Falling for Flagstaff.
I know that Flagstaff is not your typical Arizona desert city. I know that it sits at almost 7,000 feet on the Colorado Plateau beneath the 12,633-foot San Francisco Peaks, the tallest in the state. I know, too, that Flagstaff has the solid brick and stone architecture associated with Western mountain towns where mining or logging or ranching once ruled.
I know all these things. And I am nevertheless shocked to wake up to snow falling in big, wet flakes that settle on the pines and turn this city of 58,000 into a high-country wonderland.
We have come for Flagstaff in fall and instead are getting a taste of Flagstaff in winter. The snow shouldn't have surprised us: For the last two weeks, weather pages have shown Flagstaff as one of the nation's coldest spots. Still, it didn't sink in. This is Arizona after all: the land of snakes, sand, and saguaros.
Flagstaff winters sometimes last from autumn into May. We're fortunate, though, because on this day winter lasts only until lunch.
By late morning the clouds begin to break up. The air warms. We drive to Lockett Meadow on the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks and find autumn in all its glory. Aspen leaves, loosened by the steady mountain breeze, flutter to the forest floor, collecting in lingering patches of snow: golds and yellows and oranges playing off a pure white.
The mountains are their own best advertisement: From town, you can look up and see great swaths of yellow along their slopes. Over at the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Area, all of Flagstaff seems to have turned out to take in the fall splendor: students from Northern Arizona University, outdoor types bound for long hikes, families, retirees, and even one older woman breathing with the help of an oxygen tank, determined to get in her time on the mountain.
A TOWN THAT TRAINS MADE
The scene reminds me of an essay by onetime Flagstaff newspaper editor Platt Cline. He wrote: "For generations of Flagstaff residents, trips to view the turning colors of aspen ... have constituted not only pleasant excursions but almost tribal rites."
Cline provides a link to Flagstaff's earliest days. When he went to work here in 1938, folks were still around to tell tales of early Flagstaff The key event was the 1882 arrival of the railroad, which opened up cattle and lumber markets for the town.
The railroad, like the San Francisco Peaks, remains a force, a presence. Freight trains rumble through both day and night. The Southwest Chief, descendant of such legendary Santa Fe trains as the Super Chief, stops at the Tudor revival depot in the Downtown Historic Railroad District. And Flagstaff moves to the railroad's distinctive soundtrack: Train whistles play off a jangling boxcar rhythm, creating a cacophony to newcomers and a locals' lullaby.
Downtown had some tough times, and its distinctive architecture once suffocated under layers of renovations that destroyed the historic integrity. "A mishmash of old and semimodern" is how historian Al Richmond describes what it had become.
A decade ago, the National Trust's Main Street program, the city, and local businesses joined to preserve downtown. There was no single impetus, "just several dedicated people," Richmond says. "That's basically what starts anything. Somebody has to see the potential. This all could have been bulldozed."
Luckily, it wasn't. Downtown has a vintage quality that balances the strip-driven growth you see elsewhere. In handsome buildings along Aspen Avenue and San Francisco Street, original pressed-tin ceilings have reemerged. The fine old Babbitt Store building sports a restored painted sign on its red Moenkopi sandstone wall, and the 1897 Weatherford Hotel, where Zane Grey once stayed, bustles with diners and live bluegrass music.
LOOKING TO THE MOUNTAINS
For all of Flagstaff's urban attributes, a lot of people are here just so they can get out of town. The high country awaits five minutes away. Head north on U.S. 89 and the road to the Painted Desert and the vast Navajo Nation country opens up. And Flagstaff has long been the gateway to the Grand Canyon, about 80 miles to the north.
"We're on the edge of the greatest concentration of national parks and monuments in the country," says Richmond. And Flagstaff isn't just a jumping-off point for the Southwest - it's a launching pad for the imagination, too.
At Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, we hike through jagged lava fields and bear witness to volcanic forces unleashed 900 years ago - in geologic time not much more than the few seconds it takes an aspen leaf to fall to the forest floor. Back in town at Lowell Observatory, on Mars Hill, we are transported to the far ends of the galaxy as we enter a building like something out of an H.G. Wells novel and look at the telescope where the existence of the planet Pluto was first confirmed.
On our last day in Flagstaff, we drive to Slate Mountain, about 30 miles north. The trail crosses a burned section of forest before reaching the 8,215-foot summit. We look back to where the San Francisco Peaks rise, once again inescapable.
The peaks prove to be my enduring memory of Flagstaff Maybe it's because they're so well defined, clean and distinct, not just bumping up out of a long mountain range.
The Hopi believe that the peaks are where the kachinas dwell, and both the Hopi and the Navajo consider the mountains the border of their world. I ask Platt Cline if, with his 61 years here, he can capture what the mountains mean to modern Flagstaff.
