If you enjoy touring the US National Parks and Monuments, this is a wonderful home base for a vacation! With our US National Parks Pass in hand, we were able to take in seven different sites.
Right outside of Flagstaff is Sunset Crater Monument, which is adjacent to the Wupatki National Monument. The loop road divides the lava flows of Sunset Crater Volcano, which makes for a great opportunity to get out and hike. As you exit Sunset Crater through the beautiful high desert, you will enter the plains that were home to many Native Americans. The loop road that connects these two National Monument areas allows vehicles to venture out to several pueblo homes of the natives of this area some 700 years ago.
Walnut Canyon is also located in the immediate Flagstaff area and is home to the Sinagua Ruins National Monument. What is most amazing here is the way these people built their homes right in the cliff walls on either side of the Walnut Creek. The walking tour requires an ability to climb rather steep stairs returning from the circular walkway. As you walk along the area that is maintained by the US Park Service, you will also be able to see the ruins of cliff dwellings on the opposite side of the canyon that are still in their natural state.
A bit further out is Montezuma Castle National Monument, approximately 45 minutes from Flagstaff heading towards Phoenix. Here visitors can see the single cliff house that has five stories and over 20 rooms. Believed to house nearly 50 of the Sinagua Indians, this dwelling is high above the flood plain below. Binoculars are recommended to be able to see up into Montezuma Castle, but if you don’t have them, no worry. There are drawings and artists’ renditions of what it is believed to have been like back in the 1400s.
Heading in the opposite direction of Phoenix towards New Mexico, we would strongly encourage folks to give the Petrified Forest and Painted Desert National Parks a full day visit...but be sure to plan for a truly long day, as it will take you about 2 hours to get there from Flagstaff. These two special parks are also connected by a loop road, making it a pleasant trip through without backtracking. I would suggest packing a picnic lunch and plenty of water, since there really isn’t much out in this desert area of Arizona. There is a restaurant at the Painted Forest Visitors Center, although during our visit, it was closed for renovation so we had to settle for high-priced sodas and snacks at the gas station just outside of the park entrance.
Of course, you cannot talk about or visit Flagstaff without including the Grand Canyon—the granddaddy of all of the US National Parks!! Visitors can make the 90-minute drive in their personal vehicle or take one of many tours available from the Flagstaff area. For us, we did the American Dream Tours trip (see separate review). If you choose to do the drive yourself, be sure to allow plenty of time for traffic. Many say that you can wait up to an hour or two to get into the park, especially during the peak summer months. Additionally, this is one of the more expensive parks at a pricey $25 per car, which includes all passengers.
For visitors who plan on visiting all of these great treasures of the US National Park System, you may want to consider investing in one of the US National Parks Passes. In 2007 the pass program has changed and the price has gone up, so ask questions at the location of your visit.