AAA Travel Tips / Route 66 Road Trip to Flagstaff is Well Worth a Visit, and a Repeat Visit

Route 66 Road Trip to Flagstaff is Well Worth a Visit, and a Repeat Visit

AAA/Jennifer Broome
By Jennifer Broome , Travel Journalist and TV Personality
October 25, 2019
Route 66 runs through its downtown. It was the world’s first international dark skies city. The planet Pluto was discovered from its world-renowned observatory. It sits at the base of the San Francisco Peaks in the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest. The remnants of ancient cultures and a volcano crater are short drives away. It’s only 90 minutes to see the jaw-dropping scenery of one of the seven natural wonders of the world. There's so much more to know about and see, so make Flagstaff a definite stop during an epic road trip across the Southwest. If you prefer, fly in on one of the direct flights from Dallas, Denver or Phoenix.
I spent three days on a getaway to Flagstaff and wished I were staying for a week-long vacation. Why? Because Flagstaff is a unique crossroads of outdoor adventure, space exploration, Americana and culinary innovation. From the depths of the Grand Canyon to galaxies far away, Flagstaff is a base camp for adventure in northern Arizona.
Sound of Flight Mural in Arizona
AAA/Jennifer Broome

Explore downtown Flagstaff along Route 66

I started and ended my Flagstaff trip exploring sites along Route 66. My first stop was at the Visitor Center in a historic train station dating back to 1926. Something to know before you go—there are one-way streets around the visitor center. This is a great spot to watch trains go by. As you explore the Mother Road and downtown, you’ll see beautifully painted murals. “The Sound of Flight” mural is near the Orpheum Theatre. The colorful mural is the largest one in Arizona.
Close to there, I jumped on a tour with Arizona Segway and Pedal Tours. The two-hour tour is a unique way to explore Route 66 and Flagstaff on two wheels. You cruise by some of the historic motels and places along the Mother Road, through the campus of Northern Arizona University, and past Flagstaff’s Wild West red light district, and get to go off-roading on the Flagstaff Urban Trail System. Afterward, enjoy a beer at the Mother Road Brewing Company. The locally owned craft brewery is on the railroad spur, a lost portion of the famous road. Take a few turns on the dance floor at The Museum Club. The classic honky-tonk opened in 1931. I stopped by the iconic Route 66 motels and the “Mother Myth of Route 66” mural—which takes you through the history of the famous road—several times.
Sunset Volcano Crater
AAA/Jennifer Broome

Visit areas used as astronaut training grounds

Here’s an interesting tidbit—every astronaut to step foot on the moon trained in Flagstaff. As you explore some of the out-of-this-world topography, you can imagine you’re walking on a lunar landscape. Flagstaff and the surrounding areas were used for geology training, moon mapping, mission simulations and lunar rover testing for the Apollo program. Follow the lunar landmarks trail to explore Flagstaff’s connection to space travel. Start at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center. You can visit during business hours on weekdays. In the lobby of the Shoemaker Building, there’s Grover, a land rover simulator used by crews of Apollo 15-17. It was built for $1,900 in 90 days in Flagstaff.
Eugene Shoemaker created the USGS’s Astrogeology branch in 1961 and established the Flagstaff Field Center in 1963. Cinder Lake Crater Field is where NASA blasted hundreds of craters for field training and testing of the Lunar Roving Vehicle prototypes to simulate the Sea of Tranquility, where Apollo 11 would land on the moon. You must call ahead to visit on weekdays and can only do so in a four-wheel drive vehicle.
To see one of the world’s best-preserved meteorite impact craters, drive 42 miles east of Flagstaff to Meteor Crater. About 50,000 years ago, the meteorite rocked the Southwest. Astronauts trained to land on the moon in the mile-wide and 550-feet deep geologic feature. Guided rim tours are included with admission. Closer to Flagstaff, astronauts learned to identify topographical features of the moon’s volcanic surface in the 900-year-old volcanic landscape of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Astronauts also studied the geological strata of the Grand Canyon to help them identify geological features in space.
Lowell Observatory
Courtesy of Discover Flagstaff

