At the base of the San Francisco Peaks, Flagstaff lies at the highest elevation in the state. In stark contrast with much of Arizona, covered by desert, forests surround the city on all sides. Most of its trees are evergreen, but large aspen colonies add color to the surroundings.
This makes Flagstaff a perfect year-round destination and a favorite of Phoenix residents in the summer. But it is fall that best highlights its natural beauty, with its stunning autumn colors rivaling those of the most popular fall foliage destinations in the country.
Things To Do In Flagstaff
Visiting Flagstaff in the fall should focus on walks through the aspen colonies, but the city has lots more to offer. From a walk in the historic center to a chairlift ride to the top of the San Francisco Peaks, visits to the surrounding national parks, and looking through telescopes at the Lowell Observatory, you’ll find plenty to do on your fall weekend in the city.
1. Take The Scenic Drive To The Arizona Snowbowl
One of the easiest ways to experience the stunning colors of the quaking aspens in Flagstaff is to drive up to the Arizona Snowbowl. As you ascend, you’ll start noticing patches of pale yellow and gold aspens intertwined with the deep green of the ponderosa pines.
Halfway up the road, stop at Aspen Corner to experience a dense aspen colony that puts up a dazzling show right by the road. Take a walk here and enjoy the fresh autumn air and the gorgeous display of golden aspens.
2. Hike Through Two Aspen Colonies
Continue higher up Snowbowl Road and stop at the lower parking lot before entering the ski resort. Here, you’ll find two trails on the opposite sides of a meadow.
Start with the Aspen Nature Loop Trail, which runs through an aspen colony showcasing pale yellow foliage intertwined with the green of ponderosa pines.
Across the meadow, you’ll notice another aspen colony of a deep gold color. This shade is so different from that of the colony you just walked through that you’d think fall came at another time just a few feet farther away. Enjoy the striking variation between the two distinctive aspen colonies.
3. Enjoy The Ponderosa Pine Forest On The The Kachina Trail
Walk (or drive) across the road to the higher parking lot, where you’ll find the trailhead for the Kachina Trail. Here, the fragrant ponderosa pine forest will envelop you as you step onto the trail. Enjoy them and look for aspen colonies farther down the trail. You’ll notice the aspens here are still lime green or a pale green-yellow. With their white bark and bright leaves, they offer a different spectacle than other trees at lower elevations.
Though the full Kachina Trail is a 10-mile round trip, you can enjoy the beauty of this forest within a mile.
4. Take The Scenic Chairlift To The Arizona Snowbowl
While you are up the hill, take the scenic chairlift to the Arizona Snowbowl, the ski resort that Flagstaff is famous for. Don’t forget to take a warmer jacket and scarf with you, since it is much colder on top of the mountain. On the way, enjoy the views of the surrounding mountains showcasing their fall colors, from deep greens to golden yellows and browns and everything in between. Take a short walk at the top and enjoy the views.
5. Drive Up To Lockett Meadow
The best place to enjoy miles upon miles of golden aspens in the fall is Lockett Meadow. Over the years, I’ve seen few places with the same concentration of aspens showcasing their spectacular autumn colors. You can hike for miles in these amazing forests or just sit in the meadow and enjoy the spectacle of colors.
Please note, however, that you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle to get there. The dirt road leading to it is narrow and steep, with switchbacks where you can’t see oncoming traffic. The place is still deservedly one of the most popular spots in town at which to enjoy the fall colors. If you are driving an SUV or something similar, you can’t miss it.
6. Visit The Museum Of Northern Arizona
While in Flagstaff, take the opportunity to visit the Museum of Northern Arizona to learn about the history of the Colorado Plateau. The permanent and seasonal exhibits explain the geologic history of the region, its landscape, and the canyons scattered through it, visible because of the lack of vegetation and arid climate.
Besides geology, the exhibits also highlight the human history of the region and help you understand the native cultures of the area. If you are there at the right time, you could experience a festival of one of the 10 tribes living in the region, featuring traditional dances, native food, talks, and art shows.
