This post is part of a series I’ve done on Route 66. In 2022, I drove the entirety of Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles. 2500 miles, 8 states, countless stories, and an endless stretch of small towns, neon, diners, motels, and roadside attractions. Read through all of my Route 66 posts here. They’re also linked at the end of this post. If you’re planning your own Route 66 road trip, either the whole thing or just a part, I hope these help you out. Enjoy the drive!
I’ve finished my full Route 66 road trip and can now definitely say that Flagstaff is by far and away my favorite town on Route 66.
Part of what makes Flagstaff such a great stop on Route 66 is what it has to offer that’s NOT related to Route 66.
It’s not a major city on the scale of Chicago, LA or even St Louis, Tulsa, OKC or Albuquerque, but it’s also not a tiny town that’s just barely hanging on by cashing in on its Route 66 connections.
Flagstaff has a LOT going on where it comes to exploring the American Southwest. Flagstaff has three National Parks and Monuments plus it’s logistically going to be your gateway to side trips to the Grand Canyon and Sedona. Throw in all of the mountain sports and activities and a VERY charming downtown with an up and coming dining and retail scene and what’s not to love?
It has the vibes of a mountain resort town but with a lot of history and a primo location in the Southwest.
Aaaaand, a REALLY good hotel option, which, if you know me at all, you know can really make or break a destination for me.
So basically, if you’re driving Route 66 across the country, you’ll FOR SURE want to make an overnight stop in Flagstaff, but if you’re driving Route 66 to actually “see America” then it’s a place where you may want to spend several days to explore the surrounding area.
Route 66 in Flagstaff
Let’s start with what you came here for…Flagstaff has a long stretch of fairly well preserved Route 66. Here are some spots you don’t want to miss:
The Crown Railroad Cafe
This is one of the more famous (or maybe notorious) Route 66 restaurants in Flagstaff, but after reading the reviews, I decided to just admire it from the outside and eat somewhere else. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if you’re so inclined.
Flagstaff Route 66 Park
Flagstaff’s first urban trail winds along between historic Route 66 and the railroad tracks east of downtown. The trail is about 4 miles and features some Route 66 signage and other elements.
Western Hills Motel
You know I’m a sucker for good neon, and this is a great one. I personally wouldn’t stay at the hotel, but the Agave Mexican Restaurant on the property is one of the best rated spots in Flagstaff if you like hole in the wall places.
Hotel Monte Vista
Flagstaff has a great downtown and it’s anchored by the Hotel Monte Vista. Their rooftop sign is iconic as is the cocktail lounge which opened for business on New Year’s Day 1927.
Grand Canyon Cafe
Serving hot and delicious meals since the 1940s, the Grand Canyon Cafe closed unexpectedly in 2018, but their great neon sign is still up.
Flagstaff Visitor Center
The Flagstaff Visitor Center is housed in the train station downtown, and it’s a great spot to stop in for Route 66 and other area info. It’s also the best place to find a public restroom if you’re shopping downtown.
On the other side of the railroad tracks from downtown, this area seems to be one of the more up and coming areas of Flagstaff.
Other Things to Do in Flagstaff
Okay, like I said…the best things to see and do in the Flagstaff area aren’t actually Route 66 related, but since the whole point of driving Route 66 back in the day was to see the country, it’s worth checking some of these things out:
Walnut Canyon National Monument
If you only have time to visit one National Park/Monument AND you’re at all able bodied, this is the one I recommend. It’s only about 20 minutes from downtown Flagstaff and you can see pretty much everything in just an hour or two.
Besides beautiful scenery, Walnut Canyon is the site of a series of cave dwellings from the 12th century.
Here’s the thing about visiting Walnut Canyon…you need to be able to do a one mile hike that involves a LOT of stairs at a high elevation. I huffed and puffed, but did it fairly easily. My 68 year old mother (who’s in pretty good shape) struggled a bit and needed a full bottle of water and several breaks but managed it and was glad she did it.
It’s not a difficult trail (less than a mile, pretty even ground), but you basically have to descend into the canyon down a series of staircases before you hike the short loop around the “island” to see the dwellings. And then you have to go back UP. Honestly, it’s doing it at an altitude that makes it tricky.
But it’s sooooo worth it if you can manage. If you’re not up for the hike, I would probably skip Walnut Canyon (unless you have a National Parks Passport or you’re a stamp collector) because you can’t see the best stuff unless you do the “Island” hike.
There’s an overlook platform at the visitor center which does have great views and a short trail along the rim (the views from the visitor center are better), but you really need to do the hike to fully experience the park.