"I'll give you an example," he says. "Beginning very early, when they established the town cemetery, some people didn't get buried facing east, the usual way. They faced the mountain. People still do that. That is it. That tells you the symbolism of the mountain."
Flagstaff travel planner
Expect daytime temperatures in the low 70s in September, dropping to the low 60s in October. Nighttime temperatures in the 30s are common.
For more, call the Flagstaff Visitor Center at (800) 842-7293 or stop in at the train depot at 1 E. U.S. 66.
Area code is 520 unless noted.
* Around town
LOWELL OBSERVATORY. Tours of vintage observatories with many nighttime programs. 1400 W. Mars Hill Rd.; visitor center 9-5 daily, tours at 10, 1, and 3 through October (reduced winter hours). $3.50, $1.50 ages 5-17; 774-2096.
MUSEUM OF NORTHERN ARIZONA. A superb introduction to the natural and cultural history of the Colorado Plateau. 3101 N. Fort Valley Rd.; 9-5 daily. $5, $4 ages 55 and over, $3 college students with ID, $2 ages 7-17; 774-5213.
NORTHERN ARIZONA UNIVERSITY. Founded in 1899, it's a beautiful campus with many historic buildings made of Moenkopi sandstone. Parking passes and information available at NAU Downtown Office at 6 E. Aspen Ave. on Heritage square; 523-1628.
RIORDAN MANSION STATE HISTORIC PARK. An Arts and Crafts-style building designed by Charles Whittlesey, architect of the Grand Canyon's El Tovar Hotel. 1300 Riordan Ranch St.; 8-5 daily, tours on the hour with the last one at 4 (reservations suggested; schedule changes in October). $4, $2.50 ages 7-13; 779-4395.
* Day tripping
DRIVES. Schultz Pass Road runs through the high country between U.S. 180 a few miles north of town and U.S. 89. South of town, U.S. 89 becomes State 89 and travels through Oak Creek Canyon. A highlight along the way is Slide Rock State Park ($5 per vehicle; 282-3034) and its rock pools, about 18 miles south of Flagstaff.
SAN FRANCISCO PEAKS. For easy access to fall color, try Lockett Meadow. From U.S. 89, turn left onto F.R. 552, about 17 miles north of town. The meadow is about 4 1/4 miles up the steep road.
Another easy spot to explore is the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Area. The difficult trail to Humphreys Peak starts here, but the Kachina Trail (5 miles one-way) offers a more moderate introduction. From U.S. 180, take Arizona Snowbowl Rd. to the parking area. You can also take the Agassiz Skyride at Agassiz Lodge as high as 11,500 feet on the mountain. $9; 779-1951.
For more information on the San Francisco Peaks and Slate Mountain, contact the Coconino National Forest Peaks Ranger Station at 526-0866 or stop in at 5075 N. U.S. 89.
SUNSET CRATER VOLCANO NATIONAL MONUMENT. The highlight is the 1,000-foot cinder cone, but the lava fields are also impressive. The monument can be combined with a trip to Wupatki (see listing) - they share a common road off U.S. 89. About 15 miles north of town; 526-0502.
WALNUT CANYON NATIONAL MONUMENT. Short trails pass cliff dwellings in the beautiful canyon, even more spectacular when the walnut trees turn. Off 1-40, about 10 miles east of downtown; 526-3367.
WUPATKI NATIONAL MONUMENT. The monument's five pueblos date back to the 12th century; its scenic drive gives views of the San Francisco Peaks and Painted Desert. Off U.S. 89, about 39 miles north of town; 679-2365.
CHEZ MARC. Country French in a 1911 building. 503 N. Humphreys St.; 774-1343.
COTTAGE PLACE RESTAURANT. Art intimate spot for fine continental dining. 126 W. Cottage Ave.; 774-8431.
HORSEMEN LODGE. Steaks and barbecue in an old-fashioned Western setting. 8500 N. U.S. 89; 526-2655.
KATHY'S CAFE. Popular local breakfast and lunch place. 7 N. San Francisco St.; 774-1951.
MARC'S CAFE AMERICAIN. Chez Marc's American-style counterpart, just as good. 801 S. Milton Rd.; 556-0093.
PASTO. Flagstaff's best Italian in a restored downtown building. 19 E. Aspen; 779-1937.
ARIZONA MOUNTAIN INN. B&B-style rooms as well as cabins in a wooded setting a few miles from downtown. From $80; 774-8959.
ASPEN INN BED & BREAKFAST. A restored 1912 house near downtown. From $79; 773-0295 or (888) 999-4110.
INN AT 410. Individually decorated rooms, as well as an attractive commons area in one of Arizona's top B&Bs. From $125; (800) 774-2008.