If you’re like the millions of tourists who ride through town on their way to the Grand Canyon each year, maybe you stop to get gas, a cheeseburger, or directions. If you’re like many of them, you may even stay overnight in one of the dozens of chain motels or hotels.
Chances are, however, that you didn’t really get a good look at Flagstaff, Arizona, which many would agree is one of the best-kept secrets in the Southwest. Hidden behind the clusters of all-too-familiar fast-food restaurants, gas stations, and lodgings is a surprisingly rich travel destination in its own right.
So what makes Flagstaff different from so many other “gateway” cities, most of which depend on nearby national parks and other attractions for their existence? For one thing, tourism is only one of the many industries that keep Flagstaff’s economy vibrant and growing. Several large companies, including Gore and Nestle-Purina, have sizable operations there. And Northern Arizona University (NAU), a high-research educational institution that boasts world-renowned faculty, attracts more than 25,000 students.
Eighty miles south of one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, Flagstaff is in “high desert” country, sporting a climate with four seasons including a ski-worthy winter. It offers an unusually broad array of sights and experiences. Icons from a variety of cultures combine to produce a sort of mosaic of American history.
The cultures of the Navajo and Hopi tribes, whose reservations stretch for millions of square miles, are reflected in visual elements of Flagstaff and surrounding areas. Pioneer influences can still be seen in covered wagons and Paul Bunyan-esque statuary. Remnants of the old Route 66—50s-era diners and motels—still dot the landscape along the original route.
The historic downtown business district adds yet another dimension, with many buildings dating to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But Flagstaff is embracing the future as well. Cutting-edge technologies of sustainable “green” or LEED-certified buildings have been recently added, most notably on the campus of NAU.
Strolling around downtown, you’ll find a nice variety of clothing boutiques, gourmet restaurants, and eateries offering original creations. Arts, music, cultural events, outdoor sports, and science are all equally represented in the town’s calendar.
All this would be more than enough to make Flagstaff stand out from other travel destinations. But this mountain town also boasts a setting in the San Francisco Peaks that is absolutely stunning. The 11,000-foot peaks are visible from nearly anyplace you go, and Flagstaff is surrounded by the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world. When the sun sets and darkness falls, you’ll see the icing on the cake: more stars visible to the naked eye than in most inhabited areas of the continental U.S.
So if you're headed to the Grand Canyon, consider spending some extra time in Flagstaff. It's a great way to savor the scenery, the culture, and the climate.
©2013 Kerry Bennett