First of two parts
On several occasions, we have heard the “call” of the High Country beckoning us to return, explore, learn, rest and enjoy. Frequently we have accepted the invitation, packed our bags, grabbed our list of places to see and headed North. Our destination: Flagstaff, an enjoyable and energetic city that sits at the base of the San Francisco Peaks. At the elevation of almost 7,000 feet, this city provides visitors cooler temperatures in the summer and beautiful snow-covered peaks in the winter.
We always enjoy the trip from Green Valley to Flagstaff, through diverse terrain with spectacular scenery. On the trip north on Interstate 17, we are always on high alert! We do not want to miss the 10-second view of “Scrubby” in the middle median near milepost 254. This 20-foot-tall juniper is famous statewide and has gained its notoriety for its annual decorations for over 30 consecutive years. Shaped like a bush, this tree is decorated every Christmas season, by persons unknown, with tinsel, bows, ornaments, garland and a silver star on top. Dolan Ellis, the Official State Balladeer, sings a ballad about the infamous “Scrubby,” the I-17 Mystery Tree. On one occasion, we even saw some Fourth of July decorations! Next time you drive by, watch the median!
Upon arriving in the city of 72,000 residents, we always establish a temporary home at the same location, grab our lists of preferred places to explore within the town limits and in the surrounding area, and off we go to places unseen. There are many sites to explore in this former lumber town, railroad stop and Route 66 attraction. In this article, we will not discuss the Route 66 sites we have seen; they will be mentioned in a separate article. Over the years, we have explored many unique and interesting sites, Here are some of the places we have found and enjoyed.
One of our favorite places within the city limits is the Flagstaff Historic Downtown District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This is a rewarding adventure for all history buffs. We love walking through the downtown area, spotting the many beautiful murals, admiring the historic Railroad Depot, and marveling at the architecture of the Hotel Monte Vista, the Weatherford Hotel and the Bank Hotel, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a wonderful place to wander and to be immersed in the flavor of this historic city with its parks, gathering places and multiple eateries.
A unique and interesting site, the Pioneer Museum, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was the former Coconino County Hospital for the Indigent from 1908 thru 1938. This renovated, tan stone building, with a white porch, stands proudly atop a hill amongst the tall trees. The remarkable feature of this structure is that it was built of Pumiceous Dacite, also known as pumice stone, from the Mount Elden eruption that occurred 500,000 years ago. The museum exhibits include artifacts from the pioneer days, history about the railroad era, the lumber industry, equipment from the hospital era, and Route 66 memorabilia. On the grounds, two railroad cars can be viewed and photographed. We found this site to be educational and very interesting.
For a long time, we had the Riordan Mansion State Historic Park on West Riordan Road on our list of places to see. This State Park features the Riordan Estate which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This two-story duplex with 40 rooms and 13,000 square feet of living space was built in 1904 by the Riordan brothers. The lumber barons married two sisters and built a home that would house both families. Each family had their separate living quarters with a common room joining the living quarters.
This mansion, tucked away amongst the ponderosa pines, is an impressive building with its Arts and Crafts style architecture. The exterior has log-slab siding with huge lava rock arches and exquisite wood-carved gargoyles that were highlighted in Arizona Highways magazine.
We took the self-guided tour around the grounds and decided to take the guided tour through the house. Our docent was very knowledgeable about the history of the house and family. It is a site worth seeing and gives visitors a view of the lifestyle of a prominent family in the early 1900s. On the grounds, we got a glimpse of the Arizona Lumber and Timber Company Office, also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
We love exploring Native American sites, so it was no surprise that the Walnut Canyon National Monument, on Walnut Canyon Road near Flagstaff, was included on our list of places to see. This National Monument preserves ancient Sinagua cliff dwellings. It is believed that the Sinagua people lived here from A.D. 600 to 1400. They were farmers and planted their crops on higher ground ,where the visitor center and rim trail are currently located.
