We spent one of the most enjoyable weeks of our entire trip in Flagstaff, AZ. It’s a town we’ve driven through on multiple occasions, but this was the first time we had spent any time there – and honestly – we can’t wait to go back.
What makes Flagstaff so great? It’s hard to say exactly, but something about the combination of free camping, outdoor recreation options, eclectic coffee shops, and local breweries just struck a chord with us. It’s an old western town at heart, but the nearby North Arizona University gives it a lively youthful spirit. Also, the weather was nice while we were there – which always inadvertently factors into our reviews of a place.
If you’re traveling through the northern part of Arizona (perhaps en route to Grand Canyon National Park), we would absolutely encourage you to stop in Flagstaff. Here’s a short rundown on some of the places we visited while we were here, as well as a few places we wish we had time to check out. Enjoy!
Where to Camp Around Flagstaff
There are an incredible wealth of free national forest camping options just outside of Flagstaff, making this the perfect location if you’re traveling on a budget. (Learn how we find free camping here.)
US Naval Observatory – Coconino National Forest (free)
We stayed in the Coconino National Forest near the US Naval Observatory. This dispersed campground is only an 8 minute drive out of town on old route 40, which made it the perfect place to base ourselves during our stay. In the morning, we would “commute” into town – leaving our hammock and tent behind as a placeholder – and then return back in the late afternoon. The pine forest has been thinned for forest fire prevention, but it also allowed in ample sunlight.
Fort Valley – Coconino National Forest (free)
While we didn’t stay here, it was second on our list. Just like the US Naval Observatory camping area, it’s close to town but still has a remote feel to it. Located on the route 180, which runs along the western side of Mt. Humphreys.
Forest Road 553 – Coconino National Forest (free)
While we didn’t stay here, we did drive by a bunch of people camped out here. This area is located on route 89, which runs along on the eastern side of Mt. Humphreys.
Where to Hike Near Flagstaff
There are so many great hikes around Flagstaff! Our visit there was a little early in the season, so some of the iconic hikes like Mt. Humphreys and Lockett Meadow were still closed. However, we did find plenty of opportunities to get out on the trail and explore.
Fat Man’s Loop #25 – We did this 2.5 mile loop trail in the afternoon as a post coffeeshop workday hike. It had a mild elevation gain of 700 feet, but definitely got our blood flowing.
Elden Lookout Trail #4 – This is an out-and-back extension you can add on to Fat Man’s Loop if you’re feeling ambitious. This 5.2 mile trail racks up 2200 feet of elevation in just over a mile, making it a major calf-burner. But at the end, you are rewarded with vistas from an abandoned fire lookout tower.
Mt. Humphreys Trail #51 – We really wanted to do this hike, but the top of Mt. Humphreys was still covered in snow. Some people hike this trail with crampons and ice picks, but we are not those people. This steep trail leads from the Arizona Snowbowl to the top of Mt. Humphrey (the tallest peak in Arizona). It is a strenuous 11 mile hike that for most people will take all day. However, once you reach the top, you are apparently so high that on a clear day you can see the Grand Canyon!
Lockett Meadow / Inner Basin #29 – This was another hike we wanted – and fully intended – to do, but a gated forest road blocked our attempt to access the trailhead. This scenic 3.9 mile hike leads into the inner basin of an ancient volcano and passes along beautiful white-barked aspens. This hike is extremely popular in the fall when the leaves turn a magnificent golden yellow.
Where to Grab Coffee
There are so many options in Flagstaff for a great cup of coffee. While we are certain there are many more spots that we missed, these were three of our personal favorites.
Macy’s – This bustling European coffeehouse and bakery is a Flagstaff institution. With a cozy interior decor and open outdoor seating, Macy’s is a wonderful place to hang out for awhile. Serving fair-trade coffee in compostable to-go cups, baking their goods from scratch every day, and offering all-vegetarian sandwich options, this coffeehouse might have an old-fashioned vibe, but it has a modern sensibility.
There is free WiFi, but finding a table can sometimes be difficult. We were there during Northern Arizona University’s finals week and the place was slammed.
Cultured Cafe – Don’t let the shopping plaza location fool you, Cultured is a one-of-a-kind family owned and operated business serving cultured frozen yogurt and specialty coffee. We spent A LOT of time here, putting together a couple of big projects (including editing our first video!). There is ample seating, an upstairs loft, plenty of power outlets, and very strong WiFi.
The mornings tended to be slow-ish, with lots of people popping in and out for coffee, while the afternoons and evening got pretty busy, with families coming in for frozen yogurt. Since we were practically living there for a few days, we got to know the very friendly staff. We tried all the frozen yogurt flavors and drank probably a gallon of coffee over the course of the entire week.
Firecreek Coffee – This was another excellent coffee shop, located north of the train tracks on route 66. We ducked in here to avoid an afternoon rain shower and ended up staying for awhile. As we mentioned, it was final’s week, and the large cavernous space was mobbed with college kids studying.
At the time, we were feeling a little burnt out on coffee, so we opted for their coconut green tea. If you visit, you should definitely get this. It was amazing. Other than that, our only complaint was they were playing Le Tigre’s entire discography at about 2 or 3 decibels shy of ear-bleeding levels. (Make no mistake, we like Le Tigre. It was just a little intense at the time.)
