Flagstaff - the city of seven wonders

Flagstaff, Arizona is nicknamed “The City of 7 wonders” due to its’ close proximity to a number of fascinating natural wonders. Most of us that are familiar with the city associate it solely with the Grand Canyon, although there are a handful of incredible places you will want to check out on your next vacation to the Northern Arizona region.

The 7 wonders surrounding Flagstaff are the Grand Canyon, Oak Creek Canyon, Walnut Canyon, Wupatki National Monument, the San Francisco Peaks, Sunset Crater National Monument, and the Coconino National Forest. The Coconino National Forest surrounds Flagstaff. This massive forest is home to the largest strand of ponderosa pine trees in the world. Thus, the scenery in this small, high altitude Arizona college town is vastly different from that found in the lower Sonoran desert of Southern Arizona. All of these stunning natural attractions are located within an hour and a half drive from the city, so you can easily explore a few during your vacation.

Below I have provided a brief overview of each of these wonders so you can decide which to add to your bucket list. However, if you have the time, I recommend checking all of them out while you have the opportunity!

1. Grand Canyon

Beautiful views at The Grand Canyon South Rim

Obviously, the Grand Canyon is the big one to visit while you are in Arizona. This must-see natural wonder, which surprisingly, is not considered one of the 7 wonders of the world (it is considered one of the 7 wonders of the Natural World), is still widely considered to be one of the places to see before you die. Overlooks and a nice 14 mile paved trail allow you to soak in the beauty of the massive 1 mile deep, 277 foot, & 18 foot wide long gorge. Many tourists are unaware that you can hike the Grand Canyon. Hiking the South Kalibab trail is an amazing experience. Although the entire 3 mile trek is quite difficult (yet exhilarating), there are several different scenic viewpoints so you can go out to your comfort level.

As a less intensive alternative, book a guided mule ride where you can enjoy the same stunning views minus the extreme effort. Whitewater rafting trips are awesome but very expensive and require plenty of advance planning. While the South Rim gets all the attention, The North Rim (a bit further away at 3.5 hrs) is worth a look if you have the extra time. This isolated areas sees less tourists. Some believe it is even more beautiful due to the higher elevation (8000 ft) and resulting wider variety of trees including golden aspens in the fall. Note that the North Rim is closed in the winter while the South Rim is open year-round.

Also keep in mind that the weather at the canyon is quite unpredictable with frequent monsoon storms in the summer and occasional snow in the winter (yes, it snows here!). Prepare yourself for the high altitude (7000 ft) with plenty of extra water/snacks.

Here’s a few more helpful tips for your Grand Canyon vacation.

2. Oak Creek Canyon

Overview of Oak Creek Canyon from the Cookstove Trail in Sedona AZ

Oak Creek Canyon is a gorgeous river gorge situated between Flagstaff and Sedona. More and more people are flocking to this area which has now become the 2nd top Arizona tourist attraction next to the Grand Canyon. Just a few miles south of Flagstaff begins the incredibly scenic Oak Creek Canyon drive, a visually stunning & diverse 14 mile drive surrounded by ponderosa forests and towering ancient red rock formations. The scenery here is very diverse & quite rare for Arizona, and it also happens to be one of the few places where you can leaf peep amongst the traditional medley of autumn colors as opposed to the golden aspens typically found in Western high altitude areas.

There are lots of overlooks and fun stops along the way including the beautiful West Fork Trail which really shines during the fall foliage season due to the abundance of maple and oak trees. Indian Gardens is a wonderful local breakfast spot serving terrific food and espresso and offering the best outdoor patio. Several Native American stands along the way give you the opportunity to pick up quality handcrafted dreamcatchers and pottery pieces. In the fall, you can pick your own apples at Slide Rock State Park while in the summer you can slide down natural sandstone waterslides.

In the winter time, majestic snow often dusts the red rocks for a truly awe-inspiring view. The great thing about Oak Creek Canyon is that it is much cooler than Southern Arizona, and thus, you can comfortably visit anytime of year. The end of the drive leads you into “Red Rock Wonderland” where you can enjoy one of Sedona’s 100+ miles of breathtaking trails. Check out these 6 easy Sedona trails with amazing views for starters.

3. Walnut Canyon National Monument

Gorgeous views along the Island Trail at Walnut Canyon

Walnut Canyon is one of the most mesmerizing natural wonders in Northern Arizona and it’s only a quick 20 minute drive outside of Flagstaff. This spectacular canyon is pretty massive at 400 feet deep and 20 miles long. As you can imagine, the views are nothing short of spectacular. If that isn’t enough, you will even get a peak of the magnificent San Fran Peaks from one of the trails.

There are 2 short trails here, the more spectacular being the Island Trail which takes you past 20 ancient cliff dwellings. It’s quite an interesting experience to explore the ruins of the ancient Sinagua tribes who occupied the area sometime between A.D. 1125 and 1250. The Sinagua cherished this area due to the rare presence of water in an area lacking natural resources. The name Sinagua comes from the Spanish term “Sierra Sin Agua,” which translates into “mountains without water. Despite the lack of water, the Sinagua were surprisingly able to thrive quite well in such an arid area. Prepare for a hefty 200+ stair climb at 7000 feet. Yes, it is a difficult feat for many, yet worth it at the same time for the stunning scenery.

