Approaching the midpoint of the trip, we planned two nights in Flagstaff, Arizona. During the three hour drive from Canyon de Chelly, we stopped for lunch in Holbrook and inadvertently stumbled upon a monument to the song “Take it Easy” by the Eagles. There’s a line that goes “Well I’m standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see…” We found some fine sandwiches and shakes at the Sipp Shop across the street, and watched a constant stream of people take photos in the appropriately named “Standin’ on the Corner Park.” Another few minutes down Interstate 40 we pulled off to visit Meteor Crater, a mile-wide, 500ft-deep impact structure dating to around 50,000 years ago. Initially we thought it would be a brief peek at the crater from an overview, but there’s actually a pretty fascinating and extensive museum devoted to this crater and the history of meteor impacts around the world. For years, nobody knew for sure how this one was formed, but after confirmation, people spent decades determined to find a giant lump of valuable ore at the center. All the exploratory mining never amounted to anything because most of the meteor vaporized on impact, but the crater did prove valuable as a training location for astronauts. Being the best-preserved impact crater on the planet has made it valuable to many areas of study. In the distance, the towering San Francisco Peaks beckoned us toward the City of Seven Wonders.
Flagstaff is a small city in north central Arizona known for Northern Arizona University and its close proximity to at least seven wonderful natural sites. As a result, it’s one of those towns full of good restaurants and craft breweries where it’s socially acceptable to wear outdoor athletic wear in public. We stayed in the center of downtown at the historic and allegedly haunted Hotel Monte Vista. Many celebrities have spent the night there, frequently while filming old western movies, and each room is named after one of them. We were in the John Wayne suite on the top floor. Each room contains a binder explaining all the hotel’s ghosts and in which rooms they are most often seen. The John Wayne room was quiet and comfortable, and we were glad not to be in the second floor room haunted by the prostitutes who were thrown out the window in the 1940s.
Back in civilization after a few nights off the beaten path, we enjoyed having abundant dining and drinking options. We sampled beer at three of the six breweries calling downtown Flagstaff home. There really is an impressive craft beer scene for a city of 70,000, and conveniently they’re all within walking distance of each other. We started with flights at the cozy Lumberyard Brewing taproom and then made our way to Mother Road, which in addition to having great beer is connected to Pizzicletta, maker of delicious wood-fired pizza (also a bike store, hehe). The next day we thoroughly enjoyed Historic Brewing’s Barrel + Bottle House in the same neighborhood. Our favorite cocktail find was the Annex Cocktail Lounge connected to Tinderbox Kitchen. The Desert Spoon hit the spot with its combination of classic and local ingredients. Our bartender also built an impressive mini bonfire to create the woody smoke that topped off the Founding Father cocktail. Overall, some high quality boozing.
In addition to the aforementioned Pizzicletta, we enjoyed a full day of meals in town, starting with breakfast at MIX. They offer a wide selection of fresh breakfast options and have sandwiches and specials for lunch and dinner. After a day of national monument exploration, we returned to the same block to refuel at Diablo Burger, where they specialize in sourcing ingredients from within 250 miles, impressive for a burger joint. Coincidentally, Diablo is from the same owners as Good Oak Bar in Tucson, (where we loved the beer press drink) and there’s a location there too. For dinner there are plenty of upscale options in town, making our decision difficult. After some deliberation we ended up at Criollo Latin Kitchen, which has been considered amongst the best restaurants in Arizona.
