaff left us wanting more. We barely touched the area’s outdoor recreation and missed winter activities — including its beloved vacation attractions like the Little America light display and North Pole Experience — by about a month. All the more reason to return, with warmer clothes and a renewed sense of adventure.

For more information on the destination, visit @arrivals_travel.

The general store and salon in Flagstaff.

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