4. Wupatki National Monument

Wupatki National Monument in Northern Arizona

Wupatki, the site of several well preserved 1000 year old pueblo ruins, lies just a half hour outside of Flagstaff. If you are interested in Southwestern history and culture, you will want to make it a point to visit Wupatki. This is probably my least favorite of the natural wonders surrounding Flagstaff as I am not really a fan of the barren desert scenery. However, it’s worth a look if you are a history buff or are on an extended vacation looking for more places to visit in the area. The most interesting site here is a 100 room 4 story pueblo which was occupied in the 1100’s. It’s crazy to think that people were able to thrive and grow food in an area with little water. Even if you are not a desert fan, you have to admit that the scenery is very otherworldly and quite fascinating.

There is also an interesting blowhole (known as a Spirit Hole by the ancient tribes) which is basically a hole in the ground where air naturally blows in and out of the ground like a vacuum. It really is an unexplained mystery and no one really knows what is down there. Hopi legend goes that the blowholes are connected to the supernatural, and are considered openings to the wind god, Yaponcha. The spiritual significance may be the reason for the tribes building so close by.

5. The San Francisco Peaks

Gorgeous wildflowers at Bonito Meadow - beautiful view of the San Francisco Peaks

The Peaks are the highest mountain range in Arizona, with Humphrey’s at 12,637 feet, standing tall as the highest natural point in the state. There are so many beautiful hikes to explore in Flagstaff. One must-do is the gorgeous Inner Basin trail which takes you through the heart of the Peaks. This high altitude trail (8000-95000 ft) is a popular choice for Phoenix locals fleeing the summer heat. Not surprising, as temps this high up tend to be at least 30 degrees cooler! Come fall, the views are even more spectacular as towering golden aspens line almost the entirety of the trail.

Other picturesque trails on the Peaks include the Arizona Snowbowl trails (the state’s premier ski resort), all of which are stunning during the fall season. The drive up to Snowbowl is particularly stunning in the fall as both ponderosa pines and bright aspens line the drive up. Stop at Aspen Corner about 6 miles up for the most incredible foliage and fall photography opportunities in the state. For an easy walk with amazing views of the peaks, take a stroll around Buffalo Park, a nice little city park close to downtown which features an easy 2 mile loop.

Winter recreation is also a blast. Check out the wonderful Arizona Nordic Center or rent a pair of snowshoes and explore the Veit Springs trail on Snowbowl Road.

6. Sunset Crater National Monument

Sunset Crater National Monument and summer wildflowers

Sunset Crater is another interesting natural wonder within close proximity to Flagstaff. Most notably, Sunset is one of the youngest volcanoes in the US. The last predicted eruption was between 1080 and 1150. Visiting the crater is actually a great addition to a day out at Wupatki as they are located along the same scenic drive (the 36 mile long paved FR 545 known as the Wupatki-Sunset Scenic Drive) and you get admission to both for one price.

The Lava Flow trail at Sunset Crater will take you around the base of the cinder cone where you will see the old dried lava fields. It’s an interesting & easy walk with nice views throughout. The best part of visiting the crater is the scenic loop drive connecting the 2 monuments. Along this scenic drive, you will pass through a variety of landscapes and enjoy the most gorgeous overlook of the San Francisco Peaks. During the winter, you will marvel at the majestic snow capped peaks. The most photo worthy time of the year is the summer as 1000’s and 1000’s of bright yellow wildflowers sprout up.

7. Coconino National Forest

Devil's Bridge hike in Sedona, Arizona

Coconino National Forest is a massive 1.8 million acre forest surrounding the cities of Flagstaff and Sedona. It is one of the country’s most diverse forests, with scenery ranging from the tall green ponderosa pines in Flagstaff, to the towering red rock formations of Sedona. Within a short drive, you can see many diverse landscapes including ponderosa forests, alpine tundra, mesas, flatlands, deserts, and ancient volcanoes.

There are so many great hikes within the Coconino, ranging from easy nature loops like Flagstaff’s gorgeous 2 mile Aspen Nature Loop, to the extremely challenging high altitude climb up to Humphrey’s Peak. Other easy hikes in Flagstaff to check out include Griffith’s Spring, Veit Springs, and Red Mountain. If you are up for a challenge, Bear Jaw, Inner Basin, and the Kachina trail are must-do’s. In Sedona, here are 6 gorgeous easy trails you will want to check out and if you are up for a bigger challenge, Devil’s Bridge & Doe Mountain reward with some of the area’s biggest views.

If you are limited on time, this is how I would rank the natural attractions surrounding Flagstaff

  • 1. Grand Canyon
  • 2. Oak Creek Canyon
  • 3. San Francisco peaks hikes
  • 4. Coconino National Forest
  • 5. Walnut Canyon
  • 6. Sunset Crater
  • 7. Wupatki

More natural wonders

On the flip side, if you have extra time, I recommend adding these amazing natural wonders to your itinerary: Horseshoe Bend, the Petrified National Forest, and Tonto Natural Bridge State Park. In my opinion, Horseshoe Bend & the Petrified are even more spectacular than Wupatki and Sunset Crater, however, the lengthy drive of 2 hours puts them a bit out of reach for those only staying for a short period.

Horseshoe Bend is a unique name given to a natural wonder near Page, Arizona where the Colorado river has taken on a unique horseshoe like curve around a sandstone formation.

Horseshoe Bend in Page AZ

The Petrified Forest is home to one of the largest collections of petrified wood in the world, some of which is over 225 million years old! The wood takes on a gem like appearance from the petrification process in which the wood is replaced with silica and minerals which give the wood a colored crystal like appearance. It’s a pretty cool place to visit and just an hour and a half easy drive from Flagstaff.

Crystal Forest at Petrified National Forest near Flagstaff, Arizona

Tonto Natural Bridge State Park is home to the largest travertine bridge in the world.

Largest travertine bridge at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park