Coconino Quest

When those triple-digit temps hit, escape to the mountains of Flagstaff

I've discovered that it's vital for me to travel to Flagstaff for a few weekends every summer.

What's not to like about this place? A thick pine forest rich with hiking trails. Great restaurants. Funky shops. Friendly locals. And average summer temps ranging from the mid-70s to the mid-80s.

When I've had enough of the triple digits, I climb into the mobile newsroom and head north to soak in the delights of Coconino County.

Arts and Sciences

There's no better place to learn about Flagstaff's history, geology and culture than the Museum of Northern Arizona, the "gateway to the Colorado Plateau," a 130,000-square-mile area that spreads across the Four Corners region.

Founded in 1928, the museum offers a look at both the science and art of Colorado Plateau. You can learn, for example, that the nearby San Francisco Peaks used to be a single peak, until a volcano blew off the top of the mountain and created the craggy landscape.

The most spectacular recent find by museum archaeologists: nearly complete fossilized remains of a therizinosaur, the so-called sickle-clawed dinosaur that dates back 93 million years.

While the therizinosaur is now on display in Mesa, there are lots of other dinosaurs at the MNA, including a life-size model of a dilophosaurus, which roamed the region during the Jurassic Period.

The museum also celebrates the Native American heritage of the region, with an extensive collection of artifacts, including pottery, jewelry, rugs and kachina dolls.

A show featuring the detailed watercolors by Gunnar Widforss, a Swedish painter who spent the last 13 years of his life painting the national parks of the West, continues through June 1. A show honoring the late Michael Kabotie, a Hopi muralist and painter who passed away last year, continues through Sept. 12.

The museum offers a variety of excursions into the Colorado Plateau this summer; 3101 N. Fort Valley Road; (928) 774-5213.

If you want more science, head across town to the Lowell Observatory atop Mars Hill. Built by Percival Lowell in 1894 so he could track the civilization he believed to be building canals on Mars, the observatory hosted Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930, and NASA staff and astronauts, who mapped the moon-landing site and trained for moonwalks at a nearby volcano. The observatory today keeps researchers busy on projects ranging from studying the atmospheric storms on Titan, one of Saturn's moons, to monitoring the progress of New Horizons, a spacecraft that's bound for Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. Next year, the observatory will be opening a new 4.2-meter, state-of-the-art telescope in nearby Happy Jack, in partnership with the Discovery Channel.

Daily tours take visitors to Lowell's original telescope, a massive steel contraption still housed in a wooden dome that rotates on a bed of '54 Ford pickup tires. You can still peer through the scope at the planets and stars between 5:30 and 10 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights; 1400 W. Mars Hill Road; (928) 774-3358.

Food and Drink

The heritage-food movement is alive and well in Flagstaff. The chefs at Brix Restaurant and Wine Bar, an elegant restaurant in the historic Carriage House on the edge of downtown, focus on regional ingredients brought together in gourmet plates. The spring menu includes herb-roasted duck breast and steak frites, as well as roasted local asparagus and shrimp and grits; 413 N. San Francisco St.; (928) 213-1021.

If you're on a tight budget, the folks behind Brix have opened up a second restaurant in the heart of downtown. The sophisticated Criollo Latin Kitchen offers regional foods fused into Latin offerings that range from tamarind-marinated pork tenderloin to a salmon tostada. A weekday happy hour features $2 sliders, fish tacos and Tecates, along with $3 margaritas; a weekend brunch includes blue-corn pancakes with homemade blueberry preserves, motuleños, and a build-your-own-omelet option. Criollo also offers tapas and a Sonoran hotdog. Bonus: free Wi-Fi; 16 N. San Francisco St.; (928) 774-0541.

Also getting in on heritage foods: Diablo Burger, a cozy eatery in downtown's Heritage Square. Diablo Burger's menu is limited but delicious, featuring juicy burgers made with beef from local ranches—the Flying M and the Bar T Bar, which are run by the Diablo Trust—with a wide variety of toppings, from the standard bacon and guacamole to homemade Hatch chili mayo and sauerkraut. Crisp, fresh-cut fries seasoned with rosemary come on the side. (Vegetarians can opt for a grilled-cheese sandwich, with an optional egg.) Beers from California's North Coast Brewing Co. and a variety of wines are also available; 120 N. Leroux St.; (928) 774-3274.

A more low-brow burger option is available at Mama Burger, a place that keeps the menu simple: freshly grilled burgers, with a side of fries. (Shakes and sodas are also available.) The small space is decorated with selected classified notices from craigslist; 112 E. Route 66; (928) 226-0616.

Flagstaff is home to two breweries that serve up fresh beer. The Beaver Street Brewery, housed in an old grocery store, has offerings ranging from the R&R Oatmeal Stout to Bramble Berry Brew, alongside sandwiches, salads, burgers and wood-fired pizzas; 11 S. Beaver St.; (928) 779-0079. (Beaver Street, which recently won a gold medal at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival for its Big Rapid Red, is opening up a new restaurant, Lumberyard Brewing Co., in a rehabbed lumber yard next to the train tracks along Route 66. The expanded location will allow the brewery to start canning and bottling its selections.)

The Flagstaff Brewing Company, in downtown proper, is a friendly pub that's a little more rough around the edges. FBC serves four different hand-crafted beers, including a Great Golden Ale. On some summer Saturday nights, the brewery expands its patio and throws a party that includes live music; 16 E. Route 66; (928) 773-1442.


The Orpheum Theater, a downtown movie palace that has been transformed into Flagstaff's biggest live-music venue, brings in a variety of touring bands. Among the acts on the schedule this summer: the Robert Cray Band (June 2), Old Blind Dogs (June 13) and Henry Rollins (June 18). The theater also shows films and does summer events for kids in conjunction with Bookmans Entertainment Exchange; 15 W. Aspen Ave.; (928) 556-1580.

The Green Room is a regular spot for live music, and offers an '80s dance night on Wednesday that brings out a wild crowd for a late night; 15. N. Agassiz St.; (928) 226-8669.

There are fun bars at two historic downtown Flagstaff hotels, the Monte Vista and Hotel Weatherford. The Monte V (100 N. San Francisco St.; 928-779-6971) is a bit more downscale than the environs of the Weatherford's Zane Grey Room (23 N. Leroux St.; 928-779-1919), but both regularly offer live music. Both are fine options for lodging as well.

Day Trips

Flagstaff is only an hour or so from the Grand Canyon, which offers—well, the Grand Canyon. 'Nuff said.

Alternative day trips and hikes abound. It's a short drive down U.S. Highway 89 to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, the site of a volcano that erupted about 1,000 years ago. Drive a loop road past the volcano, and you'll reach the Wupatki National Monument, a fascinating collection of Native American pueblo ruins. Bonus: The surrounding views of the Painted Desert are nothing short of spectacular. A $5 per-person admission charge allows you to explore both areas.

Walnut Canyon National Monument, located less than eight miles east of Flagstaff along Interstate 40, offers a one-mile round-trip hike that takes you past more than two dozen 700-year-old cliff dwellings that the Sinagua called home. There's an easier hike that offers scenic views along the canyon's rim. Entry fee: $5.