Northern Arizona’s striking vistas, from mountains to forests to desert, attract nature lovers, sportsmen and hikers from around the world. The northern half of the state includes cities such as Flagstaff, Prescott and Sedona as well as several Indian Reservations, including the expansive Hopi and Navajo Nation reservations. But the state’s crown jewel is undoubtedly The Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is indescribably beautiful, but as the nation’s second most visited park, it suffers from crowds of tourists in season, especially on the South Rim. With some strategic planning, you can avoid the busiest times and make it an experience to remember.
Visiting the Canyon: The Grand Canyon (website) is accessed through three main entrances, each named for the direction, i.e. North, South and West. Travelers often make the trip from Las Vegas or the Phoenix area, both about 4 to 5 hours depending on traffic. The Canyon is quite busy in the summer, not to mention often brutally hot, so the best times to visit are weekdays in the spring and fall. The North Rim closes in the winter while the South Rim stays open year round. The North Rim also gets only about 10% of the visitors of the South Rim so expect it to be far less crowded at peak visiting times. The three year old Grand Canyon Skywalk is found at the West Rim, the closest viewing point to Las Vegas. The West Rim is not in the actual National Park, but part of the Hualapai Indian Reservation, and the fees are different than those at the South and North rims.
The Bright Angel trail near Bright Angel Lodge is a popular descent into the canyon. For info on backpacking and camping, visit our Backcountry Grand Canyon Guide.
Getting There: There are two access points to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon from Southern Arizona, from the south via Flagstaff to Route 180 then 64 or from Route 89 to 64 from the east. Route 64 wends its way through part of the park and offers multiple places to stop and see both the canyon and the Painted Desert. For the West Rim, drive south from Las Vegas over the Hoover Dam. To reach the North Rim, drive from Las Vegas east on Route 15 and then follow various routes through Utah – if you can, leave some time to visit Zion National Park. Visitors can also take a 2 hour 15 minute trip on the Grand Canyon Railway from Williams, AZ (Official Website). Fares start at $70 round-trip with park admission ($8 per person with rail fare) additional.
Weather: The Grand Canyon is about 7,000 feet above sea level so expect it to be cooler than Las Vegas or Southern Arizona. The North Rim gets more precipitation than the South Rim and is generally cooler, especially in summer. Travel with a sweater no matter the season and prepare for it to cool down considerably at night.
Cost: North, South & East Rim: $25 per car, pass valid for 7 days ($50 annual pass). Buy your pass in advance online to avoid the long lines upon entry (there are separate lanes for passholders). West Rim: Grand Canyon Skywalk $29.95 (adults), $22.46 (children) – also required is the purchase of a Legacy Pass $40.95 (adults).
Flagstaff is surrounded by national forest and dominated by the San Francisco Peaks range directly to the north. In addition to being the largest city near the Grand Canyon, it is an excellent starting point for exploring the former Native American settlement at Wupatki as well as the National Monuments at Sunset Crater and Walnut Canyon.
The Wupatki National Monument (website) consists of five pueblos in a compact area less than thirty miles north of Flagstaff. Here native peoples lived on the edge of the Painted Desert, raising crops in seemingly impossible conditions. The buildings are large structures with multiple rooms – the largest being the Wupatki Pueblo found behind the visitors’ center. Standing among the remains of the pueblo, looking out at the vast desert vistas, one cannot help but realize the daily struggle to survive in such an inhospitable climate.
Hours: 9am – 5pm daily (the pueblo behind the visitor’s center can be accessed after closing, just follow the sidewalk behind the building)
Admission: $5, valid for 7 days and includes admission to Sunset Crater, $25 annual pass
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument (website) was formed over 900 years ago by a series of explosions that created a dramatic landscape featuring lava flows and cinders. Today, visitors can take a one mile walk on the Lava Flow Trail through a volcanic landscape.