Enjoy amazing views of star-filled skies

For epic stargazing, plan an evening at Lowell Observatory. Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto here in 1930. Lowell Observatory was used to create the lunar maps for the Apollo moon missions. In 2001, Flagstaff was named the world’s first International Dark Sky City. The observatory sits at 7,200 feet and the views of galaxies thousands of light years away are incredible, especially through the lens of the historic Clark Refractor built in 1896. There are a variety of programs and demonstrations offered during the evenings. Allot a couple of hours to peer through telescopes and sit in on astronomy presentations.
Wupatki National Monument
AAA/Jennifer Broome

Discover three national monuments in one afternoon

There are ancient ruins and a volcano crater you can easily visit in one afternoon. It may sound like an overachieving road trip feat to see three national monuments, but it is doable in Flagstaff. Head to Walnut Canyon National Monument first. It’s about 10 minutes from downtown. If you only have a few minutes, enjoy the view from the overlook at the visitor center. I took an hour to hike the Island Trail. You start going down a 273-step staircase on this steep one-mile trail. The loop has 190 steps scattered along the paved trail. The Sinagua people lived in the area between 1100 and 1250. There are more than 300 dwellings including about 70 living spaces. Most of the dwellings are on the cliff walls, but on the Island Trail you do get up close to a couple of them. Take water and layers if you do the Island Trail. The hike back up the 273 steps will leave you breathless.
From Walnut Canyon, head to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, which is 19 miles north of Flagstaff. It erupted between 1040 and 1100. The cinder cone you see formed during the eruption’s early stages. I hiked the one-mile Lava Flow Trail and marveled at the unique topography. I continued on the scenic loop road to Wupatki National Monument to explore ancient dwellings. My first stop was the Wukoki Pueblo, which looks like an old castle towering above the desert landscape. I also made stops to walk the half-mile trail at Wupatki Pueblo, which is the grandest pueblo in the national monument, along with making quick stops at the Citadel and Box Canyon Ruins. By the time I got to the box canyon in the late afternoon sunshine, I had the ruins to myself. It took me about 40 minutes to drive back to downtown Flagstaff where I headed to Lowell Observatory for an evening of stargazing.
Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona
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Road trip to the Grand Canyon

Take the scenic hour and a half drive to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Give yourself at least three hours to make stops along the rim. You can drive it, but parking is limited. A better option for sightseeing is to take one of the free shuttles along the 25-mile stretch from Grand Canyon Village to the Desert View Watchtower. If you’ve been wowed by the canyon and painted desert views before, experience it another way and bike the rim. You can book a tour or just rent a bike with Bright Angel Bicycles in Grand Canyon Village. If you do the 3.5-hour Hermit Road Tour or 2.5-hour Yaki Point Tour, you'll learn about the area’s geology, anthropology and wildlife. Both tours are family friendly. It’s best to make a reservation in advance. On my bike tour we saw mule deer munching away in a meadow and a couple of elk sunbathing. The Grand Canyon is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year.
The Toasted Owl in Flagstaff Arizona
Courtesy of Discover Flagstaff