7. Walk Through Historic Downtown Flagstaff
You can’t miss a walk through Historic Downtown Flagstaff, centered on the old train station and also housing the Flagstaff Visitor Center. Start your tour here, pick up a brochure, shop for souvenirs, and check out the Amtrak ticket office, which is still in use. If you spend some time here, you will most likely see a train pass by.
Walk across the street for a leisurely stroll through historic buildings that have been converted into boutique shops, galleries, clothing stores, cafes, and restaurants.
8. Take A Tour Of The Lowell Observatory
At the end of the day, visit the Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill. Get there at sunset for an opportunity to take a walk on the hill, and then visit the observatory where Pluto was discovered.
Take the guided tour of the center to learn about its history and stop at the historic 24-inch Clark refracting telescope built in 1896 and still usable today. You’ll learn about the discovery of Pluto and get to look at the Pluto Discovery Telescope.
9. Visit The Surrounding National Parks
Flagstaff is surrounded by a few amazing national parks you can’t miss, all within a short drive of downtown.
Stop at Walnut Canyon National Monument and walk through the ancient cliff dwellings along the side of the canyon named for the wild walnut trees growing at the bottom. Or just take a leisurely stroll on the paved rim trail.
Visit the gorgeous Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, which showcases the youngest cinder cone in the surrounding volcanic field. Hike through black lava sand or rock, enjoy the surrounding ponderosa pines, and learn firsthand about the geology of the region.
Keep driving on the Sunset Crater Scenic Loop to Wupatki National Monument. Walk among the ruins of ancient structures, some of them up to four stories high.
Best Restaurants In Flagstaff
Spending a weekend in Flagstaff also means enjoying its culinary landscape. You’ll find a great meal here at any time of the day and for every taste and budget, from high-end gourmet restaurants to tiny hole-in-the-wall establishments.
Here are a few of my favorites.
Firecreek Coffee Company
If you are like me and the hotel’s morning coffee just doesn’t cut it for you, you need to try the espresso at Firecreek Coffee Company in Historic Downtown Flagstaff. And you don’t have to order the espresso, either -- from the perfect cup of cappuccino to lattes and gourmet blends, you’ll find something to satisfy your coffee craving. Pair it with one of their fresh-baked pastries or stay for a full breakfast.
In our quest for the best pizza in town, we found Pizzicletta a few years ago. Baked from fresh ingredients, their thin, crispy dough makes one of the best Margherita pizzas I’ve ever tried -- anywhere. Though pizza is their specialty, they have other Italian fare, too. And if you are in the mood for dessert, be sure to try their house-made gelato.
You’ll find Pizzicletta on a corner of Phoenix Avenue in a small and unassuming brick building.
Brix Restaurant & Wine Bar
For a satisfying meal after a day of hiking in the forests around Flagstaff, dine at Brix Restaurant & Wine Bar, where you’ll be delighted by the farm-focused, fresh meals. Big on sustainability, Brix uses fresh ingredients from local farmers and ranchers. You’ll find seasonal dishes that will delight meat lovers and vegans alike. Ask your server for recommendations.
You’ll find Brix on San Francisco Street just a few blocks from downtown Flagstaff.
Best Places To Stay In Flagstaff
Considering it is the most popular destination in northern Arizona and a college town, Flagstaff has no shortage of accommodations.
If you want to feel like a part of history, stay at the Weatherford Hotel in downtown Flagstaff, built in 1897. The building might be old -- if you enjoy historic places, you’ll love walking through the hallways -- but the rooms are all comfortable, with modern amenities.
For a quiet night and luxury, you can’t beat the Little America Hotel on Butler Avenue. Surrounded by a pine forest, it feels like a small village, with winding pathways and more than 200 rooms. With the Silver Pine Restaurant on the premises, offering both indoor and outdoor seating, you don’t even need to go out to dine.
But if you are on a budget or just want a bed to sleep in, you’ll find a large selection of hotels on Lucky Lane between the highway and the train tracks. The noise in most of them might keep you up -- the trains run all night, not to mention the trucks on Interstate 40. Despite this, the new La Quinta Inn, at the end of the row, offers a quiet stay.
Pro Tip: No matter what you do in and around Flagstaff, but especially when you hike at higher elevations, you might experience altitude sickness. Make sure to drink plenty of water and take it slow.