From Tucson to Flagstaff: Cooling Off in Arizona's Scenic Hiking Paradise

Follow along as this hiker-turned-author explores Flagstaff following the Trails Passport Program

As temperatures soar in Southern Arizona, I look forward to getting away from Tucson to a cool, shady location. Flagstaff instantly comes to mind, and hiking through the world’s largest contiguous Ponderosa Pine forest and the San Francisco Peaks sounded perfect. There’s a new Trails Passport program by Discover Flagstaff and the Flagstaff Trails Initiative (FTI) that I wanted to try. So, I hit the road for a three day adventure. My first stop was at the Official Flagstaff Visitor Center where I was pleased to find electronic charge stations for my Kia Soul. 

Day One: Planning Hikes and Earning Points with the Trails Passport

The friendly Visitor Center staff answered my questions and offered maps to help me plan my hikes. I registered for the Trails Passport after filling out some information on the Discover Flagstaff website. With so many options for hiking in Flagstaff, it’s a little overwhelming! And certain hikes can get really crowded. The mobile-based Trails Passport is designed to help disperse recreation in Flagstaff to lesser-known trails, which is so important to reduce wear and tear on the trails.

Flagstaff Trails Initiative’s mission is “to elevate trails in and around Flagstaff from good to extraordinary”. Most people don’t realize how many resources and funds it takes to maintain and repair existing trails. Plus, I was looking forward to seeing new terrain. The passport made it easy to plan, with each hike ranked from easy to moderate to difficult, which also corresponds to the number of points I could earn for prizes I could pick up back at the Visitor Center.

If you get enough points through the passport, Discover Flagstaff will make a $5 donation to FTI through Pledge for the Wild that will help them continue the important work they’re doing. Or, hikers can exchange points for other cool prizes, including a sticker, a wooden postcard, and a Discover Flagstaff fanny pack. The Trails Passport program expires May 1, 2024, but the higher point prizes are capped at the first 400 who report through the digital passport or December 31st, 2023, whichever comes first.

With my mobile passport ready to use, I walked to Martanne’s Breakfast Palace for a chilaquiles platter — tortillas and eggs with their flavorful red sauce and a side of beans and hash browns — and started to plan my first hike. It was easy to navigate the website to the trail descriptions to learn more about the hikes. Once I decided to hike the Soldiers Trail at Fort Tuthill, all I had to do was press a button for directions to the trailhead.

I made sure I had my hat, sunscreen and water and checked in on the Trails Passport when I got to the trailhead. It verified my location and added two points to my account for this moderate rated hike. Soldiers Trail winds through the shade and to my delight there were carpets of purple lupine. I stopped to take in the butterscotch scent of the Ponderosa bark and enjoy the birds, including the charismatic Steller’s Jay. It felt so good to be out in the forest!

After a fulfilling hike, I made my way to the stylish High Country Motor Lodge conveniently located right on Route 66 to check-in. This beautiful lodge inspired by the rugged beauty of Northern Arizona is also committed to sustainable practices as part of 1% for the Planet — very impressive. My gorgeous room overlooked the pool and a communal lawn, the perfect place to rest and relax before another day of exploring Flagstaff’s abundant hiking trails.

But first, I needed to eat. I’d heard good things about Plantasia, a new plant-based restaurant. This place did not disappoint with the theme extending to walls decorated with funky plant sculptures. I had the delicious hemp tamales and a berry salad before returning to the High Country Motor Lodge. The night cooled down and there was lots of outdoor seating with fire pits. I soaked in the hot tub, admiring the stars thanks to Flagstaff’s Dark Sky City designation.

Day Two: Majestic Views and Diverse Ecosystems

I woke ready for the day and stopped in the Galaxy Diner where I was meeting a friend, Anne, for a hike on the Kachina Trail. This was the trail that I was most excited about. The ecosystem at 9,000 feet is completely different than the 7,000 feet elevation in town. In addition to being cooler, it has giant groves of quaking aspen, massive Douglas fir trees and extensive views from the prairies. This trail travels through the Kachina Peaks Wilderness, another name for the San Francisco Peaks, and is sacred to 13 different Indigenous tribes. After fueling up, I checked in at the trailhead and received two more points on my Trails Passport.

I took so many pictures of the trail snaking through the bright green grasses with the canopy above. The high elevation was tough but the views were so worth it! The trail undulates across the face of Agassiz Peak, traveling through massive mossy boulders and fields of ferns. Freidlein Prairie was a highlight; it was awesome to be able to see Agassiz Peak rising above with spectacular views toward Flagstaff and the mountains beyond.

We returned to town famished. Flagstaff has an impressive number of Thai restaurants but Pato Thai is my favorite. I had spicy Panang curry and sticky rice and took a walk to the Sweet Shoppe for some gelato for dessert. I love the walkability of historic downtown Flagstaff, it makes it easy to enjoy all it has to offer, and I was pleased to find more charging stations for my electronic car. I said goodbye to Anne and headed back to the High Country Motor Lodge. The Nordic spa with sauna and plunge pool was calling my name, after a soak I sipped a beverage at one of the fire pits on the patio reflecting on the amazing day.

Day Three: New Discoveries and a Reflective Finale

On my last day, I studied the Trails Passport over a breakfast of French toast with berries at the Tourist Home All Day Café, deciding on a part of the Arizona Trail that goes through Picture Canyon Natural and Cultural Preserve. It’s an easier hike than the previous two for sure, but it’s rich with archaeological history and significance to the Indigenous tribes in the area so shouldn’t be missed. The Arizona Trail, which stretches 800 miles from Mexico to Utah, has a special place in my heart because I have completed the trail twice and written a guidebook for the best day hikes on it. I love revisiting pieces of it because I always see something new.

The Rio de Flag is an important waterway and I tried to catch a glimpse of the many animals and birds that it attracts. I heard many types of birdsongs, saw orange dragonflies and colorful butterflies. I enjoyed views of rocky Mount Elden through the pines and junipers on the Tom Moody Loop.

I visited a historic railroad trestle and a waterfall where the canyon walls steepen. After crossing the Rio de Flag on a cute red bridge, I arrived at the Waterbird Petroglyph Site. Make sure not to touch the petroglyphs as the oils on our hands can damage them, it’s another way to Leave no Trace when hiking.

Signs explain the significance of the area to seven Indigenous tribes and the history of the Northern Sinagua people who lived here between 700 – 1300 CE. I reflected on what life might have been like in this canyon when these were created. This was an incredible finish to my trip, especially considering the convenient access from town. Before I left, I checked in with the Trails Passport and received one point, earning a total of 5 on this trip. I could easily see myself getting 15 points over the remainder of the Passport program.

Join the Trails Passport, available for download now, and tag your adventures with #PledgeWildFlag and #LeaveNoTrace when you visit Flagstaff, Arizona. See you on the trail!

About the Author

Sirena Rana

Sirena Rana shares her love for the outdoors through writing, photography, public speaking and trail design through her company, Trails Inspire. An avid hiker, backpacker, rafter and canyoneer, Sirena's favorite places are the Grand Canyon and the Sky Islands of Southern Arizona. She is the author of Best Day Hikes on the Arizona National Scenic Trail by Wilderness Press.