Try these recommended Flagstaff restaurants

From moon-themed sips and eats to unique coffeehouses, Flagstaff is filled with cool cafés and restaurants. It’s a hoot inside The Toasted Owl Café. Go for the smashed avocado toast that’s enough for two people. From the chandeliers to cookie jars, everything is owl-themed in this quirky café. If there’s a wait, relax in one of the vintage chairs or loveseats on the patio. Another locals’ favorite is Macy's European Coffee House & Bakery. My eyes glazed over looking at the muffins, scones and pastries as I ordered a latte.
On the east side of town at the corner of Route 66 and 4th Street is Eat n’ Run. The biking-inspired eatery is part coffee bar and part artisan sandwich joint. My picks are the breakfast tacos and Arizona Sunrise smoothie, then order a Mediterranean wrap to-go for lunch while you’re out adventuring. For a spot that’s a restaurant and a bakery, stop in Tourist Home Café. I noshed on fish tacos outside on the patio and learned about Flagstaff’s once-vibrant Basque sheepherding community, since the patio is next to a pelota handball court built in 1926. Sip a masala chai for afternoon tea in Steep Leaf Lounge. Pair it with a locally made chocolate truffle for a sweet afternoon pick-me-up. For dinner, you have a plethora of options. Pop into one of the local craft breweries. Get your Mexican fix at MartAnne’s Burrito Palace. Chow down on a burger at Diablo. Dive into a pizza at Pizzicletta. Toast the day with a nightcap like the earthshine drink at Annex Cocktail Lounge.
I wanted to try the innovative cuisine at Shift. I sat at the bar in this intimate restaurant and dined on golden beet soup and a fresh pesto pasta while sipping a Fuego 75, which is a spicy twist on the classic French 75 cocktail. In the evening I went to Lowell Observatory in search of a late evening dinner. My choice was FLG Terroir. The wine bar tucked away on the second floor of the Switzer building is a local favorite. The roasted asparagus salad with wine poached strawberries is a must.
Residence Inn by Marriott in Flagstaff Arizona
Courtesy of Discover Flagstaff

Choose from diverse Flagstaff hotels and places to stay

The places to stay are just as diverse as the food scene. I stayed in two different places during my trip so I could experience different accommodations. If you want to stay downtown, the AAA Three Diamond Residence Inn by Marriott Flagstaff has big rooms with contemporary décor and is in a primo location. I really enjoyed being able to park my rental car at the hotel and easily walk anywhere in town. If you’re wanting a resort experience, the AAA Four Diamond Little America Hotel is just a couple of minutes from downtown. The rooms decorated in clean lines and a Southwest flair are uber spacious. There’s a 2.5-mile hiking trail through ponderosa pines on property. I enjoyed a lovely early morning walk in the forest before a wonderful blueberry pancake breakfast in Silver Pine Restaurant and Bar.
Scenic Chair Lift Arizona Snowbowl
AAA/Jennifer Broome

More unique things to do in Flagstaff

There are two more unique experiences you should add to your itinerary. Flagstaff sits at 7,000 feet in the Coconino National Forest. There’s plenty of desert landscape to explore, but Arizona’s ski country is just on the outskirts of the city. Enjoy lunch with a view at 9,500 feet in the Agassiz Lodge at Arizona Snowbowl. Take the 30-minute scenic chairlift up to 11,510 feet. You might see elk, deer or even a fox along the ride. At the top have a snowball fight and enjoy the view. On a clear day, you can see the Grand Canyon and San Francisco Volcanic Field, and to the red rocks in Sedona. The lift is open daily from Memorial Weekend through Labor Day then Friday to Sunday through mid-October. If visiting in the winter, hit the slopes. Snowbowl gets an average of 260 inches of snow annually. It is home to Arizona’s longest ski season and boasts the most beginner terrain in the West.
The Museum of Northern Arizona has been working with native tribes for 90 years. As I strolled through the galleries during a Thirsty Thursday event after a day at the Grand Canyon, I couldn’t get enough of the museum’s anthropology, biology, fine art and geology collections. The Native Peoples of the Colorado Plateau gallery tells the stories of the 10 tribes in the area through their clothing, pottery and objects from daily life. I could have spent hours in that gallery or in the Babbit Gallery filled with handmade jewelry by the Hopi, Navajo and Zuni tribes. It was just one of the many reasons I fell in love with this unique mountain town where history meets adventure. I can’t wait to explore more of its Route 66 gems and lunar legacy, hike more trails and find more culinary treats on a future visit to Flagstaff.
Domestic Travel Boiler Plate Graphic
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