Planning an excursion to the Grand Canyon? The site is one of the most stunning vistas in the world, easily the top tourist destination in Arizona. While easily a daytrip on its own, there are a few easy roadside stops that aren’t too far out of your way and put the Canyon into perspective. This route goes through the town of Flagstaff, before proceeding up the Interstate I-89.
Flagstaff’s proximity to the Grand Canyon makes it a perfect provisioning or overnight spot. I stayed at the town’s newest hotel, the Courtyard by Marriott Flagstaff. It’s located a bit out of downtown on the intersection of two highways, which makes it super convenient for zipping out in the morning. This Marriott is a popular spot for groups, however – what seemed like a full army contingent arrived on the second day of my stay, which may lead to more noise than your usual hotel. However, if you’re here for the Grand Canyon, you’ll probably spend most of your day out and about, and the hotel’s relatively new build means that the beds are still blissfully firm.
Downtown Flagstaff is compact, but not exactly walkable – it’s definitely more of a driving town. There are, however, a few spots of special note:
- Galaxy Diner’s weekday-only $3.99 breakfast special features both sausage AND bacon. It’s your run-of-the-mill-diner with a bit of cheek.
- Los Altenos, a family-run Mexican haunt that absolutely lives up to the name ‘hole-in-the-wall’ at a great price. I especially recommend their platters if you’re ravenous.
- Natural Grocers: this is the local version of Trader Joe’s, with good prices for organic brands and a helpful staff. While there is a Whole Foods in town, this is a great provisioning stop, to load up on snacks for your day-trip to the Grand Canyon.
Think of Flagstaff as a quaint ‘frontier’ town – big enough to have all of the usual chains and convenience, but small enough to prepare yourself mentally for the stunning drive ahead.
2. Sunset Crater Volcano
The first sight of Sunset Crater took my breath away, an epic dent taken out of the mountain that speaks to the profound force of nature. The volcanic eruption happened roughly 900 years ago, reshaping the surrounding landscape and having a lasting effect on the local plants, animals, and people. It’s well-marked along the I-89, and a few minutes drive after the exit will take you within sight lines of the mountain. There’s an entrance fee of $5, but you can also see the volcano from a fair distance away if you’re not interested in getting closer. If you have the time, there’s a self-guided Lava Flow Trail that’s only one-mile long, which is well worth the time.
While you could go back to the highway, it also could be a great time to start the Scenic Loop Drive, a 34-mile scenic loop road that takes you from open meadows and pine forests surrounding Sunset Crater, through the Painted Desert, and to our next destination: the open red rock landscape of Wupatki National Monument. Drive time along the Loop Road is about 1 hour.
Directions (from Flagstaff): take US 89 north for 12 miles, turn right on the Sunset Crater – Wupatki Loop road and continue 2 miles to the visitor centre. Driving time from Flagstaff to Sunset Crater Volcano is 30 minutes.
3. Wupatki Pueblo
One of six prehistoric villages in the area, the Wupatki Pueblo National Monument is the most well-preserved and impressive site. The site represents a cultural crossroads, home to numerous native groups over thousands of years. At its height, the Wupatki Pubelo was home to 85-100 people, with several thousand more living within a day’s walk.
The drive getting to the pubelos (villages) alone is worth it, a rich backdrop of vivid red rocks and endless sky. On the site itself is the preserved structure, along with short interpretive trails, as well as current historical and conservatory efforts.
Directions (from Flagstaff): take US 89 north for 12 miles, turn right at sign for Sunset Crater Volcano – Wupatki National Monuments. Driving time from Flagstaff to Wupatki is around 1 hour.
4. Cameron Trading Post
Here’s a cool joint for lunch or dinner, if you don’t fancy fast food or overpriced tourist fare. The Cameron Trading Post is famous for their Navajo tacos, which is described on the menu as “A platter sized portion of Navajo Fry Bread, topped with ground beef, chili beans, lettuce, cheese, tomato and
mild green chile.” Yum. It’s available at all times of the day, along with other heartier and lighter options, including vegetarian ones. The dining room has an interesting pressed tin roof, as well as Native American art and crafts.
If you want to be closer to the Canyon to catch those brilliant sunrises, the place also has a motel and RV park. Further amenities include a gift shop, art gallery, and quaint little market with groceries. It’s a nice dose of comfort out in the wild expanses of the Grand Canyon.
Directions (from Flagstaff): take US 89 north for 54 miles. Driving time from Flagstaff is approximately 1 hour.
Disclosure: Hosted by Flagstaff Convention & Visitors Bureau, stay provided by Courtyard by Marriott Flagstaff. US data/talk/text plan provided by Roam Mobility. This review was neither paid for nor expected, and consists of my own thoughts of the experience.