Flagstaff, Arizona is many things including gateway to the Grand Canyon, Arizona’s premier 4 season destination, as well as a popular starting point for exploring natural attractions throughout the Southwest. Located 7000 feet above sea level, the city is the 2nd highest in the US (counting only cities with a population above 25,000).
This means that Flagstaff sees a climate very different from Southern Arizona cities like Phoenix and Tucson, and thus, offers a diverse range of seasonal activities. The city draws in millions of tourists each season, as well as ongoing Southern Arizona residents seeking a cool escape in the summer, as well as traditional changing seasonal activities & attractions.
Unfortunately, the prime location for exploring natural attractions combined with an attractive 4 season means pricey hotels, restaurants, and attractions. To make matters worse, many of these activities & attractions are overrated & overpriced. However, if you plan ahead and concentrate on the area’s natural beauty, you will find that a trip to Flagstaff can be quite affordable!
51 free (or extremely cheap) activities to enjoy while in Arizona’s high altitude city
1. Hike Lockett Meadow to Inner Basin
Starting at Lockett Meadow campground, you will be embarking on adventure like no other on Flagstaff’s most gorgeous high altitude hike. The 1.7 mile out-and-back climb to Inner Basin is a toughy, yet well worth the effort for the extraordinary setting consisting of endless majestic aspen trees.
This trail is stunning in any season, although nothing compares to a fall walk through golden aspens. Come fall, the entire trail is loaded beginning to end in a sea of striking yellow foliage. The wait is often long, yet definitely worth it for this free & fun must-do fall activity. Nothing in the state really compares to the experience of walking this trail in the fall. If you are looking for that fall feeling, you have found it at Inner basin.
This hike starts around 8000 ft and travels up to 10,000, so be prepared with plenty of water, electrolytes snacks, and acclimatize yourself in town for several days beforehand to prevent mountain sickness. No parking pass or fee is required to park at this trail head.
2. Explore the picturesque high altitude hikes at Arizona Snowbowl
Snowbowl sees its’ heaviest traffic when the ski resort, which features a 2300 foot vertical drop & an average of over 200 inches of snow per year, opens up to ski enthusiasts throughout the state. When the snow melts, it’s the perfect time to explore the 3 beautiful hiking trails, ranging in difficulty from easy-super advanced. The scenic Aspen Nature Loop is a peaceful 1.5 mile stroll which offers nice views of the mountains and some pretty colorful foliage in October.
The Kachina trail is one of the prime hiking choices for leaf peepers due to the dense aspen groves lining the first 1.5 miles of the hike. And Humphrey’s Peak will take you on an intense adventure up to Arizona’s highest peak (12,633 ft). This is a very hard trek due to the high elevation, and thus, only recommended for experienced hikers.
Although pricey Summer Chairlift rides are offered, nothing really compares to a free day exploring the gorgeous nature scenery. Plus the trails actually offer better views than the Scenic Chairlift ride as you can actually see some of the mountains, as opposed to looking out from the peak . Free parking is available for all hikes, and no pass is required. Tip: You really need to be prepared for the higher altitude hiking conditions. I recommend a quality hiking backpack with a built in spot for a hydration bladder.
3. Watch a gorgeous sunset over the mountains
The San Francisco Peaks, which are actually million + year old volcano remains, are the striking centerpiece of this high altitude town. Even at 7000 feet, the mountains make quiet a statement as Humphrey’s stands tall at 12,000 feet. Driving up Snowbowl road to take in a magnificent sunset over the mountains really is a must, and even more spectacular during the snowy winter season (chains may be required after heavy storms). So, take a break, relax, and enjoy the free wonders of nature!
4. Take a scenic drive down Oak Creek
Oak Creek Canyon Scenic drive, which begins just a few minutes outside of Flagstaff on 89a, is one of the country’s most stunning drives. The 14 mile journey starts at 7000 feet near the pretty ponderosa pines in Flagstaff and eventually crosses over into the diverse Oak Creek ecosystem, which features a wide variety of plants and trees, many of which change color in the fall. Oak Creek really is a stunning place as you can see all sorts of plants and trees not found anywhere else in the state. As the elevation drops near 4000 feet, the incredible red rock scenery of Sedona will start to pop up and temperatures will slightly increase.
Aside from the views, there are many activities and sights to see along this drive. Check out the gorgeous West Fork hiking trail, loaded with creek crossings, pretty red rock views, and tons of leafy trees (it’s a great fall hike!). The Cookstove Trail is a very challenging uphill trek, although it offers some of the best scenery in the area. Stopping for an espresso break at Indian Gardens is highly recommended. Also be sure to fill up your water bottle with fresh natural spring water at the natural tap located next to the Pine Flat Campground.
Secret swimming holes (check out the creek near the beginning of the Huckaby Trail), Slide Rock State Park (park and walk to get in for only 3 bucks to this unique park featuring natural slickrock water slides), Native American craft markets, and various scenic overlooks should keep you busy.
The drive finally ends in Uptown Sedona, where you can enjoy more great red rock views, browse unique Southwestern style gift shops, or complete one of the area’s many hiking trails (check out Devil’s Bridge for the most dramatic views & unique photo opps). Sedona is a great budget friendly day trip destination as hiking is the ultimate free activity in this area (just a small parking fee unless you have the Annual Parks pass).