Flagstaff, Arizona
Flagstaff & Beyond

Flagstaff & Beyond

Nearby attractions are worth the drive—and, worth the wait

The initial reason for our trip to Arizona was baseball. Diehard Dodgers fans, our family never misses spring training in Phoenix. But this year’s trip was about so much more than the game.

That’s because we went beyond spring training baseball in Phoenix to spring exploration in the Flagstaff area. After all, as I told my husband Robert, “What’s a visit to the Grand Canyon State without a visit to the Grand Canyon?” With the Dodgers showing promise for the season, our two boys in the backseat and our sights on one of the Seven Wonders of the World, we set off for something new headed toward the City of 7 Wonders.

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Into the pines

Sean, our youngest, rolled down the windows as we approached Flagstaff. The trip from Phoenix was a quick two hours—scenic, as well. We drove below rocky cliffs, beside stunning mountain vistas and embraced the wide open spaces that surrounded us on the journey north. With the windows down, it wasn’t the crisp March air that took me by surprise; it was the rich scent of pine trees.

Flagstaff is deep into the wilderness of Coconino National Forest, part of the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in North America—a rebuttal to Arizona’s stereotypical desert landscapes. Flagstaff is a college town, the largest city near the Grand Canyon. As we cruised into downtown, we saw young men and women in blue and yellow Northern Arizona University sweatshirts and caps and quirky restaurants and bars.

The plan for the weekend was to see two attractions just outside the city: the Grand Canyon and Wupatki National Monument. As a kid growing up in Southern California, I begged my parents to take me to the Grand Canyon (“It’s right there!”), but our plans never seemed to work out. I’d be seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time with Robert and our children, Sean and Taylor. I wasn’t sure who was more excited.

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Grand brews

Tomorrow was the big day. We’d start at Wupatki and make our way north to the Grand Canyon before looping around back to Flagstaff. Tonight was for settling in. With bags dropped off at our hotel, we spent the last of daylight hours exploring the walkable downtown craft beer scene, which is as dog friendly as it is kid friendly.

First: Mother Road Brewing Company, named after Route 66, which passes through town. Mother Road is in a big, white warehouse. Memorabilia covers the inside, and a welcoming porch, perfect for dogs, serves as an outdoor seating area. We sipped on Tower Station IPAs while Sean and Taylor pet a local chocolate lab. The dog’s accommodating owner recommended pizza at Pizzicletta—the restaurant next door—and a stop at Lumberyard Brewing Company, just up the road, closer to the railroad tracks.

Full from a dinner of artisan pizza and housemade gelato, we walked over to Lumberyard. Sister brewery of Flagstaff’s oldest craft beer spot (Beaver Street Brewery), Lumberyard is best known for its Knotty Pine Pale Ale, a bronze winner in the American Style Pale Ales category at the 2016 World Beer Cup. With a piney flavor and rich color, I could understand its accolades.

Bedtime approaching and a full day ahead, we made just one last stop: Dark Sky Brewing. Sean and Taylor re-energized for a bit thanks to the appearance of another local pup, and we felt lucky to get in one last cold beer—lucky, because it was our favorite yet. The Mountains Mosaic, made with mosaic hops, was one of about a dozen one-of-a-kind craft beer recipes from Dark Sky. Taps rotate constantly, and we already were looking forward to seeing what was new on the menu next time.

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Land of wonders

We woke bright and early, with thicker coats and scarves in tow. The farther north we went, the colder it would be for these Californians. Sean and Taylor entertained each other in the backseat, stretching their arms open wide to illustrate the grandeur of the Grand Canyon. (“I bet it’ll be this big!” “No, it’s gonna be this big!”)

It felt like I’d been waiting my whole life to see the Grand Canyon, and I hoped that Sean and Taylor would remember this site for the rest of theirs. We’d wait just a bit longer, stopping at the highly recommended Wupatki National Monument along the way.

Friends of ours had gone with their kids, and they couldn’t emphasize enough how underrated this historical site was. Although we’d had a bit of a warning, the magnitude of Wupatki still took us by surprise. Wupatki is the former village of dozens of ancestral Puebloans, including Northern Sinagua, Cohonina, Kayenta and Hohokam archeological culture groups. Paprika-colored rocks and impressively preserved buildings sprinkled the property.

After picking up a brochure from the visitor center, we drove the loop around the Wupatki. Taylor read aloud from the brochure, teaching us all about the fascinating history of the area. Once a thriving community, it was sobering to imagine Wupatki’s former livelihood among its current silence.

Especially surprising was the Wupatki Pueblo, the largest pueblo in the park. On the self-guided trail, we learned that during the 1100s, this site was a 100-room pueblo with a community room and ball court. Even people nearly a millennium ago loved sports.

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Dream delivered

Heading toward the Grand Canyon, I jumped in on Sean’s and Taylor’s “I bet it’ll be this big” competition, likely to Robert’s annoyance. I was just so excited to finally be able to see the Grand Canyon. But as we approached the front gate, a group of deer nibbling on shrubbery near the side of the road, I found it hard to believe we were really approaching one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

There were so many lush trees around—surely we should be coming to some sort of clearing? All the way up to the El Tovar Hotel and its nearby parking, it was hard to see the actual canyon. Getting out of the car, however, gave us a new perspective.

We wandered the South Rim in silence for a moment, the magnitude and beauty of the canyon stunning us. Thanks to a bright and sunny sky, we were able to see the layers of ochre, gold, scarlet and sand-colored rocks, carved by the Colorado River over millennia. Our trip here was well worth the wait, as neither Sean, Taylor nor I had bet on this awe.

Recovered from the sight, Sean and Taylor wandered along the rim’s sidewalk to read informational signage. We looked for named nooks and crannies that defined the canyon’s topography, taking photos of Sean and Taylor seemingly falling off the edge of the canyon (nowhere near any point of danger), and looked out below to spot hikers on the Angel Trail.

I thought of the people of Wupatki National Monument, creating such impressive structures with limited resources hundreds of years ago. I thought of the Grand Canyon before it was so grand, a slow trickle that formed into what we saw today. We were lucky that we could hop in a car, see both within just a few hours, and then return back to Flagstaff for a pint of delicious craft beer and an excellent dinner.

It may have felt like forever to wait to see the Grand Canyon, but in the grand scheme of things, it was no time to wait at all. I stood for a moment in silence to take in the view before me, thank my family for being here with me and appreciate the here and now.

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