Flagstaff is situated within easy access to several National Park Service units. We chose two to visit during our full day in town, Sunset Crater Volcano and Walnut Canyon. Sunset Crater is the youngest cinder cone in this area of abundant volcanic history. It emerged about the year 1085 and stands just over 1,100 feet above the surrounding landscape. We made the half hour drive from downtown Flagstaff to the small visitor center and then to the Lenox Crater Trail. This mile-long trail climbs the 300-foot volcano adjacent to Sunset Crater and affords great views of the San Francisco Peaks to the west. The crater at the peak has been reduced to a gentle depression over the years, but it still gives a good impression of the force that created these mountains. The trail up Sunset
Crater volcano itself was closed in the 1970s due to massive erosion created by visitors, 40 years later the scar of the trail is still visible on the mountainside. Nearby, the Lava Flow Trail gives a close-up view of the rough, volcanic landscape formed by the eruption. Another half hour up the road lies Wupatki National Monument, but we were taking it easy, so we instead drove back toward Flagstaff to visit Walnut Canyon National Monument. This monument preserves approximately 85 cliff dwellings built by the Sinagua people sometime between 1125 and 1250. The dwellings occupy ledges and shallow caves protected by an overhanging rock layer about halfway down the canyon. The Island Trail leads down from the visitor center to the section of the monument with the highest concentration of archaeological sites. In a mile-long loop, visitors come across the remains of several dwellings in various states of repair. Late 19th and early 20th century artifact looting reduced some walls to rubble, but others remain in relatively pristine condition. Despite the harsh climate in the area, the Sinagua were able to cultivate crops on the canyon rim and live a good life, but after about 150 years in the canyon, they moved on for reasons unknown. We were soon moving on to another canyon ourselves.
While planning this trip, we realized we couldn’t come this close to the Grand Canyon without stopping by. It was five years since our last visit, so we planned a quick one-nighter at the iconic park. An easy 1.5-hour drive north from Flagstaff leads to the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village. In 2012, we hiked the popular Bright Angel Trail to Plateau Point, so we set our sights on the less-visited Hermit Trail area this time. The bustle of the Grand Canyon is a stark contrast to the tranquil parks we were accustomed to from the past week. We parked the car near Maswik Lodge, got geared up, and walked to the shuttle bus to Hermit’s Rest. From March 1 through November 30, this portion of the rim drive is off-limits to private vehicles to ease congestion. A half-hour ride with several stops ends at the rustic Mary Colter-designed Hermit’s Rest, where a snack bar, gift shop and the largest fireplace we’ve ever seen await. We bought picnic lunches, filled our water reserves and approached the Hermit Trailhead.
The Hermit Trail is a historic course that stretches all the way to the Colorado River nine miles and 4,200 vertical feet below. It is a more rugged and less-traveled route than Bright Angel or South Kaibab trails. Going all the way to the river and back in this area requires more than one day and some backcountry camping, but there are many day hiking options as well. We selected Dripping Springs as our destination, 3.5 miles one-way. In the first 1.5 miles, the trail rapidly dips 1,500 feet in a series of switchbacks. The Hermit trail then continues a downward course along the west-facing ledges of Hermit Canyon, but at mile 1.75 we veered left onto Dripping Springs Trail. This portion of the hike is more level, but also where it gets the most interesting. The next 1.5 miles traverse the crumbly, red rock Hermit Shale layer and skirt the edge of a drop-off of several hundred feet. Huge sandstone and limestone cliffs towered above our heads and stunning views opened up into the interior of the main canyon. Beyond the sheer dropoffs, the trail veers into a smaller side canyon and rises gently to Dripping Springs. Overhanging rock at the canyon’s head provides a shaded rest area, and we used it as our picnic spot, with splattering water providing the soundtrack.
We went back up to Hermit’s Rest the same way we got there, slowly but surely. The funny thing about hiking in the Grand Canyon is that it’s backward compared to most mountain hikes. The first part is the (debatably) easier downhill portion, and the toughest climb is during the return trip. Because Dripping Springs is higher than the low point of the trail, there is actually about 1,900 feet of total climb along this route. Overall, it’s a rewarding day-hike that offers an alternative to the more commonly visited trails. There are some rough and rocky sections, and heights may be an issue for some, but we wouldn’t consider this hike too difficult for anyone with a little day hiking experience.
The evening was spent dining on enormous steaks at the famous El Tovar Lodge dining room and stargazing in the inky sky. The next morning we were prepared to head to the final national park of the trip, Death Valley.