My bias for Flagstaff stems from the nostalgia of having lived there during the formative years of my adult life, in the late 1980s. But that experience also let me in on a fairly objective secret: that this mountain city in the pines is more than the base camp of northern Arizona’s wonderland (the Grand Canyon, Painted Desert, Sunset Crater, et al); it is itself a great destination. Whether out of generosity or some subconscious need for confirmation, I love to lure friends here to my old home away from home to show off its eclectic, never-dull mix of people (hippies and scientists), places (bike shops and observatories) and things to consume (vegan breakfasts and microbrews). Plus this big selling point: A few days in the cool, aromatic shadows of the San Francisco Peaks really takes the sting out of a Mojave summer.
Then there’s Sedona, the over-worshipped little village a half-hour to the south. Here my bias runs in the opposite direction, but has the same root: Once you’ve existed in Flagstaff and have had to drive many a friend and relative to the red-rock mecca, it’s … well, it’s not unlike living in Vegas and having to spend an afternoon at the Forum Shops. Except the latter experience almost seems almost more authentic. Sedona, a place whose popularity stems from its spectacular natural beauty, has long been overrun by unnatural phenomenon—tourists, earth muffins, vortex myths, questionable artwork. It’s also about 15 degrees hotter and twice as expensive as Flagstaff.
But, long ago, I found a compromise between these two cities, and it’s what still gets me to (or at least near) Sedona on a semi-regular basis: Route 89A. Just typing it conjures heavenly thoughts of the undulating, curvy little two-lane road that follows a creek through the woods and down a canyon.
The drama of the 2,500-foot descent starts gradually. But about seven miles outside Flagstaff comes the early climax, when the seemingly endless green of ponderosa pines suddenly gives way to blue sky. Off to the left, there’s a scenic overlook. I park the car and rush my passengers past the Navajo jewelry booths toward the brink of Oak Creek Canyon. The rock walls spill downward, carrying a sea of trees with them. It’s not unusual to see a red-tail hawk out there. He’ll be soaring high above the canyon, yet you’re still above the hawk. It looks like one of those old 3-D View-Master slides.
From here, I can also glimpse the road ahead—the series of hairpin turns around steep cliffs and precarious boulders along the rippling creek. I hop back in the car, a little reluctant to leave my hawk behind.
The rest of the drive flies by, especially if I have my way and we don’t have to go all the way to Sedona. I have a better destination in mind: either a hike at West Fork Trail or a picnic at Slide Rock State Park. Both parks are also a bit overrun by tourists, but they offer pleasant, memorable experiences. And with majestic red rock geology and Oak Creek as their features, you can pretty much get the Sedona idea without actually going there. Not to mention that, by stopping short, the ride back to Flagstaff is that much shorter.
The Place: Flagstaff and Oak Creek, Ariz.
The Way: Route 89A.
The Wheels: 2011 Camry hybrid, $26,675, courtesy Findlay Toyota. Since gas is inching toward $4/gallon, I thought I’d see how a hybrid felt. The answer: pretty much like a normal midsize car, except that it smelled brand-new, had fancy tech stuff like a GPS map and nearly got me 33 mpg.
The Sound: John Hiatt’s Crossing Muddy Waters for the trip down (great for rolling around in emotions of the past); Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Beat the Devil’s Tattoo for the way back (great for snapping back to present tense).
The Eats (and Drinks) in Flagstaff: For a vegan breakfast and hippie-style caffeine fix, Macy’s Coffee House (14 S. Beaver St.). For a midday jolt of your choice, the Rendezvous in the historic Hotel Monte Vista (100 N. San Francisco St.) boasts both a coffee and martini bar, with great views of downtown’s eclectic street action. For an intimate, gourmet dinner, Brix is a sure thing (413 N. San Francisco St.). There’s a new wine bar in town, Vino Loco (22 E. Birch Ave.), where you can try regional varietals. And you can’t wave a beer mug downtown without it getting filled up at a cool brewpub.
The Lodging: The Inn at 410 (as in 410 N. Leroux St., Flagstaff, 800-774-2008, Inn410.com). I got a cozy two-room themed suite (the Dakota) for $175 a night, which included a great breakfast and sage tourist advice from owner Gordon Watkins. The historic Craftsman house is a couple of blocks from downtown.
While You’re at It: Hike the West Fork Trail, a six-mile journey along (and often through) Oak Creek and among the red rocks. It’s about halfway down 89A toward Sedona. A couple of miles away is one of my favorite summer picnic spots: Slide Rock State Park, where you can sit on the red sandstone and enjoy the cool creek.