Flagstaff, Arizona’s Summer Capital

By Roger Naylor

View of Sycamore Canyon | Discover Flagstaff AZ | Hiking | Outdoors

Here’s one thing every Arizona resident knows: It’s not officially Summer until you spend time in Flagstaff.

While the 7,000-ft. elevation means idyllic temperatures during hot months, it’s more than just that. Flagstaff is the outdoor playground we crave. Soaring mountain peaks pierce an azure sky. Forests are so wide and deep they could be remnants of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Green meadows are drenched in wildflowers. Shady canyons carve the rough edges of the Colorado Plateau and aspen groves line the slopes like a soft pale wall. The combination of hard-edged drama and pastoral beauty makes for an unforgettable getaway.

That’s the essence of summer. It’s an escape from the mundane. More than a season, summer means freedom. This year, that’s something desperately needed and it’s time to journey to Arizona’s summer capital, Flagstaff.

Yet, let’s stay and play responsibly. With hundreds of miles of hiking and biking trails rambling across the landscape, it's easy to let your mind wander and leave no trace. Here are a few less crowded trails to explore.

When it’s time to play

View of Kendrick Park | Discover Flagstaff AZ | Hiking | Outdoors

Kendrick Park Watchable Wildlife Trail – This gentle loop moves from pine forest through open grassland, just north of Snowbowl Road. Between the diverse habitats, you may encounter a variety of bird and animal life. There are two options, a 0.25-mile paved loop suitable for wheelchairs or the longer 1.5-mile circle that pushes deeper into the woods, past an aspen grove and returns along the edge of a sun-kissed meadow. Move quietly and stay alert for mule deer, elk, pronghorn, coyote, badger, and porcupine. Since you’re here for the critters, please leave Fido at home. Hiking and wheelchairs only. 

View of Sandys Canyon | Discover Flagstaff AZ | Hiking | Outdoors

Sandys Canyon Trail – Surprises lurk in this slender gorge just off Lake Mary Road. The trail traces the rim of the canyon before plunging through mixed forest heavy with underbrush. Upon reaching the canyon floor, it becomes an idyllic stroll through grassy fields framed by walls of towering stone. Further along you’ll find startling cross-bedded cliffs in sunset hues. These petrified sand dunes add a touch of the exotic in this intimate place. The mile-long pathway ends at a junction with the Arizona Trail, allowing for additional hiking options. The trail is best suited for hiking and horseback riding.   

Bismarck Lake Trail – Don’t bother hitching up the boat for this outing. Bismarck is not that kind of lake. A small pond during the best of times, it often dries up in summer. But in this porous volcanic landscape, even a puddle with dreams plays a significant role in attracting wildlife. The easy 1.5-mile out-and-back trail off Hart Prairie Road also offers a soothing blend of cool forests and broad meadows punctuated with stunning vistas of the San Francisco Peaks. Mountain bikers and horseback riders are also welcome.

View of Red Mountain Cliffs | Discover Flagstaff AZ | Hiking | Outdoors

Red Mountain Trail – Twenty-five miles northwest of Flagstaff, rises Red Mountain, a hollowed out cinder cone. Walking inside such ancient fury (3 miles round-trip) is an otherworldly experience. The trail winds through juniper and pinion pines before squeezing between towers of black cinders. From there, you’re engulfed in a wonderland of gnawed spires, twisted pillars, and contorted walls bubbled with trapped gasses. The amphitheater resembles a miniaturized Bryce Canyon bristling with colorful hoodoos. Hikers only.

Sycamore Canyon | Discover Flagstaff AZ | Hiking | Outdoors

Sycamore Rim – The mostly level pathway traces a lanky 11-mile circle through sprawling meadows and pine forests that part long enough to provide panoramas of high-walled Sycamore Canyon, west of Flag. Along the way, hikers brush past the ruins of a century-old sawmill, an overlook of Sycamore Falls, and Dow Springs with small pools often filled with water lilies and their bright blossoms. And when was the last time you encountered water lilies on an Arizona trail? Mountain bikers are also permitted.     

Antelope | Wildlife |  Discover Flagstaff AZ | Hiking | Outdoors

Sandy Seep Trail – On the eastern slopes of Mt. Elden, this gentle trail meanders through soft prairie dotted with ponderosa pine and Gambel oak. Clumps of cliffrose perfume the air when they’re in bloom. Enjoy views of Elden and the Sunset Volcanic Field. The aspens growing near the end of the 1.5-mile trail sprang up following a 1977 wildfire. Their display of fall colors grows more spectacular each year. You’ll just have to plan an autumn trip to see for yourself. Accessible to hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians.  

When it’s time to eat

plate of mexican food

MartAnne's Burrito Palace – This Latin-inspired restaurant consistently serves up amazing dishes with just the right amount of spicy flavoring. The décor is unique and the colorful walls and artwork are a feast for your eyes with a friendly smile ready to take your order. MartAnne’s is known as “the house that chilaquiles built” and this is the place for an authentic traditional Mexican dish!

Proper Meats + Provisions – The focus of Proper is to produce artisanal meats locally sourced from Arizona farms and ranches. The deli menu offers salads, soups, made to order sandwiches and a hard-to-resist charcuterie board.

Satchmo | BBQ | Discover Flagstaff AZ | Hiking | Outdoors | Food & drink

Satchmo’s – Barbecue and Cajun food seems like such a natural fit, it’s a wonder there isn’t a Satchmo’s in every town. Mouthwatering sandwiches, slow-cooked meats, and seasoned sides make this East Flag eatery a beloved destination.

Mama Burger – This is a throwback experience with Angus beef sizzling on the flattop, searing a light crust on the patty. They pair perfectly with fresh hand-cut fries that are positively addicting, and creamy shakes.  

When it’s time to reflect

Pledge for the wild banner

Pledge for the Wild - Now that you have hiked the epic Flagstaff trails in the world’s largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest, it's time to reflect on the experience. Outdoor enthusiasts can express appreciation with a donation to Pledge for the Wild. A donation helps preserve, protect, and support Flagstaff's wild places. It's easy! Consider a donation of $1 for each mile you hiked by texting WILD4FLAG to 44321. The program benefits the local non-profit Flagstaff Trails Initiative with trail management, and they are working hard to keep Flagstaff's wild places wild.

About the Author

Roger Naylor

Roger Naylor is an Arizona travel writer and author, and it all started with Flagstaff. He journeyed from the Midwest to attend NAU. Spending more time hiking Flag’s trails than going to classes ended his college career but began his lifelong love affair with this remarkable state. Roger’s latest book is "Awesome Arizona: 200 Amazing Facts about the Grand Canyon State". He is a member of the Arizona Tourism Hall of Fame. Learn more at www.rogernaylor.com.

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