Flagstaff, Arizona


Because it was close to the Grand Canyon, and located on an important railroad line, Flagstaff has always been welcoming tourists.  You’ll immediately notice the turn-of-the-20th-century hotels that are still in business (as well as the towering old signs for the motels that came a few decades later).  You can see two historic hotels in this picture: in the distance, the Hotel Monte Vista, and on the right, the Hotel Weatherford.

The Hotel Weatherford is famous for its Pine Cone Drop on New Year’s Eve.  During my visit in mid-December, the giant cone was already in place, and a digital clock was counting down the seconds until 2009.

The Hotel Weatherford was built by John Weatherford.  Construction began in 1898, and the hotel opened its doors in 1900.  The hotel still offers ten rooms, and there’s a restaurant/bar downstairs.

John Weatherford had hoped to build a road that would reach the top of the mountains north of town.  He called it San Francisco Mountain Boulevard, but the project ran out of money in 1926, after building just ten miles of road in ten years.

Down the street from the Weatherford is another one of old John’s projects: the Orpheum Theater, which now hosts live bands and other performances.

The Orpheum started out as the Majestic Opera House.  It showed Flagstaff’s first movies in 1911.  In 1915, a major snowstorm brought 61 inches of snow to Flagstaff, which caused the Majestic’s roof to collapse.  Weatherford rebuilt it, and renamed it the Orpheum when it opened in 1917.

After admiring the Orpheum (very briefly, because as you can tell from all that snow on the sidewalks, it was cold!), I headed back to the center of town (San Francisco Street).

The Hotel Monte Vista arrived a bit later than the Weatherford.  It was built in 1926, the same year US Route 66 was established (the Mother Road is just one block away from here).  Hotel Monte Vista remains open for business, with 50 rooms.

Hotel Monte Vista boasts a long and diverse list of celebrities who have spent the night.  You can stay in the same room as Bob Hope (204), Jon Bon Jovi (305), John Wayne (402), or two dozen others.  All the famous names are listed on the hotel’s website.

Flagstaff is a great mix between new and old.  The city feels modern and clean, yet you find reminders of its history around every corner — like this ghost sign…

… and the old neon hanging above the Grand Canyon Cafe, on Route 66 (Santa Fe Avenue).

Walk across Route 66 from downtown, to check out Flagstaff’s pair of train depots. The smaller of the two is the old Atlantic and Pacific Railroad freight depot, built in 1889.

The larger (and only slightly newer–built in 1926) depot currently serves as an Amtrak station, and a welcome center.  Originally, it was the Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe station.

By the way, that’s Humphreys Peak in the background — Arizona’s highest point, at 12,637 feet.

South of the railroad tracks, there are fewer tourist-oriented businesses.  But it wasn’t always that way.  You can’t help but notice the towering sign for the Motel Downtowner, which offered rooms for $5 per night.  Nowadays, the rooms are rented to students attending Northern Arizona University, which is just a few blocks south of here.

This was originally the site of the Nackard family’s home, but when Route 66 traffic picked up in the early 1930’s, they converted their house into a motel, and then built more rooms.

The Tourist Home is now a boarding house…

… there’s the Grand Canyon International Hostel (still in business)…

… and the Sierra Vista Motel (which is either closed, or has been converted into apartments, as far as I could tell).

Since it was Sunday morning, and none of the stores had opened, there wasn’t much of a reason to hang around in Flagstaff any longer.  So, I headed for the Grand Canyon.

From Flagstaff, take US 180 north towards the Grand Canyon.  US 180 ends in Tusayan, the small town just outside the park.

Once you leave the residential areas near Flagstaff, US 180 skirts around Humphreys Peak and the other San Francisco Peaks.   Trees get in the way, so you have very few good, unobstructed views of the mountains, until you’re on the north side.  I think this is Saddle Mountain, one of dozens of cratered volcanic hills scattered to the north of the larger mountains.

Note: This page was first published in 2008.

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