The city closest to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is a lively, historic place named for a flagpole erected by settlers at the foot of the San Francisco Mountains on July 5, 1876. “Flag” quickly became a railroad town—over 100 trains still roar through the center of the city, where the tracks parallel a section of old Route 66, every day. Today, the home of Northern Arizona University rivals Durango and Moab for the title of Most Fun Mid-Size City in the Southwest.
The Museum of Northern Arizona holds one of the best collections of anthropology, biology, geology, and fine art in the region. Ancient pottery, modern native silver work and paintings, and changing exhibits make this an ideal place to get an overview of the area’s history and cultures. In 1894, astronomer Percival Lowell founded Lowell Observatory above Flagstaff atop Mars Hill, where he made most of the calculations that led to the discovery of Pluto in 1930.
An 1894 Craftsman home has been turned into the Inn at 410, a luxurious B&B where you can soak up Southwestern hospitality in any of the nine rooms, some with fireplaces. Spend an evening at the nearby Museum Club, built in 1931 on old Route 66, with five pine trees supporting the ceiling. The locals call it the Zoo Club, perhaps because of all the taxidermy decorating the walls or perhaps because things get crazy every weekend when there’s live country music, with some nights given over to country dancing lessons.
Flagstaff has plenty of outdoor activities to choose from, starting with its 32-mile urban trails system. Hiking and mountain bike trails lace the foothills of the San Francisco Mountains. Even better, no fewer than three national monuments are within half an hour’s drive. Ruins dating to the 12th and 13th centuries peek from the walls of a sandstone gorge in Walnut Canyon National Monument, while the remains of three cultures—including a multistory pueblo—fill Wupatki National Monument. Along the same loop road is Sunset Crater, the remnants of a volcano that erupted in the 11th and 12th centuries; the landscape of red and black volcanic cones stands in stark contrast to the flat surrounding desert.