Hours: November – April 9am – 5pm, May – October 8am – 5pm
Admission: $5, valid for 7 days and includes admission to Wupatki National Monument, $25 annual pass
Native dwellings carved directly into the cliffs make Walnut Canyon (website) a popular destination just east of Flagstaff. Two trails are available, the Island Trail is a strenuous climb that brings visitors up close and personal with the dwellings while the Rim Trail is far easier and offers breathtaking canyon views.
Hours: November – April 9am – 5pm, May – October 8am – 5pm
Admission: $5, valid for 7 days, $25 annual pass
The City of Flagstaff
First settled in the late 1870s, Flagstaff has turned a crossroads in the past few years. Historically a railroad and timber town later dominated by outdoor activities, the city itself was neglected for years but in the past decade has enjoyed a resurgence.
Flagstaff is bisected by the main rail line from Albuquerque to Los Angeles, as well as historic Route 66. North of the train tracks, the historic downtown features the recently restored Hotel Weatherford (23 N. Leroux St., 928-779-1919, website), as well as the nearly hundred year old Orpheum Theater, both built by John Weatherford. The Orpheum (website) has been completely renovated and today features both film series and live music performances, while the Hotel Weatherford hosts nightly music performances in the downstairs bar and restaurant, Charly’s Pub. The main avenues, Santa Fe, W. Aspen, N. Leroux and San Francisco, are full of restaurants and shops, especially ones selling all types of outdoors gear and clothing.
North of downtown on Route 180 is the Pioneer Museum (website), housed in the former Coconino County Hospital for the Indigent. Run by the Arizona Historical Society, the museum’s exhibits provide a glimpse into the area’s pioneer past (Hours: Mon – Sat 9am – 5pm, Adults $5, Seniors & Kids $4). East of town is the famous Museum Club (3404 Rt. 66) with its log cabin exterior, today a live music venue and roadhouse featuring Country and Western acts as well as Arizona’s largest wood dance floor
The world famous Lowell Observatory (website), one of the country’s oldest observatories, sits on Mars Hill above the city. The original scope, the Alvan Clark Telescope is still in use today at the Visitors’ Center, while other more powerful scopes have been built outside town. The Lowell Observatory is open year-round for tours in the afternoon and evenings. If you find Flagstaff relatively dark at night, it’s due to a city ordinance to reduce light pollution interference for Lowell’s telescopes.
Hours: Daytime Nov – Feb 12pm – 5pm, March – Oct 9am – 5pm; Evening Sept – May Mon/Wed/Fri/Sat 5:30pm – 9:30pm, June – August Mon – Sat 5:30pm – 10pm
Admission: Adults $12 , Students $10 , Kids 5 – 17 $5
Flagstaff is surrounded by National Forests, a significant change from the mostly desert terrain of much of northern Arizona. Looming over the city is Humphrey’s Peak, the tallest mountain in the state and home to popular winter destination, the Arizona Snowbowl (website). The Snowbowl has 32 ski trails and 4 lifts as well as two lodges – Hart Prairie Lodge and Agassiz Lodge. In the summer, a scenic skyride and hiking trails attract visitors to the peaks.
Historic Riordan Mansion (website), a 40 room mansion and accompanying 54 acre state park, has been slated for closure this year due to state budget cuts and it is unclear when or if it will reopen.
Where to Eat
Brix (413 N. San Francisco, 928-213-1021, website) is as fine dining as Flagstaff gets, with a sophisticated seasonal American menu highlighting local ingredients and an extensive winelist served in a historic Carriage House. Dinner for two with wine from $100 – $150. Also a great option on Sundays for their $30 three-course “Sunday Supper” prix-fixe.
Macy’s European Café (14 South Beaver Street, website) is a coffee shop and vegetarian restaurant with a grungy, student vibe. Insanely popular among Northern Arizona University students, the line sometimes spills out onto the sidewalk – don’t expect fast service but do go for the coffee, roasted in house as well as the healthy dishes – just choose from the day’s selections on the blackboard.
