We were heartbroken when we had to leave our first “real” wild camping spot in Sedona. I had been looking forward to living in the peaceful desert, on our own for a whole week, and really proving to myself that I could do it–and enjoy it!
But when our generator decided not to function, we had no choice but to pack up and find power. Especially since it was already Sunday morning, and we had to set up and be ready to work by 7 a.m. the next day.
Where We Camped in Flagstaff
My first choice was to stay at Fort Tuthill Recreation Area, an Air Force Famcamp. But when I called for information, they said they were closed for the season. So I did some tentative research and found an independent campground in Flagstaff that had room for us.
As we were getting close, I got a call from Eric, who was leading the way in Smaug. He had found a military campground where we could stay! But wait, I told him. I called a couple of hours ago and they aren’t open. “I just got off the phone with them,” he responded. “They just decided to let people in.”
So with that weird twist of events, we landed at pine-canopied Fort Tuthill Recreation Area. It’s only nominally big rig-friendly, so navigating the sites was a bit of a heart-stopper. The site we stayed in–I believe it was #20–was really the only one that would take our 40-footer. In retrospect, we should’ve done a three-point turn to get into it. Doing what Eric did (driving around the campground and barely missing the pine trees lining the roadway) is not recommended.
But once we were in, we were in. The campground was gorgeous, and we had it to ourselves all week. We took advantage of the extensive trails leading out from the grounds during our morning walks. And when we were ready to explore farther, it was a quick 10-15 minutes into the heart of Flagstaff.
What We Did in Flagstaff
We didn’t know Flagstaff was cool. Historic downtown has a ton of character; there are lots of highly rated restaurants; and outdoor enthusiasts won’t know where to start. We were in town for less than a week, so we couldn’t do the city justice. We’re definitely going back, so let us know which places you recommend for playing and eating (our two favorite things).
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument
As we were stamping our Passport in the visitor’s center, a lady walked in to ask the ranger whether Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument was “worth” visiting. At that moment, I didn’t know the answer myself. But about an hour later, in the middle of the Lava Flow Trail, I remembered that lady and felt sad because she decided not to stay.
Sunset Crater is awesome, in the truest sense of the word. The Lava Flow Trail is only a mile long, but it takes you back in time 900 years to an apocalyptic event: the explosion of a volcano. We saw upended Ponderosa Pines and navigated part of the nine-mile fissure formed in the earth. We couldn’t stop asking each other questions about what we seeing, and we couldn’t contain our amazement.
On our way through the park, we stopped at Painted Desert Vista to eat our picnic lunch. I’ve always loved the named “Painted Desert” because it’s so apropos.
Wupatki National Monument
If you continue along the same road, you’ll enter Wupatki National Monument, which is co-located with Sunset Crater. The terrain changes within mere miles, as the trees thin and are replaced with low brush.
This national monument offers a completely different experience, with trails that take you past (and even into) pueblos dating from roughly the 1100s. The largest pueblo is Wupatki, and the rangers at the visitor’s center will give you a free self-guided tour book to enrich your visit. The booklet is brimming with interesting facts and complementary diagrams and pictures. Eric played tour guide for me and did an excellent job.
Historic Downtown and Railroad District
We spent a couple of afternoons wandering around historic downtown and the railroad district. Not on purpose, all the restaurants and coffee shops we visited ended up being in this area. It’s just the place to be, I guess.
If you love used bookstores like me, Starlight Books (15 N. Leroux St.) has a beautifully-curated collection, with an emphasis on classic books. I picked up Sophie’s World and On the Road.
We started amassing our hiking gear in Sedona. I’ve fallen in love with this interesting way to stay fit, and Eric has been empowered by his trekking poles. By the time we got to Flagstaff, my love had done his research and was ready to pick up his first pair of hiking boots. It seemed like every other shop in the historic district was an outdoor equipment store, so he had lots of places to look.
In the end, he bought from Flagstaff’s REI. It’s hard to beat their one-year return policy, and there are locations all over that we can visit if we have a problem. REI also emphasizes social good, so it’s a company we can get behind.
Here’s a fun interactive map of the historic downtown area, so you can get your bearings.
What We Ate in Flagstaff
Toasted Owl Cafe
I loved Sunday brunch at Toasted Owl Cafe. We sat on the outdoor patio, where you won’t find matching tables, chairs or tableware. In fact, their menu states, “We at the toasted owl are proud to say that we recycle, repurpose, and up cycle. The fixtures and furniture are for sale, ask for the price.”
My tuna salad was so fresh and refreshing, with feta, onion, cucumber, apple, dried cranberries, housemade tuna salad and balsamic dressing. Eric had the BLAT: bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato.
You can also get mimosas on Sundays, by the glass or pitcher. Though the glasses aren’t large, they’re only $2 each. I’m not sure what the pitchers run for, but you might want to take a friend for all that business.
12 S. Mikes Pike St. – Website
Are you getting to know the differences between Eric and my food tastes? The Toasted Owl was my pick’ums. Diablo Burger was his. What is “pick’ums,” you ask? It’s a term we came up with, which eloquently describes how we take turns choosing where we’re going to eat.
Anyway, Diablo Burger was good (there’s one in Tucson, too). The beef is local, open range-raised, antibiotic-free and growth hormone-free. They recommend you order your patty medium-rare to preserve the tenderness and juiciness of the meat. But they’ll cook it any way you like. I normally do medium rare, but I took a step down to medium and was perfectly happy. Oh! And the burgers are served on English muffins.
I went with the vitamin b burger, so named because it’s filled with bacon, beet and blue cheese. Beet on a burger? You bet! Eric did the big daddy kane, with bacon, sharp cheddar, sliced pickles and Diablo Burger’s “special sauce.”
120 N. Leroux St. #112 – Website
Late for the Train
I’m always looking for that perfect local coffee shop to get my vanilla latte and work, read, journal or write a blog post. Late for the Train seems to be loved by Flagstaffians. When I found out that my dear friend Jill Seesa (Vespa and a Laptop) bought her new-to-her Class B in the parking lot, the place was endeared to me instantly.
22 East Birch Ave. – Website
Ewa’s Thai Cuisine
It was Friday. It had been a long week. We were mentally tired and ready to celebrate the weekend with a kickoff meal. We wandered into Tourist Home, but the menu didn’t call to us (though we heard good things and I’m sure it’s delicious).
Instead, Ewa’s Thai Cuisine caught our eye one block over. As we got closer, we saw a big sign for their lunch buffet. Um, it was super yummy. Everything was fresh, from the stuffed wontons at the beginning to the sweet orange slices at the end. In between, there were noodles, Pad Thai, roasted vegetables, fried rice and more. I’d like to go back. Now.
110 S. San Franzisco St. – Website
My third time walking past Steep Leaf, I had to go in. They had a marquee at the window that listed specialty hot chocolates made with tea, and they all looked awesome. On one side of the shop is a bar with seating, where hot drinks are made fresh and served. There’s also Middle Eastern-style seating at the windows with large, colorful pillows and low tables.
The rest of the space is filled with loose leaf tea and related items for sale. Actually, not all the items are related to tea. There are also high-cut socks and prints of whimsical animals. But it’s all fun to look at.
1 E. Aspen – Website