Where to Eat
Flagstaff as a ton of great – and relatively cheap – dining options. While we normally cooked breakfast and dinner at our campsite, we couldn’t help but stop in a few places for lunch.
Biff’s Bagels – Serving fresh bagels, organic coffee and an assortment of delicious sandwiches, we ate at Biff’s twice because it was so good. But while the baked daily bagels and relaxed staff were a plus, what made Biff’s so memorable is its decor.
The owners founded the store in 1995 and named it after their beloved Biff. After Biff passed away, the owner hung up a picture to honor Biff’s memory. Customers were so moved by the photo, they started bringing in pictures of their dogs that had passed on. Now the walls are covered with hundreds (possibly thousands) of pictures of the furry friends of loyal customers.
Pizzicletta – So we didn’t actually eat at Pizzicletta, but this wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizzeria provides food service for their neighbor Mother Road Brewery. We ordered a Margherita pizza with arugula and shaved parmesan while enjoyed a sunny afternoon out on the beer garden patio after a hike. Until we are able to perfect our own backcountry pizza, we’ll have to get our fix from the professionals.
Proper – We didn’t actually eat at Proper either, but this community butcher and eatery offers food service for their neighbor Historic Brewery. (Noticing a theme here? We really like beer.)
If every butcher operated like Proper, the world would be a much better place. They source all of their meat from within the state of Arizona and work directly with local farmers to ensure animals are sustainably raised and humanely treated. They have also revived the nearly forgotten art of whole animal butchery, which mean there is much less waste as well as unique cuts of meat that you wouldn’t find a big box store.
They are also an eatery, where you can literally taste the difference. We had a warm pastrami sandwich and fried chicken po’boy while having a few beers at Historic brewing, and they were both absolutely outstanding.
Where to Grab a Post-Hike Beer
If you enjoy a nice craft “recovery” beer after going on a long hike, then Flagstaff is the town for you. We had no idea there were so many craft breweries located here. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to try them all (although we made a decent go at it). Here are some of our favorites (rated with our own proprietary beer ranking system).
State Bar – If you are looking for a good sampling of Arizona’s craft brew scene, this is the place to start. Located on historic Route 66, State Bar has an impressive selection of both local Flagstaff and Arizona state craft beers.
What we drank: Tower Station IPA (!!!!), Nitro Lost Highway (!!!)
Historic Brewing – We had lunch on the patio (via Proper) and of course needed something to drink. But before we ordered, we talked to the bartender to get her personal recommendations and she completely knocked it out of the park. We overrode her on one suggestion and paid the price for it. Trust your bartenders, people!
What we drank: Piehole Porter (!!!!), Undercover Cucumber (!!!!), Grassfed Golden (meh), Single Speed Coffee Porter (!!!)
Bonus: Historic has also started canning their own wine. That’s right: canned wine! While we didn’t have a chance to try it (we felt having 3 drinks at lunch might be a little overkill), we thought it would make for a great camping wine. Pack it in, pack it out.
Mother Road Brewing Co. – There is something about drinking a beer on a patio on a sunny afternoon that just melts our hearts. Which is why we fell completely in love with Mother Road Brewing Co. We had just finished hiking Fat Man’s Loop and decided to stop in. We ordered a round of beers and a pizza from Pizzicletta and soaked up the glow of a beautiful afternoon.
What we drank: Tower Station IPA (!!!!), Roadside American Ale (!!!)
Wanderlust Brewing Company – With a name like that, how could we not visit this place? Sadly, Wanderlust Brewing has very limited hours (at least during the pre-summer season) so we were unable to try it out for ourselves. However, it was highly recommended by a variety of locals we spoke with. We definitely plan on stopping here next time we’re in town.
Get Outfitted for Flagstaff, AZ
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Benchmark Maps: Arizona Recreation Atlas – If you are planning on visiting a couple places in Arizona, it might be worthwhile to pick up this Benchmark Map. Not only do they outline National Forests, BLM and other land agencies, but they’re filled with other helpful information like campgrounds, topography, drivable roads (by classification), trailheads, water sources, and much more.
NatGeo Flagstaff Trails Map – If you are heading specifically to Flagstaff, this trails map by NatGeo could be very helpful. They show National Forest boundaries, hiking trails, drinking water, dump stations, and campgrounds with showers, and loads of other useful information.
Camping Gear featured in photos
Therm-a-Rest Slacker Hammock by Therm-a-Rest – We didn’t have this with on the first leg of our trip, but this hammock is now a campsite essential. It super easy to set up and packs down into a built-in pouch. Nothing elevates your camping experience like being able to kick back in a hammock.
Rover Pack by Topo Designs – This small, rugged backpack is perfect for short day hikes or running errands around town.
Cusco 26L Backpack by Cotopaxi – This medium size backpack is our multiple purpose go-anywhere bag. From shuttling laptops in and out of coffee shops to carrying snacks to the tops of mountains.
Techo 3 Tent by Cotopaxi – We’ve owned a lot of tents over the years and this one is our favorite so far. It is easy to set up, roomy on the inside, and super hi-vis on the outside.