Things to Know: You’ll probably want water to take on the hike with you (even if it’s cold). They sell refillable bottles in the visitor center and there’s a water refill station. Otherwise, bring your own bottles. It’s $25/vehicle to enter. If you’re planning to also visit Sunset Crater/Wupatki, you can buy a Flagstaff Area National Monuments Pass for $45 that’ll save you $5 or so. And of course, you can buy an America the Beautiful Pass for $80 which might be a good idea if you’ll be visiting other National Parks on your trip. That pass is good for a year.
Don’t forget to get your National Parks Passport stamped!
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
If you’re not able to hike, you’ll want to head to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument instead. Uhh, I’ll be honest, Sunset Crater was my least favorite of the three Flagstaff area parks, but it’s still worth visiting. Partially, it’s because I have very little interest in volcanoes and also because after visiting Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, I’m probably a little spoiled. I like my volcanic national parks active ; )
BUT here’s how it works…from downtown Flagstaff, it’s about 30 minutes to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. You’ll turn off Highway 89 and once you’re inside the National Park you drive through a scenic loop that takes you up to Wupatki National Monument and then exit back onto Highway 89 about 45 minutes north of Flagstaff.
About Sunset Crater Volcano: Viewing the park is done mostly from the car with a few scenic lookouts. A lot of the park suffered from bad wildfire damage earlier this year so a lot of hiking is off limits.
It’s a nice scenic drive, and the visitor center is definitely worth a stop to give you content into what you’re seeing because if you don’t know it kind of just looks like mountains.
Side tip: I heard several visitors in Flagstaff asking locals where they could go to get a good view of the snow capped mountains (you randomly see them when you’re driving through town but they’re not always visible). Well this is the spot. Even if you don’t go into the National Park, take the turn off and before you come to the entrance there’s a place to pull over that has a great view of the mountains behind you.
The Sunset Crater Volcano area is really pretty (less so after the wildfires), but the drive past there up to Wupatki is the real highlight. It’s just unreal.
It’s $25/vehicle to enter Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and that also includes your admission to the Wupatki National Monument.
Wupatki National Monument
I LOVE visiting National Parks and Monuments and I feel like I know about most of them even if I haven’t personally visited yet, but Wupatki has to be the best National Monument that I’d never heard of.
Besides featuring those classic Southwestern landscapes that old Westerns made famous, Wupatki National Monument is home to a handful of ancient pueblos that absolutely blew me away.
The people who inhabited the pueblos on the Wupatki National Monument (most are 900+ years old) were mostly the ancestors of the Hopi people, although the Navajo were most recently residing on the land of the Wupatki Pueblo before it was declared a National Monument.
Whatever you have time to see at the Wupatki National Monument, you MUST spend some time in the visitor center. There’s a small museum that does a good job of laying out the challenging story of how the Navajo were moved off of the Wupatki National Monument by the park service. Besides appreciating the ancient history of the pueblo, I think it’s important to understand the modern history as well.
Anyways, I have conflicting feelings about the US government moving natives off of their land so they can preserve the history of it for white visitors, but what’s done is done. And there are two pueblos on the monument that are absolutely worth your time…
Coming from Sunset Crater Volcano, when you enter the Wupatki National Monument, you’ll want to turn right and drive down to see the Wukoki Pueblo. It is STUNNING.
It’s a short walk from the parking lot to the pueblo, but the best view of it is as you’re driving in. The pueblo is built on top of a mesa and you can really appreciate it best from a distance. You can actually walk up and into this pueblo to explore a bit, but remember to be respectful and not damage anything.
The other major pueblo you’ll want to see is the Wupatki Pueblo which is behind the visitors center. It is so extensive (reportedly hundreds of rooms) and left beautifully intact.
They’ve also built the visitor center around it in a way that makes it very accessible to see.
When you leave the visitor center, you’ll continue driving through the monument before you head back to Highway 89 and there are a few other small pueblo dwellings to see like Lomaki and Box Canyon Pueblos.
How to Visit All Three National Monuments in One Day
It’s not too difficult to visit all three National Monuments in one day since there isn’t a ton of hiking and most everything can be seen in and out of the car.
I would start at Walnut Canyon since it’s closest to Flagstaff and you’ll get your hike out of the way early in the day. From there, head up to Sunset Crater Volcano and finish up at Wupatki since they’re connected.
When you finish at Wupatki you’ll be about 45 minutes from Flagstaff.
NOW. If you’re wanting to visit the Grand Canyon and you’re short on time, it would technically be possible to add it onto this day. Especially during the summer when the days are longer.
If you get a super early start at Walnut Canyon and keep moving, when you’re done at Wupatki National Monument, you’re only about an hour and a half from the South Rim entrance to the Grand Canyon.
It wouldn’t leave a ton of time, but you could have a few hours there especially if you’re willing to drive back to Flagstaff in the dark. If you go this route though, you’ll probably want to pack a picnic lunch because there aren’t many options once you get up into Sunset/Wupatki and up north.
