Nestled amongst the pine forests of Arizona, Flagstaff is more than just a quick stop en route to the Grand Canyon. William David Wilson peels off Route 66 and discovers a beguiling city with Old West charm and bountiful natural wonders.
I pinch my nostrils to stem the flow of blood. Suffice to say my early morning run isn’t quite going to plan: I’m seriously parched, unusually out of breath and my nose has started bleeding. The only saving grace is that my running gear was red to begin with.
My funny turn has nothing to do with being horribly unfit, honest. It’s Flagstaff’s fault. Nestled amongst the snow-capped San Francisco Peaks and vertiginous Coconino pine forests, the city sits at a lofty elevation of 2,106m (6,910ft). Too high for my sea level sensibilities.
Carved in two by Route 66, Flagstaff welcomes some of the world’s best runners (of which, I’m not one) who come here to test their mettle in challenging conditions. Local residents are proud of this fact and have gone to the trouble of making T-shirts with the words ‘sea level sucks’ printed across them.
After my harsh lesson in high-altitude training, I settle into life in this lofty city. The historic downtown area of Flagstaff only stretches a few blocks back from Route 66, but the diminutive Old Town has an abundance of character and an easygoing charm.
In the centre, a sign for the legendary Hotel Monte Vista stands loud and proud, immodestly reminding passersby of its silver screen credentials – it has housed an ensemble of film stars, musicians and politicians, and reportedly featured in the 1942 picture Casablanca.
Despite the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Freddie Mercury and John Wayne having pitched up here at one time, Flagstaff is more renowned as a place to view actual stars, the ones in the sky.
Dubbed ‘Skylight City’ from as far back as the 1890s, a visit to the celebrated Lowell Observatory confirms why. Perched on top of the Mars Hill, it was from Lowell that the planet Pluto was discovered back in 1930 by the astronomer Clyde Tombaugh. As well as night viewings of planets and star clusters, the observatory offers safe viewings of the sun from a solar telescope.
My visit to Lowell coincides with Lights Out Flagstaff, a weekend celebration of the city’s night sky heritage which, as the name suggests, involves turning off the lights locally. The results are stunning. With next to no light pollution to adulterate the view, the night sky has rarely looked quite so spectacular – it’s little wonder that Flagstaff was proclaimed the First International Dark Sky City back in 2001.
By day what’s most striking about Flagstaff, apart from the scenery, is the number of freight trains which roar through town across the Sante Fe railway line. Their arrival brings the city centre to a crushing halt, but then nobody is in a hurry. “Don’t come to Flag with a big-city attitude,” is the sage advice one local barfly offers.
As they have done across the USA, microbreweries have taken off in Flagstaff. Lumberyard, Mother Road and Beaver Street Brewery are some of the best, offering an award-winning selection of pale ales, pilsners and even stouts. I tear myself away from the bars and mosey around the local art galleries and souvenir shops, perusing the Native American and Route 66 knick-knacks.
Fine microbreweries and Old West nostalgia aside, much of the allure in visiting Flagstaff lies in its natural wonders; the surrounding pine forests, the marvellous mountains and sweeping prairies.
The city is a gateway to hundreds of miles of trails, which lead intrepid explorers up snow-capped peaks and through the pines. Depending on the season, many of these can be explored on foot and bike or by snowboard or skis; during my visit I take great pleasure slaloming through the bendy forest trails of Schultz Creek and Lower Oldham, dodging impromptu disc golf tournaments in McPherson Park and ambling to the summit of Mount Elden. The latter provides me with a magnificent panorama of the Painted Desert and a glimpse of deer roaming in grasslands below.
Flagstaff is also close to a myriad of geological and historical wonders, including volcanic craters, Native American settlements and canyons – it wasn’t nicknamed the ‘City of Seven Wonders’ for nothing, you know.
Days pass with strolls along the rugged Bonito Lava Flow trails and treks up the spectacular Sunset Crater Volcano. I also head to the extraordinary Montezuma Castle, which was carved out of a sheer rock face by the pre-Columbian Singua group somewhere between AD500 and AD1425.
The indigenous history continues to unfold amongst the ruins of Wupatki, a Native American settlement just north of Flagstaff, which is best viewed at sunset, when the terracotta ramparts turn a rich, ruby red hue.
Alas, most road trippers will miss all this. They’ll pass through on Route 66, maybe fill up their tank and hit the road for what they perceive to be better things at the Grand Canyon.
They won’t get to explore volcanic craters or canyons; they’ll miss the thrill of skiing through pine forests and marvelling at indigenous ruins. Instead, they’ll be looking at a big hole in the ground with bus loads of other tourists. More fool them.
NEED TO KNOW
The nearest international airport is Phoenix Sky Harbour Airport, which is approximately 2.5 hours by car from Flagstaff. British Airways (www.britishairways.com) and US Airways (www.usairways.com) fly to Phoenix.
When to go
Flagstaff looks particularly pretty in autumn (September and October), but winter sports enthusiasts should aim to visit between December and February.
Adventurists, historians, budding astrologists and beer enthusiasts.