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Exploring Flagstaff’s Unexpected Charms

An unbelievable, Ponderosa pine-carpeted landscape greeted us as our plane descended into Flagstaff’s tiny airport.

As we made our way to the pickup van at the airport, the air that welcomed us was cold and crisp, smelling like Christmas and imminent snow. Later, while driving around the charismatic downtown, we noticed microbreweries and foodie havens peppering the city streets, alongside the hip, young folks that frequent them.

This was not the Arizona I knew, where light auburn desert lands seemingly grasped at you endlessly and the only plants that managed to survive were prickly grass, hearty shrubs and cacti.

Flagstaff seemed more like a place where tobogganing and snow tubing might be a favorite family pastime in the winter and folks dressed in warm clothing because they absolutely have to. (Not because they’re weather wimps like most of us Southwesterners.)

To be fair, there is Sedona. But while its more famous neighbor prides itself on holistic retreats and spiritual healing, Flagstaff is wild and woolly, a bit rough around the edges and rugged all the way.

Tucked away from the surprisingly bustling downtown, Little America Flagstaff has gone to great lengths to embody many of its city’s idiosyncrasies. Thanks to a recent revamp, the property now offers a fresh take on our perception of Arizonian life.

Outside, Ponderosa pines and the occasional Quaking aspens flourish while a family of elk sometimes wander through its 530-acre land, which barely shows any trace of the hot and dry desert.

Inside, there’s the unexpected blend of typical Southwestern colors and patterns: Rustic mountain coziness finished off with modern art pieces you might see in more urbane hotels, as well as tranquil views of the forest and the magnificent colors of the sunset. And if the hotel isn’t in excellent form already, the luscious dishes, great cocktails and delightful desserts at its Silver Pine Restaurant and Bar are also on point, complementing Flagstaff’s fast blossoming gastronomy.

We happily spent several dinners here, contentedly feasting on grilled asparagus, herb-brined Tomahawk pork chops, diver scallops, homemade ice cream and bread pudding soaked with buttered rum sauce.

To really get to know a city’s culinary scene, however, you must venture off the resort and dine at local spots.

So we did, opting for a hearty lunch at the Beaver Street Brewery, famous for its fondues and its pizzas. There are other denizen-recommended joints to nosh in Del Rio, 47 Ranch, Diablo Burger and Shift Kitchen and Bar. But it’s Beaver Street, with its kitschy train station-themed décor and refreshing craft beer selection, that chugs along with hip, low-key Flagstaff vibe.

It was only right for us to make that pit stop.

Of course, if it’s microbrews you’ve come up to the Colorado Plateau for, then you’re in the right city. Many micro and craft breweries have found a discerning audience in Flagstaff—the 20-somethings fresh out of the university, the weary road trippers looking to unwind and even the enthusiastic European tourists retracing the legendary Route 66.

Though more of a cocktails person myself, I rather enjoyed the refreshing flights at Lumberyard Brewing Company, Beaver Street’s sister brewery and Mother Road Brewing, where we sampled our beer on a communal picnic table under a beautiful, blue-sky day.

Yet, it must be said, this being the jumping off point to the Grand Canyon and many other adventures, that clear, sunny days like this are better spent in the wildly beautiful outdoors. We needed not stray far.

On another glorious day, we booked a guided nature walk with local Christi Sorrell—arborist, botanist and all around nature expert—right in the hotel’s herculean backyard. Later, we took to the treetops at the Flagstaff Extreme Zip Line Course where up to 30 lines dangled as high as 80 feet. To the less daring, it might have been a terrifying undertaking. But we had conquered mightier zip lines before so we flew away from one tree to another, higher and higher through the evergreens.

We were dauntless. We had to be.

Because ultimately, though Flagstaff might be a different world, we were still in Arizona. And its sense of epic adventure remains the same.

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