Riordan Mansion State Historic Park
I didn’t know about the Riordan Mansion until I left Flagstaff which is a real bummer, because it’s right up my alley! The Riordan Mansion was built in 1904 and is considered one of the best examples of Arts and Crafts Architecture you’ll find anywhere.
You can only go inside the house on a guided tour (six or so times are offered daily) and reservations are recommended. Admission to the state park is $2/person and tours are an additional $10/adult.
Explore Flagstaff’s Charming Downtown
Downtown Flagstaff feels like a charming little mainstreet, but bigger. Outdoor gear and apparel shops abound so if you’re looking for something to outfit your adventure, you’ll want to spend a bit browsing around. But my favorite shop is the Bright Side Bookshop. It’s a GREAT local bookstore with a phenomenal selection of local books and collectible classics.
One of just a handful of ski resorts in Arizona, the Snowbowl offers scenic gondola rides that are especially popular around sunset. During the winter, you’ll be able to watch skiers and snowboarders on the mountain, but all year long you’ll have great views of the cinder cone volcano, Sedona, and possibly even the Grand Canyon on a clear day.
Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory is one of the oldest observatories in the US (1894) and the observatory responsible for discovering Pluto. General admission to the observatory is $25/adult and includes a full daily program of tours, stargazing, science talks, etc.
Where to Stay in Flagstaff
High Country Motor Lodge
Okay, one of the best parts about Flagstaff is that I found a GREAT place to stay. Sure, Flagstaff is big enough that there are a lot of big chain options, but what fun is that?
The High Country Motor Lodge is an old Route 66 motor court that has been completely renovated with a really great design that reflects Flagstaff’s mountain adventure atmosphere.
Here’s what you need to know: It has a trendy, boutique feel, but it’s still an old motor court so the rooms are all accessed from the outside and you’ll park near your room. Good to know so you don’t go schlepping your bags into the lobby and then have to load them back up and drive to your room ; )
The rooms are comfortable and well designed for Flagstaff’s cold weather. It was about 20 degrees at night when we visited and the beds are all outfitted with heavy down duvets. It’s honestly the best sleep I’ve had in a long time.
The hotel has a good vibe for hanging out…great heated pool and hot tub, fire pits on the back patio, cornhole on the lawn, lots of communal seating in the cocktail lounge and game room. They serve dinner in the evenings and the bar area is pretty lively, but there’s also a little grab and go coffee area that also has breakfast in the mornings.
They have a whole sauna and plunge pool situation that’s the first Nordic Spa in Arizona. 50 minute sessions can be reserved for a fee.
Besides the regular hotel rooms, they have a few Cosmic Cottages that are private, stand alone suites.
And the best part…it’s pretty affordable! Rooms are usually available in the $150-200/night price range.
I seriously can’t recommend it enough. You can book a room here.
Where to Eat in Flagstaff
Flagstaff has a handful of “Route 66 famous” restaurants, but honestly the reviews on all of them were pretty iffy. Since I was nearing the end of my Route 66 trip by the time I reached Flagstaff, I decided to forgo finding out if the reviews were warranted or not and went to some other spots that were recommended:
I love a good breakfast spot and Over Easy definitely didn’t disappoint. Their menu is full of decadent, over the top breakfast specials, but the classics were pretty good too. The restaurant is bright and airy and the vibe is a modern take on the vintage diner.
Mother Road Brewing Co
A nod to Route 66 but with a Flagstaff/mountain twist. This is a great place to hang out in the evening and it’s definitely in the “up and coming” part of Flagstaff.
This pizza spot is one of the highest rated restaurants in Flagstaff and in the same building as Mother Road Brewing Co. It’s a TINY restaurant and when we went about 5:30PM it was a 45 minute wait so we tried a place across the street instead, but it actually was only about 15 minutes until I got a text that a table was ready. I definitely want to try it next time I’m in town because it looks like the kind of place I like.
Planning a Route 66 road trip? I’ve got all of the info you need!
I’ve written about my cross country road trip pretty extensively section by section. Read them all here: Part 1 (Chicago), Part 2 (Chicago to St. Louis), Part 3 (St. Louis), Part 4 (St. Louis to Springfield MO), Part 5 (Springfield, MO), Part 6 (Springfield, MO to Tulsa), Part 7 (Tulsa), Part 8 (Tulsa to OKC), Part 9 (OKC), Part 10 (OKC to Amarillo), Part 11 (Amarillo), Part 12 (Amarillo to Albuquerque), Part 13 (Albuquerque), Part 14 (Albuquerque to Flagstaff), Part 15 (Flagstaff), Part 16 (Flagstaff to San Bernardino), Part 17 (Los Angeles).
I’ve got the scoop on where to stay including the best Route 66 motels recommendations.
And finally, my final trip recap where I spill the beans on how many days you need, the best itinerary, my favorite don’t miss spots, and other tips.