On the island trail, visitors can descend to view about 25 rooms along the trail. A long series of steps lead to the trail. On the rim trail, visitors can walk along a flat, paved walkway where two overlooks are provided and offer excellent views of the beautiful rock formations and cliff dwellings. During our visit, we got magnificent photos of the cliff dwellings. This site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A look back, above & around
The Museum of Northern Arizona Exhibition Building, also on the National Register of Historic Places, is on North Fort Valley Road. During our visit, we were impressed by the quality and quantity of artifacts and information about the Colorado Plateau and the people who have lived in this area. The museum’s mission, however, also extends to providing the community an opportunity to interact with artists, educators and nature. A variety of learning opportunities are offered. Before leaving, we toured the grounds and examined the outside of this magnificent structure.
We were very excited the day we headed to the Lowell Observatory on Mars Hill, overlooking the city of Flagstaff. (We love exploring sites on the National Register of Historic Places and we LOVE Pluto.) The drive up to the observatory was energizing: we were going to visit the site where Pluto was discovered!
Arriving at the top, we were impressed by the complex. The grounds, the structures, the telescopes and the impressive visitor center made us feel we were at an important site. In the Steele Visitor Center, we were introduced to the range of available activities: self-guided and guided tours, workshops, educational programs, and stargazing.
We opted for the self-guided tour, explored the campus, the telescopes, and the Rotunda Museum, which includes exquisite photographs, historical information and a stuffed “Pluto.” It is no surprise that in 2011 this site was named one of The World’s 100 Most Important Places by Time magazine.
We spent a large amount of time at this site and gathered valuable information from the knowledgeable docent. For those of you who are curious: No, we did not come home with the stuffed Pluto!
Fourteen miles north of Flagstaff, we headed to see a site that sounded very interesting: Hart Prairie Preserve. In September 2019, we found the narrow, paved and steep road that led us through several large groves of aspen and through beautiful grasslands. When we arrived at the sign for the preserve, the scenery was exhilarating.
This Nature Conservancy site preserves the largest Bebb willow community in the world. The property was donated to the Conservancy by a local family in 1994. What a treasure in an unbelievably beautiful setting. By the end of the trip, we sighed in relief: we had not met another vehicle on that narrow road wide enough for one and a quarter vehicles.
Up in the peaks
Arizona Snowbowl, an alpine ski resort, is 7 miles north of Flagstaff. This resort in the San Francisco Peaks has been operational for 82 years. This was one site that had been on our list of places to see for a long time. We were delighted to be climbing up the mountain on a narrow and winding road. Arriving at the parking lot, the scenery was truly incredible. We could see for miles! We could even see the Hart Prairie Preserve from there!
We stepped out of the car and suddenly discovered that we were in high-altitude country. We were unaware, until then, that the base elevation of the resort was over 9,000 feet and that the summit was over 13,000 feet. We had planned to take the chairlift to the top, but it was not operating on the day of our visit. Instead, we explored the area, took multiple pictures of the scenery, trails, chairlifts, and the restaurant. What a beautiful area for winter fun.
Whenever we are in the Flagstaff area, we love spending time in the San Francisco Volcanic Field: an area of volcanoes, easily accessible from the city limits. It is estimated that the field, covering 18,000 square miles, contains about 600 volcanoes.
Sunset Crater is reportedly the youngest of those volcanoes, and the San Francisco Peaks are part of the extinct volcanic complex. Driving through the volcanic field is always a pleasure; it is a surreal experience with the red, black and grey cinder cones, the lava rock piles in the grasslands, and the strands of lava flows. It always reminds us of the power of Mother Nature. Many times, we have stopped to take pictures of the unusual landscape and to explore the unusual rock formations.
We have always enjoyed our adventures in the Flagstaff area. We have seen fields filled with spring flowers, driven though falling snow, lived through torrential rain storms, taken pictures of fields filled with sunflowers, have met interesting and knowledgeable people, and have taken some incredible photos of the San Francisco Peaks and Mount Humphreys, the tallest peak in Arizona.
Coming up next in Part 2: other diverse and unique sites we have visited in the Flagstaff area.
Travels with Two Sisters is a series of adventures in Arizona with Green Valley residents Marie “Midge” Lemay and Suzanne “Sue” Poirier. For more discoveries, check out their first three books: “One Mile at a Time,” “A Gypsy in Our Souls,” and “Connecting Dots.”