Sedona and Surroundings
The beautiful resort town of Sedona, about 45 minutes south of Flagstaff, is ringed by towering red rock buttes. A small city slightly more than 100 years old, in the past few decades Sedona has grown quickly as a destination for retirees, adventure travelers and devotees of alternative lifestyles.
About halfway down 89A from Flagstaff, be sure to stop at the Oak Creek Vista for an amazing view of the Oak Creek Canyon and Coconino National Forest. There are several places to take in the canyons and stands are filled with Native American jewelry and crafts. Much of the upper area is paved though there are several unpaved hiking paths. Continuing south on 89A, the road takes a series of switchbacks as it descends the canyon. Several miles along you will see signs for Slide Rock
State Park, a 43-acre historic park on the former Pendley homestead (website). In years past, the homestead was an apple farm and apples are still raised today – visit in September for the annual apple festival. Visitors mainly come to enjoy a dip in the creek running alongside the homestead grounds, with its slippery rock slide giving the park its name.
Sedona itself is a gorgeous town ringed by towering sandstone red rocks, which sport names such as Bell Rock, Snoopy Rock and Coffee Pot Rock, visible from nearly every angle. The city is also famous for its light, especially the sunsets that enhance the red rock formations. Adventure travelers who travel to Sedona can be seen scaling the buttes, while hikers and off-road fans have dozens of trails to follow outside the city. New Age devotees flock to the area for the energy vortexes – fields emitting from the Earth, which are classified as masculine, feminine or balanced and reputedly able to help balance out a person’s energy – believed to be scattered throughout Sedona. Some are thought to be masculine, others feminine, which is considered a unique occurrence in nature. And if you are neither adventurer nor New Ager, you can enjoy the numerous spas, galleries and restaurants in some of most stunning surroundings in the country.
The more touristy part of Sedona is known as “uptown” (oddly there is no downtown), which includes a long stretch of shops selling tourist trinkets, crystals and cowboy regalia. From here you can take tours via trolley (Sedona Trolley) or pink jeep to the outlying canyons. Trolley tours give you a broad overview of the city and the nearby canyons, while the jeep tours will take you more off road and closer to nature. Look for free parking behind the line of shops along 89A – with the secret bonus of incredible views overlooking the red rock formations.
Take a left at route 179 and down the hill you will find Tlaquepaque (website), an arts and crafts shopping village. While the atmosphere is somewhat faux-Southwest, the numerous shops and galleries are a popular draw. For good Mexican food, the village’s El Rincon (website) is worth a stop. The menus may give the impression of a casual chain restaurant but the ingredients are fresh and the ample margaritas a perfect cool down.
Sedona’s most unusual attraction may be the Chapel of the Holy Cross (780 Chapel Road, Sedona, 928-282-4069, website), a Catholic chapel which seems to emerge from a red rock wall that towers a thousand feet. (Hours: Mon – Sat 9am – 5pm, Sun 10am – 5pm)
With so many gorgeous vistas in Sedona, many featured in some of Hollywood’s most famous Westerns, there are several scenic overlooks and hiking spots in and around the city. A popular one in the city itself is on the Airport road, which has free parking. Many other areas around Sedona are National Forest and you will need a Red Rock Pass to park. Passes are $5/day, $15 for 7 days or $20 for a year.
Red Rock State Park
Outside of town, Red Rock State Park (website) is the area’s most popular park, with breathtaking views and 286 acres of trails drawing hikers. Don’t miss the Moonlight Hikes and Sunset Walks. Admission $7 per vehicle (up to 4 adults), $2 individual/bicycle.
South of Sedona are a number of wineries, the most prominent being Page Springs Cellars (1500 North Page Springs Road, follow the signs to Page Springs from South Page Springs Road or take North Page Springs Road from 89, website). This popular tasting room, open 11am – 6pm daily, features some surprisingly well made Arizona wines made by highly regarded winemaker Eric Glomski. Wine tastings are $10 for a flight of wines, including a souvenir glass. After your tasting, you can enjoy a glass of wine on the patio overlooking the vineyards