FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Arizona in summer is known for dashboard-melting afternoons and low temperatures that top some other states’ highs.
But there’s more to the state than cactus and heat, and the Grand Canyon is hardly the only place worth visiting this time of year.
Flagstaff, at about 7,000 feet above sea level, is more like the Rocky Mountains than the desert, with towering peaks, pine trees and mild temperatures. Heck, you might even need a jacket.
“There are certainly visitors who come up at night and are amazed at how cold it is,” said Kevin Schindler, outreach manager for Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory.
Flagstaff also makes a great jumping-off point for other major regional attractions. In addition to the Grand Canyon 90 minutes north, the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest are driving distance toward the east, and Hoover Dam isn’t too far away heading west.
But Flagstaff isn’t just a place to get gas en route to somewhere else. There are actually reasons to stay a while.
Located about 2 1/2 hours north of Phoenix, Flagstaff has become a vacation spot filled with interesting bars and restaurants, along with plenty of family fun.
In addition to the Lowell Observatory, with its massive telescope, there are ancient cliff dwellings at Walnut Canyon National Monument just a few minutes away.
Head east on Interstate 40 and you’ll find Meteor Crater, the most well-preserved impact site in the world. Just west of town is Bearizona, where black bears and a large variety of animals can be seen up close on foot or in a car.
Touristy and artsy Sedona is about a half-hour drive down through the impressive Oak Creek Canyon, where you can stop to take a dip and a slip at Slide Rock State Park.
Here are five places in Flagstaff worth checking out with your family:
Lowell Observatory: 1400 W. Mars Hill Road, on a hill above central Flagstaff (www.lowell.edu, 928-774-3358). Summer hours: 9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Admission: $10/adults, $9/students/seniors, $4/children ages 5-7.
Lowell has one of the largest telescopes available for public use, a 32-foot antique that’s 24 inches in diameter, housed inside a rotating dome. Percival Lowell founded the observatory in 1894 to look at Mars and other celestial objects, and it has been the site of some major astronomical discoveries, including Pluto, the rings of Uranus and the first evidence that the universe is expanding.
Visitors can look through the old Clark telescope to see clear images of Saturn’s rings, nebulas and galaxies millions of light years away. The main telescope shows a couple of predetermined images each night and observatory staff sets up smaller telescopes around the campus.
A visitor center offers interactive displays and information on the cosmos, a planetarium and viewings of sun spots and flares at certain times during the day.
Bearizona: 1500 E. Route 66, Williams, about 30 miles west of Flagstaff off Interstate 40 (www.bearizona.com, 928-635-2289). Open March-December (bears hibernate in January and February), 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closing time varies with daylight hours). Admission: $16/adults, $8/children 4-12.
Bearizona, which opened last year, offers a drive-through area with buffalo, free-ranging bighorn sheep, burros and wolves, and a walk-through section with babies, but its main attraction is a drive-through black bear paddock.
Outside of having a bear wander into your campsite, this is probably as close to one as you’ll get without fear of being attacked. About a dozen bears wander around, playing with each other, rooting in the dirt and playing in the water hole.
They’re naturally curious and may approach your car; Bearizona advises guests to keep moving if animals get too close.
The walk-through section is fun too, with baby animals from prairie dogs and javelinas to a fox pup and young bobcats. The bears are the big draw here as well, though, with cubs and juveniles just beyond a moat for an up-close look.
Be sure to see Birds of Prey, an entertaining and informative show where falcons and owls zip right over your head, occasionally even knocking off your hat they’re so close.
Walnut Canyon National Monument: About eight miles east of Flagstaff, exit 204 from I-40 (www.nps.gov/waca/index.htm, 928-526-3367). Open daily, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. summers. Admission: $5/adults.
The drive here from the interstate is relatively flat and uninteresting, giving no indication of the impressive canyon ahead. Arrive at the visitor center and the Earth seems to drop off at the edge of the parking lot, years of erosion from a now-diverted creek creating a zigzag of layered rocks that go down 400 feet.
The canyon alone would be worth seeing, but the 900-year-old cliff dwellings along its walls make it a must-stop for visitors to Flagstaff. Originally inhabited by ancestors of modern-day Hopi and Zuni peoples, the canyon features about 300 cliff dwellings under rock rims where people lived and stored food and water.
Visitors can take the Rim Trail around the top to see into the canyon, but if you’re up for a hike, the Island Trail is the way to go to get a good look at the well-preserved cliff dwellings. The loop, nearly a mile, goes straight down into the canyon and loops around a circular peninsula of rock that features numerous dwellings before going back up the canyon.
The hike is slightly strenuous because of the 185-foot elevation change, but water and a couple of breaks along the way make it doable.
Meteor Crater: About 30 miles east of Flagstaff, exit 233 from I-40, near Winslow (www.meteorcrater.com, 928-289-2362). Open daily in summer, 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Admission: $15/adults, $8/children ages 6-17.
The world’s best-preserved meteor impact site is an intriguing piece of natural history. Nearly a mile wide and more than 550 feet deep, the crater isn’t close to being the largest in the world – Vredefort Dome in South Africa is more than 180 miles wide – but is impressive because limited erosion has left it virtually intact.
The impact was nearly 50,000 years ago – long before humanoids were believed to be in the area – and was created by a meteor estimated to be 150 feet in diameter and traveling at about 11 miles per second.
The site is in the middle of the flat, high desert, only distinguishable by the raised sides of the uplift from impact, a rim of dirt and boulders some 125 feet high that make it look like a low-rise volcano.
Guests can view the crater from inside the visitors center or take the walkway down to the edge, where a series of mounted binoculars give views across the slopes and to the bottom.
The visitors center has about two dozen interactive exhibits, a theater with a short film about impact events, a rock and gift shop, even Subway sandwiches to snack on.
Slide Rock State Park: On Highway 89A, in Oak Creek Canyon, between Flagstaff and Sedona (www.pr.state.az.us/parks/SLRO/index.html, 928-282-3034). Open daily in summer, 8 a.m.- 7 p.m. Admission: Carload of up to four adults, $20 ($3 per person after that).
It’s one thing to go down manmade tubes and slides in a water park, but a natural rock slide surrounded by pine trees and impressive peaks makes the experience a bit more memorable.
Considered one of the nation’s top swimming holes, Slide Rock Park features a natural chute swimmers can slide down and some great spots along the creek to just wade or swim.
The area can get crowded on hot days, so be ready to rub shoulders or go during non-peak times. Oak Creek Canyon is beautiful anytime of the year and a great place to hike and fish.
The park is seven miles north of Sedona, where the towering red-rock mountains are a must-see.