Off the Beaten Path in Flagstaff, Arizona
By Carrie Willink
Some may know this town as being “the last sign of human life before the Grand Canyon,” but it is oh, so much more! Walking through downtown Flagstaff is like taking a step back in time. Look around and you’ll spot Hotel Monte Vista, a building you might have seen in the movies. You’ll also see the historic Great American Train Station, and Route 66 runs directly through downtown. This town is picture perfect and Instagram-worthy! And it’s just 2.5 hours from our Phoenix camper van rental location. Let’s chat about the best places to hike, dine, drink, and get off the beaten path in Flagstaff, Arizona.
First off, if you’re coming from Phoenix on I-17, make sure you exit near Sedona so you can hit up the scenic route (89a) that reaches Flagstaff from Sedona. There is a beautiful vista called “Oak Creek Vista Overlook” that will take your breath away!
Also, once in Flagstaff, tour the mountains and check out the Snow Bowl which is a ski/snowboarding hill, but also has beautiful scenery.
There are a ton of awesome trails and places to see. Here are a few of my favorites that are unique and kid-friendly!
Lave River Cave
This is such a unique place to explore. It is 1.5 miles in and out of pure, beautiful darkness! No, blackness. You have likely not experienced a place so dark. This cave gives you all the good kind of creeps while experiencing something very magical. It is safe for children of most ages as long as you follow the tips below. Also, the beginning of the cave is the most difficult part, so take your time getting in and out.
How it formed:
As the lava flowed from the vent, the outside hardened into a tube-like formation. This newly created tunnel filled with molten lava creating a fiery faucet. Once the flow was done the cave cooled and remains a mile long tunnel for all of those brave enough to explore it. This 700,000-year-old formation remains a cool 35°-45° even in the summer.
- Warm clothes! We were there in the summer so we had tank tops and shorts on. But once in the cave the temperature changes! You’ll be happy you brought them.
- Headlamps. You’ll definitely need headlamps. Some people try and get by with handheld flashlights, but there are points where you may be on all fours to navigate through the cave so you’ll want your hands free. You can pick up some cheap ones at the local Walmart or Target in town that should work just fine.
- Good shoes! The terrain is rough and can be icy in places. Good hiking shoes are a must. You might also consider a helmet for safety. The cave’s ceiling is low-hanging in many places. Even the shortest of people have the potential to bang their head if they are focused on the ground.
Drive 9 miles north of Flagstaff on US 180 and turn west (left) on FR 245 (at milepost 230). Continue 3 miles to FR171 and turn south 1 mile to where FR 171B turns left a short distance to Lava River Cave.
Elden Lookout Trail
This hike was a bit more challenging. Moderate to difficult. It is a 5.7 mile out and back day hike with a steep incline. You’ll gain 2,290 feet in elevation, and remember that Flagstaff sits at around 7,000 feet as well so the air is very thin. You’ll want to bring plenty of water and be in good physical shape. As you are hiking, be sure to take plenty of breaks to take in the views! You’ll see all of Flagstaff and surrounding areas. Depending on the time of year, you may run into a bit of snow and ice, so be prepared with nice hiking shoes.
From Flagstaff, follow Santa Fe Avenue past the entrance to the Flagstaff Mall. You’ll find the trailhead parking lot on the north side of the street.
This place is an absolutely gorgeous trail that anyone at any level can do. You will see a lot of runners and people training. This is a 2.3-mile easy loop that will take you the tallest of trees, wildflowers, freshest of smells while staring at the stunning mountains in the distance!
A tasty day is coming your way! Flagstaff has some incredible dining opportunities.
Don’t you DARE go to Starbucks for breakfast! Macy’s Coffee is a must. This coffee shop is one of the most unique, tasty spots in all of Arizona. It’s right in the heart of Flagstaff just as it should be – if you are a coffee lover these beans will blow your mind. I will not lie, I have planned trips to Flagstaff just to eat their fresh fruit waffles. They are to die for! If you are a chai drinker then you have also found the best here. Don’t be surprised that the lines are out the door most days.
Now let’s have lunch at Diablo Burger.
You probably want to get your most hipster attire on before going here. If not, just find your closest beanie and slip in because these burgers will change your life for the better! A high grade of meat combined with interesting toppings and toasted buns, we recommend the Wrigley Field! Also, you should know Diablo Burger has communal seating only. So be prepared to meet someone new. You’ll find most people in Flagstaff are either NAU students or people who are traveling.
Grab your friend and head to dinner at Pizzacletta & Mother Road Brewery Co. These are not the same place but have a great partnership to make for the best of experiences! Sitting in Pizzacletta is its own kind of peaceful experience. Smell the wood fire smells and get a bit of the authentic Italian feel. If you want to pair your pizza with a tasty craft beer, find seating at the Mother Road Brewery on the patio in the summer or inside in the winter. Pizzacletta’s waiters will swing by to take your order here as well and can bring it over to you so you never have to leave the brewery!
Also be sure to check out Altitudes Bar & Grill. This is a great place to go relax with a beer and some comfort food after a day out on the ski hills. Shed some of those layers, kick back and enjoy the live music on weekends in this lodge-like atmosphere.
Oh so much to do and so little time. Hopefully, this gets you started and we hope you enjoy your trip to Flag!