Highway 89 Road Trip Day 1: What To Do In Flagstaff Arizona and More

Delve into the cultural and natural wonders of Arizona with our guide on what to do in Flagstaff Arizona. This vibrant city boasts a rich history, stunning landscapes, and a plethora of activities. From historic Route 66 to the magnificent San Francisco Peaks, kickstart your Highway 89 road trip with a blend of urban charm and outdoor beauty.

what to do in flagstaff arizona image 1
This photo by Manuela Durson

Morning: Historic Downtown Flagstaff

As the sun begins to cast its early glow on the city, there’s no better place to commence your journey than the heart of Flagstaff: its historic downtown. A beautiful blend of heritage architecture, contemporary arts, and a vibrant local culture, this district sets the tone for your Highway 89 adventure.

Meander through the cobblestone streets and discover a myriad of vintage shops, each telling its own story. From handcrafted jewelry, antiques, to unique Southwestern souvenirs, there’s a treasure waiting for every traveler. Don’t forget to check out the Old Town Shops, known for their curated collection of gifts, handcrafted items, gear, restaurants and more.

By mid-morning, treat yourself to a coffee break. Head to Late For The Train, where you can enjoy a cup of freshly brewed coffee complemented by mountain views and the downtown hustle and bustle from their courtyard. If you’re in the mood for something sweet, their cinnamon rolls are a local favorite!

If perusing downtown isn’t really your style, and you want an alternative for what to do in Flagstaff Arizona, opt instead to spend some time at the Museum of Northern Arizona. This institution offers a deep dive into Flagstaff’s rich history, from its early Native American roots to its pivotal role in the Western expansion.

Engaging exhibits and friendly docents ensure an enlightening experience. The Museum of Northern Arizona is open starting at 10am daily, except for Tuesdays. If you are efficient, you can hit both downtown Flagstaff and the Museum of Northern Arizona (which is a three-mile drive from the heart of downtown).

northern arizona university
NAU Flagstaff, image by Kit Leong

Afternoon: Explore NAU and the Arboretum

NAU’s Campus and the Walkup Skydome

Located just south of historic downtown, the Northern Arizona University (NAU) campus offers picturesque sights, historic buildings, and a taste of Flagstaff’s academic spirit. A walk around its grounds provides both serenity and intellectual stimulation. Dive into the bustling energy of student life by exploring the University Union. Explore the Walkup Skydome. While not typically on the list of top things to do in Flagstaff Arizona, the city is essentially a college town, and we highly recommend it.

A quick detour will lead you to the Riordan Mansion, an architectural gem and glimpse into Flagstaff’s early 20th-century elite. The mansion, with its Arts and Crafts style, stands as a testament to the city’s logging industry pioneers. Guided tours delve into the Riordan family’s legacy and offer insights into early life in Flagstaff.

Visit the Arboretum at Flagstaff

A short drive from NAU, the Arboretum at Flagstaff offers an immersive experience in the region’s diverse flora and fauna. Situated at 7,150 feet in elevation, it’s a hub for plants native to the Colorado Plateau.

Opt for a guided tour where possible if you aren’t pressed for time. Here, knowledgeable guides will introduce you to a wide variety of plants, birds, and insects unique to this high-altitude region. The butterfly house, in particular, is a must-visit, especially if visiting during the warmer months.

Strategically placed benches and overlooks provide stunning vistas of the surrounding mountains, valleys, and forests. It’s an ideal spot for photography enthusiasts or anyone wanting to soak in nature’s tranquility.

lowell observatory flagstaff
Lowell Observatory, image by J.A. Dunbar

Evening: Lowell Observatory And Downtown

Lowell Observatory Nighttime Experience

As the sun sets and the stars begin to sparkle, the Lowell Observatory transforms into a celestial wonderland. It’s the very place where the former planet Pluto was discovered, and it continues to be a hub for astronomical research and public education.

With the clear high-altitude skies of Flagstaff, stargazing here is a truly exceptional experience. Utilize the observatory’s powerful telescopes to get up-close views of planets, nebulae, galaxies, and star clusters. Expert guides are on hand to point out constellations and share captivating stories about the universe.

Visit the historic Clark Telescope Dome, which has been operational since the late 19th century. Here, you can learn about the observatory’s history, its significant contributions to astronomy, and even catch a glimpse of far-off celestial objects through the telescope.

Throughout the evening, the observatory often hosts interactive talks and presentations. These sessions, helmed by astronomers and space enthusiasts, dive deep into various topics ranging from the mysteries of black holes to the latest in space exploration. We recommend the Universe in Motion.

Historic Downtown Flagstaff At Night

After your cosmic adventure, head back to the heart of Flagstaff. The historic downtown area, with its beautifully preserved buildings, comes alive in the evening with vibrant lights, live music, and a palpable energy.

Meander through the pedestrian-friendly streets, popping into boutique shops and art galleries. The local artisans showcase everything from handmade jewelry to unique southwestern souvenirs.

