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Weekend Adventure Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona

11.22.17

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Weekend Adventure Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona
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  • Wildflowers and Mount Elden, seen from Buffalo Park in Flagstaff.- Weekend Adventure Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Ponderosa pine forest surrounds Flagstaff.- Weekend Adventure Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Summer flowers along Fort Valley Road.- Weekend Adventure Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Crossing the stream on West Fork Trail.- Weekend Adventure Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Oak Creek runs with cool water year round.- Weekend Adventure Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Fun boulder field along Fat Man's Loop.- Weekend Adventure Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona
  • The San Francisco Peaks, also known as the Kachina Peaks, loom north of town.- Weekend Adventure Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Cliff dwellings at Walnut Canyon National Monument.- Weekend Adventure Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Autumn aspen groves along Inner Basin Trail.- Weekend Adventure Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Mountain biking in the Shultz Creek area.- Weekend Adventure Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona
  • The San Francisco Peaks in winter.- Weekend Adventure Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona
  • Cross-country skiing at Arizona Nordic Village.- Weekend Adventure Guide to Flagstaff, Arizona
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Flagstaff is Arizona's mountain town--perched at a proud 7,000 feet above sea level and nestled at the base of the state's highest summit, 12,633-foot Humphreys Peak. It sits on a plateau crowned by mountains, flanked by canyons, and covered by forest. This astonishingly diverse terrain abounds in recreation options, and shifting seasons multiply the possibilities.

Flagstaff's high-elevation climate tends to surprise visitors to a state better known for its deserts. You won't find saguaro or palo verde here, but rather tall pines as far as you can see. Sunny days are plentiful, but so are cold winds, thunder showers, and snow storms. Summers are warm and breezy, while winter can be bitterly cold.

So you should come to Flagstaff prepared for anything, but above all, be ready to have fun. Here is a sample itinerary for how to spend a long weekend here, but you are free to choose your own adventure. As varied as these destinations are, none are more than an hour's drive apart, so the order is interchangeable, and the combinations are endless.

Day 1

Mt. Elden seen from Buffalo Park

Wildflowers and Mount Elden, seen from Buffalo Park in Flagstaff. Photo by Jesse Weber.

Acclimate to the altitude by starting out with an easy early morning hike on Fat Man's Loop at the base of Mount Elden, or take a more leisurely stroll through Buffalo Park. Either of these are an excellent tour of Arizona's ponderosa pine environment and the surrounding landscape. If you insist on starting off strong, go ahead and take on the ascent of Mount Elden via Elden Lookout Trail. Views from the top never disappoint.

In the afternoon, take the opportunity to learn about the region's human history and see the cliff dwellings at Walnut Canyon National Monument. This uncrowded and easily digestible park can be done in a few hours, and its short hiking trails are good for all abilities.

After sunset, head up to Lowell Observatory and have a look through the telescopes at Northern Arizona's star-filled sky. This historic observatory was the first to identify Pluto, and Flagstaff's Dark Sky City status ensures that the cosmos continue to shine on any clear night. 

Day 2

The San Francisco Peaks seen from Rogers Lake

The San Francisco Peaks, also known as the Kachina Peaks, loom north of town. Photo by Ryan Lima.

More history lessons and amazing views await at Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments. A scenic drive linking the two parks travels from Sunset Crater's high-elevation moonscape of cinder cones to Wupatki's grasslands in the Painted Desert, where impressive Pueblo ruins stand atop rock outcrops on the plains.

If you want to burn more calories, take a hike, run, or bike on any of the other great trail systems near Flagstaff. Shultz Creek and Kelly Canyon are two favorites for mountain bikers, and both stay cool and shady even on hot days. The trails at Rogers Lake are perfect for colder days, and the view over an ephemeral lake and mountains beyond is a unique change of scenery.

Day 3

The Inner Basin of the San Francisco Peaks

The Inner Basin Trail. Photo by Jesse Webber.

Time to go big! The big mountain looming north of town invites all challengers to attempt its summit, which is Arizona's state high point. The quickest route to the top is Humphreys Trail, but it's tough. An easier option is Inner Basin, which doesn't climb as high but travels through beautiful aspen groves (brilliant in autumn!). Always check the weather before you go. It is nearly always cold and windy up high, and there's shelter from the elements above tree line. The best time to shoot for the summit is late spring, early summer, or fall. Colder months require navigating snow and ice, and July through September bring monsoon thunderstorms. If you do go during monsoon season, plan on getting back to your car by early afternoon to minimize the danger.

No matter when you visit or what your favorite adventures are, you'll have no trouble filling a weekend in Flagstaff. It's a place of distinct seasons and a surprisingly huge variety of terrain. Here are some bonus activities you can plan for depending on the time of year:

Summer

Cool off in Oak Creek Canyon at the swimming holes and natural waterslides at Slide Rock State Park, or wade through the creek between huge stone walls along West Fork Trail. In August, admire the yellow flowers that bloom all over town. One of the best fields is along Fort Valley Road.

Winter

Play in the snow! Arizona Snowbowl resort has lift-served alpine skiing on the San Francisco Peaks, and the Arizona Nordic Village offers groomed trails for cross-country, snowshoeing, and fat bikes, and they have yurts and cabins for overnight stays.

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