On New Year’s Eve, a giant pine cone drops three stories in front of the Weatherford Hotel in Flagstaff. This beloved tradition – a fun-loving mix of history, nature and quirkiness – perfectly encapsulates the city, whose offbeat charm is finally getting its due. For decades travelers viewed this northern Arizona community as no more than an overnight stop on the way to Grand Canyon National Park. But Flagstaff has flipped from pit stop to prime destination, energized by a new ale trail and a slew of farm-to-table eateries. And downtown’s Old West and Route 66 landmarks? They’re packed tight with a convivial crew of craft beer enthusiasts, history buffs, college students, and outdoor adventurers.

Historic Flagstaff

One big change has come to Flagstaff’s historic downtown: the silencing of passing trains. Beginning in 1882, locomotives announced their presence with loud horn blasts. With 125 trains coming through daily, it was quite the distraction – and the bane of travelers attempting a good night’s sleep. In 2010 the city established downtown quiet zones, and the trains blast no more.

You don’t just gaze at history in Flagstaff. At the Weatherford Hotel and the Hotel Monte Vista you sleep right inside of it. Famous guests of the three-story Weatherford, which opened on New Year’s Day in 1900, include President Theodore Roosevelt, landscape artist Thomas Moran and western novelist Zane Grey. Today the Weatherford’s three bars keep the place hopping. At the eclectically vintage (and supposedly haunted) Hotel Monte Vista, open since 1927, rooms are named for the movie stars and musicians who slept in them.

Historic Route 66 signs in Flagstaff. Image by Tony Hisgett / CC BY 2.0

Heritage Square, which sits midway between the two historic hotels, hosts Summer Nights in the Square from mid-May to mid-September. This outdoor series offers free entertainment on Thursdays and weekends: music concerts on Thursday nights, artistic performances on Friday nights, and family friendly movies in the evening on Saturdays. Locally owned shops and restaurants surround the square.

One block south Route 66 runs alongside the train tracks. A ten-minute stroll passes several Mother Road landmarks, including Babbitt Ford and Granny’s Closet. Two Route 66-era motels are home to two popular hostels: the co-owned Dubeau and Grand Canyon hostels. The best Route 66 stop in Flagstaff? The one-of-a-kind Museum Club, an oversized log cabin 3 ½ miles east of downtown. A former taxidermy museum, it’s now a country music roadhouse.

The Ale Trail, pub grub and farm-to-table fare

Most outdoor towns are happy to have one, maybe two, local microbreweries. But Flagstaff has the competition beat with four separate breweries strung along a .7-mile loop. This easy-to-walk circuit is part of the Flagstaff-Grand Canyon Ale Trail, a self-guided beer trail established in 2011.

Family friendly Beaver Street Brewery has been a local favorite for years, known for its satisfying pub grub and tasty brews. Around the block, Mother Road Brewing Company is impressing craft beer connoisseurs with its Lost Highway Black IPA. Its low-key taphouse doesn't serve food, but you can order a wood-fired pizza from tiny Pizzicletta next door.

But microbreweries aren't the only party in town. The come-on-in State Bar, which opened in 2014, limits its offerings to Arizona-made beer and wine – and that suits its happy patrons just fine. The Alpine Pedaler (alpinepedaler.com) is a popular way to pub crawl. Hop onboard this 14-passenger bicycle and pedal to your favorite pub.

Locally grown food is also winning raves. Coppa Cafe serves delicious meals sourced from around the area – it's so local that the owners have been known to forage for ingredients in surrounding forests. Long popular Brix Restaurant & Wine Bar keeps gourmands and oenophiles happy with contemporary farm-to-table food, top-notch wines, and attentive service.

Starry skies

Flagstaff was the first city to earn an International Dark Sky City designation, winning the honor in 2001. Dark Sky Cities are committed to keeping light pollution low and maintaining conditions that are favorable for viewing stars in the evening sky.

Clark Telescope, Lowell Observatory

Stargazers can drive up to Lowell Observatory, which sits on Mars Hill just west of downtown. Founded in 1894, the observatory is a research facility that is open to the public. Multimedia shows, telescope tours and spaced-themed exhibits are highlights. In the evening, visitors can observe the stars through telescopes set up on the grounds. The multimedia show Scanning the Skies: The Discovery Channel Telescope spotlights the observatory’s newest telescope, a seven-story wonder perched on a cinder cone 40 miles southeast of Flagstaff.

Outdoor adventure

Flanked by ponderosa pines and snow-capped mountains, Flagstaff is a four-season adventure town. Hiking is popular in warmer months, with ramblers tackling the many trails inside the Coconino National Forest. For an invigorating day hike, try one of the trails crisscrossing Mt. Elden northeast of downtown. More than 50 miles of trail are open to hikers and cyclists as part of the Flagstaff Urban Trail System (flagstaff.az.gov/futs). Try helpful Absolute Bikes for rentals.

View over the Coconino National Forest south of Flagstaff. Image by Brady Smith, U.S. Forest Service, Coconino National Forest / CC BY-SA 2.0

In winter, skiers swoosh down the slopes of Agassiz and Humphreys peaks at Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort just north of town. Here 40 runs unfurl between 9200ft and 11,500ft. Twenty-five miles of groomed cross-country ski trails await at the Flagstaff Nordic Center.

For explorers who like to mix history and geology with their adventuring, there are three fascinating national monuments within a 40-mile drive. Study the culture and geology of the Colorado Plateau at the Museum of Northern Arizona then hike to cliff dwellings at Walnut Canyon National Monument, a lava field at Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument (nps/sucr) and an 800-year-old pueblo at Wupatki National Monument.

And oh, we almost forgot. Eighty miles north of Flagstaff is one the most popular national parks in the United States, a place known as the Grand Canyon. Home to the mighty Colorado River, rugged canyon trails, breathtaking sunsets and an array of flora and fauna – it just might be worthy of a detour.

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