Many bars and cafes in downtown Flagstaff host live music performances, especially on weekends. Whether you’re into jazz, rock, or local indie bands, there’s likely a venue playing tunes that’ll make you tap your feet. When you’ve had your fill, head in for a solid night’s sleep, because there’s a bit of driving to do on Day 2!

fat olives flagstaff
Fat Olives, from their website

Dining Recommendations

embassy suites by hilton flagstaff
Embassy Suites by Hilton Flagstaff, from their website

Lodging Recommendations

While there are ample camping and vacation rental options all over Highway 89, I personally highly prefer staying at Hilton-branded properties when traveling to national parks and during road trips. As such, here are three recommendations for places to stay in Flagstaff, Arizona on day 1 of the ultimate Highway 89 road trip.

  1. Embassy Suites by Hilton Flagstaff: 706 S. Milton Rd, Flagstaff, AZ 86001
  2. Doubletree By Hilton Hotel Flagstaff: 1175 W Route 66, Flagstaff, AZ 86001
  3. Hilton Garden Inn Flagstaff: 350 W Forest Meadows St, Flagstaff, AZ 86001
Flagstaff, Arizona, image by Real Window Creative

Quick Things To Note

Maintaining Altitude Awareness

Flagstaff sits at an elevation of around 7,000 feet. If you’re coming from sea level or low-altitude areas, give your body time to acclimate. Drink plenty of water, limit alcohol intake, and consider taking it easy on the first day to prevent altitude sickness. More tips on avoiding altitude sickness can be found at this resource from the Cleveland Clinic.

The Weather in Flagstaff May Surprise You

Due to its elevation, Flagstaff can have cooler temperatures compared to other parts of Arizona. Even in summer, evenings can get chilly. It’s always wise to pack layers and check the weather forecast ahead of time.

Parking in Downtown Flagstaff

While there’s a decent amount of parking available in downtown Flagstaff, it can get crowded during peak times. If you’re heading there in the evening, especially on weekends, consider arriving a bit earlier to find a good spot. Some parking areas might have time limits or fees (such as ParkFlag locations), so always check the signs.

Proper Observatory Etiquette

When visiting Lowell Observatory, remember to use red flashlights or torches (as they’re less disruptive to night vision). Avoid using flash photography. It’s also a good practice to listen to the guides and follow any rules they set out, ensuring a pleasant experience for everyone.

Making Reservations

Popular dining spots and some activities in Flagstaff can get booked up, especially during peak tourist season. If there’s a restaurant or activity you’re particularly keen on, consider making a reservation or checking availability in advance.

If you’re looking for what to do in Flagstaff Arizona and crowds are a game-changer for your plans, you shouldn’t be too concerned. While popular, Flagstaff is in no way as jam-packed as a pure tourist town like nearby Sedona.

Finding Local Events in Flagstaff

Flagstaff frequently hosts local events, festivals, and markets. Check the local event calendar or ask around to see if there’s something special happening during your visit. It might be a great way to immerse yourself in the local culture.

Flagstaff sign, image by INTREEGUE Photography

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the best way to get around Flagstaff?

Flagstaff is relatively compact, making it quite walkable, especially within the downtown area. However, for places a bit further out, like Lowell Observatory, you might consider driving or taking a local bus. If you prefer not to drive, there are also taxi services and rideshare options like Uber and Lyft available.

Of course, if you’re in the process of completing this Highway 89 two-week road trip, you’ve likely rented a vehicle. If so, Flagstaff is very driver-friendly, and parking issues are quite minimal.

Is Flagstaff safe for tourists?

Absolutely! Flagstaff is generally considered safe for visitors. However, like any other city, it’s always wise to stay aware of your surroundings, especially if you’re out late at night. Stick to well-lit areas and avoid leaving valuables visible in your car.

How much time should I allocate for the Museum of Northern Arizona?

The Museum of Northern Arizona offers a rich dive into the region’s history, art, and cultures. On average, visitors spend about 1.5 to 2 hours exploring the exhibits. If you’re a history or art enthusiast, you might find yourself spending a bit more time.

Are there any entry fees for the Lowell observatory?

Yes, Lowell Observatory does charge an admission fee, which goes towards the maintenance of the facility and its educational programs. Prices can vary, and there are discounts available for seniors, children, and military personnel. It’s a good idea to check their official website for the most up-to-date pricing and hours of operation.

Is Flagstaff suitable for kids?

Definitely! Flagstaff offers a range of activities that kids will love. From exploring the hands-on exhibits at the museum to stargazing at the observatory, there’s plenty to keep younger visitors engaged and entertained. If you’re looking for what to do in Flagstaff Arizona with kids, this resource can’t be beat.

Flagstaff train station, image by RuslanKphoto

Our Final Thoughts on Highway 89 Day 1

Flagstaff, with its perfect blend of historical depth, natural beauty, and modern comforts, truly provides a picturesque kickoff to this epic Highway 89 adventure. The day’s journey, steeped in the culture of the Native American tribes and the pioneering spirit of those who ventured westward, resonates with every step you take downtown and every artifact you encounter in the Museum of Northern Arizona.

The city’s charm, combined with the cosmic wonders unveiled at the Lowell Observatory, ensures that Flagstaff will leave an indelible mark on your memories.

As the stars twinkle above and the cool night air of this mountain town envelops you, you can’t help but anticipate the natural splendors awaiting in the days ahead.

With Day 1 setting such a high bar, the promise of the journey from Flagstaff to the mesmerizing landscapes of Zion National Park on Day 2 is bound to ignite excitement in every traveler. Rest well, for the adventures that lie ahead on Highway 89 promise to be nothing short of extraordinary.