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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Flagstaff


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I might not have devoted two nights of our itinerary to Flagstaff if I'd realized what a small town it was, and that would have been regrettable. Flagstaff turned out to be a fascinating and entertaining city with awesome places to visit outside the metropolitan area as well. Downtown Flagstaff was the beneficiary of a major restoration and preservation project in the 1990's that has given the area an enduring atmosphere of history and character. It's a bustling neighborhood filled with restaurants and cafes, small boutiques, and stately brick buildings that look like they date back to the inception of the city in the late 19th century. The streets were enlivened by numerous colorful murals that adorned the walls of some of the more utilitarian buildings.
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We were fortunate to have arrived on Wednesday afternoon because that turned out to to the day for the weekly Downtown Community Market, an impressively sized farmer's market and street fair. There were hundreds of people there and plenty of space for them to spread out in so that it didn't feel crowded. That was an especially good thing since face masks were pretty much non-existent in Arizona. The vibe at the market was as if COVID had never happened, although cases had only really begun to decline a couple of months earlier. I had the feeling that masks were probably never much of a thing at all here. I couldn't really complain because I'd pretty much stopped wearing mine as well by then, although we still had the kids put them on when we were indoors or in crowds. Being able to forget about COVID was another nice thing about Flagstaff and fortunately none of us caught it. We browsed the different food and craft stalls, watched some public swing dance lessons, and got sewing lessons in Heritage Square.
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After two nights in motels we were thankfully back to Airbnb. Can't beat two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen for less money than two rooms at a motel. The other cool thing about Airbnbs is that they give the feel of living in a city instead of just passing through. Our place in Flagstaff was a cozy two bedroom unit attached to the back of a larger home in a quiet residential neighborhood on the west side of town.
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After settling in we went to our early dinner reservation at Brix, one of the more upscale restaurants in Flagstaff. We ate in a beautiful courtyard with stately trees but the execution was underwhelming and the food couldn't live up to the setting. Perhaps we just didn't order the right things. We sat at a round table with one support in the middle and every time one of the kids leaned on the table it would start to topple over. After a couple of close calls I kept one hand on the edge on the table and ate with the other hand for the rest of the meal.
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Flagstaff is also the home of the famed Lowell Observatory which had reopened to visitors on a limited basis after shutting its doors for COVID. With everything we had planned I hadn't wanted to commit to visiting the observatory but as it turned out we had the evening open after finishing dinner. Regretfully the receptionist told me they were already booked for the whole week, so that's clearly not an activity to remain undecided about until the last minute. Instead we returned to the downtown area for another look and were greeted by the sight of the historic Weatherford Hotel brightly illuminated for the evening.
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The following day we had a full slate of activities in the rural areas outside of Flagstaff. We fueled up for the long day at Tourist Home All Day Cafe, an oddly named but atmospheric restaurant with creative breakfast fare served up in a shady courtyard. The artfully decrepit wall next to us reminded me of the ruin bars in Budapest. Here in the Southside neighborhood the vibe was funky and bohemian compared to the stately antiquity of Downtown. Ethnic restaurants and brewpubs lined the neighborhood's main commercial drag of South San Francisco Street.
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Our first destination was Sunset Crater Volcano, about half an hour northwest of town. While the popular name of Sunset Crater evokes images of a huge hole in the ground, the crater is actually within an extinct volcano that is off limits to climbing. The only way to actually see the crater is to hike to the summit of a taller mountain nearby. The real attraction at Sunset Crater is the Bonito Lava Flow which was formed from the last eruption of the Sunset Volcano 900 years ago. We walked the short trail through the field of broken lava and black sand marveling at the amazing landscape that had been created by the extreme forces beneath the earth's surface.
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Another trail took us closer to the volcano itself, where we could see that one side of the volcano was covered with sparse vegetation while the other had only black sand. There were some different lava formations we hadn't seen on the first trail and the twisted, split remnants of trees that looked as though they had been struck by lightning. It was rapidly growing hotter and there was no shelter on the trail so we kept a steady pace along the loop until we were back to the coolness of our vehicle.
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Instead of returning to the highway we continued down the one lane state road to our next destination. We were rewarded with stunning vistas of bright green scrub set against a background of arid brown soil dusted with a fine coat of lava sand. Eventually we reached the beginning of the Wupatki National Monument, an area that contains the ruins of several ancient Native American pueblos. We followed the signage to the Wukoki ruin, where a mercifully short trail led from the parking area to a low sandstone outcrop atop which were the remains of the brick pueblo. It was a fascinating spot because of both the intricate masonry of the building as well as the pristine severity of the surroundings. It was hard to believe that at one time people called this inhospitable and seemingly barren area their home.
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Slightly further down the state road were the ruins of the Wupatki Pueblo. By now the kids were sleeping so Mei Ling and I went out in shifts for a quick scan. This was a much larger complex than Wukoki and had a remarkable background of hills that were an exquisite blend of luminescent green foliage and black lava sand.
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Just to the east of Flagstaff is Walnut Canyon National Monument, a 350 foot deep trench whose walls contain the remnants of cliff dwellings that were inhabited by the Sinagua tribe until they were abandoned 800 years ago. There are two ways to see the canyon. We opted for the easy, paved Rim Trail with expansive if distant views of the Kaibab limestone canyon walls. The more strenuous Island Trail dives into the canyon and meanders past the cliff dwellings, but it has some unprotected dropoffs and eventually requires a 185 foot climb back to the rim. The kids were already a little tired from the earlier activities so we decided we'd done enough for the day.
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We got back to Flagstaff early enough to check out a few art galleries downtown that we'd missed the previous day. We had a decent dinner at a Thai restaurant on the main drag and finally retired for the night quite pleased with our experience in the city. Downtown Flagstaff and especially Wupatki had more than justified the decision to spend two nights in Flagstaff. In the morning we had an early departure for the Friday morning farmer's market in Sedona.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:31 Archived in USA Tagged arizona family_travel flagstaff travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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