The Colorado Plateau was first inhabited by various Native American tribes such as the ancient Sinagua and Anasazi peoples who left clues to their lives in caves and dwellings throughout the Plateau. Flagstaff itself is surrounded by various reservations, including the Navajo, Hopi, Havasupai, and Hualapai, to name a few. Native American culture still influences the towns of northern Arizona in many ways.
In the mid-1800’s, pioneers moved west and some settled in and around Flagstaff. There are a few ideas on how Flagstaff got its name, but the general consensus says that on our nation’s birthday, July 4, 1876, a ponderosa pine tree was stripped of its branches, made into a flagpole and a flag was raised to celebrate. In 1891, Coconino County was created, with Flagstaff as the County seat.It wasn’t until later in 1894 that Flagstaff, the flag staff’s namesake, became incorporated as a town. Flagstaff’s population has grown to about 70,000 strong; this old “camp,” is still surrounded by towering pines of the Coconino National Forest that have and likely always will be an integral part of the history of this southwestern destination.
Lumber, sheep and cattle ranching and the railroad put Flagstaff on the map, Today, tourism reigns supreme and the awe-inspiring ponderosa pine forests of Flag are still a big part of the draw.
But take a few moments to step back and ponder the history of this ponderosa-peppered land and imagine what transpired here within less than a century and a half ago.
Arizona was part of Mexico up until 1848 when it became a United States territory. Yeah, it was the wild West you’ve heard about. Various parties were sent to this rough and tumble frontier to see exactly what kind of resources this new acquisition offered. What would become Flagstaff stood out as an anomaly of sorts within the desert-scape of the rest of Arizona. Situated at an elevation of 7,000 feet near the base of mountainous peaks and punctuated by cool pine forests, explorers and settlers quickly realized the treasures this area represented early on.
Flagstaff grew into quite the happening place with the arrival of the railroad in 1882. It became the most important destination on the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad between Albuquerque, New Mexico and California. Tour around the historic downtown to see remnants of those glory days when Flagstaff bustled with travelers and commerce, all of which came about due to a profound connection to the railroad. From transporting cattle to wealthy investors, travelers and eventually filmmakers looking to experience a nice piece of the West, the railroad connected Flagstaff to the rest of the world.
Two distinguished places of lodging, the Weatherford Hotel (est. 1898) and Hotel Monte Vista (est. 1926) are worth visiting whether it’s for a look or a few night’s stay. Linger over a frosty brew and a burger at one of the Weatherford’s historic pubs for a whiff of Old Time-y Flag. The Rendezvous at the Monte V (as the locals call it) has a wonderful array of specialty coffees and adult beverages that you can enjoy along with some of their famous ghosts. Lodging choices abound and you’ll also find a nice array of B & B’s in and around Flagstaff, many of which glisten with a patina from days gone by.
Be sure to venture south of the tracks to Flagstaff’s Historic Southside District where an increasing number of restaurants, bars and other hot spots have been making their mark within this old section of town.
Plunge deeper into the history of the area at the Arizona Historical Society Pioneer Museum. It’s a pretty cool place that also features an old locomotive once used in logging operations, a Santa Fe Railroad caboose from the 1940s, a one-room cabin from 1908 and more. For a show of a grander way of living back in the day, visit the Riordan Mansion State Historic Park. Built in 1904, this unique Arts & Crafts-styled home, filled with handsome furnishings and embellishments (most owned and once used by the family), provides evidence of the wealth that was generated in this small logging town toward the early part of the twentieth century.
The history of Arizona has been intertwined with the history of Native Americans since the beginning. The Museum of Northern Arizona showcases the rich culture and tradition of the Hopis, the Navajos, the Zunis and other Native American tribes located within the Colorado Plateau. Their story features fabulous arts and crafts, many of which you can buy at the museum shop. Go ahead and embrace the many magical qualities of turquoise and more.
Founded in 1894 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965, the Lowell Observatory ranks as one of the oldest astronomical observatories within the U.S. It’s still as important as ever and you can visit it to find out why. (Thanks to astronomer Clyde Tombaugh at Lowell, the planet Pluto was discovered in 1930.) Big doings still happen here, notably the building of a major new telescope in partnership with the Discovery Channel. Here’s an interesting factoid:The observatory was established here–by a certain Percival Lowell–due to the elevation and darkness of Flagstaff. In 2001, Flagstaff honored this relationship with the observatory by becoming the world’s first International Dark Sky City to preserve the views of the night skies.
As you circulate around Flagstaff, you’re sure to find yourself on historic Route 66 where you’ll want to be all kind of cruise-y. Flagstaff has the most authentic remnants of the original Mother Road, so take in the sights and marvel at many of the iconic locations and cool retro signs from the height of the motoring era in America. Bop into the Flagstaff Visitor Center housed in the historic train station at One E. Route 66 to find out more about the history of Flagstaff and all the fun you can have exploring this great town and surrounding area. Their friendly staff are experts on Flagstaff and beyond, so make sure you take advantage of their resources.