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150 miles N of Phoenix; 32 miles E of Williams; 80 miles S of Grand Canyon Village

Born of the railroads and named for a flagpole, Flagstaff is the main jumping-off point for trips to the Grand Canyon, but it’s also home to Northern Arizona University, whose students ensure that this is a lively, liberal town. With its wide variety of restaurants, three national monuments nearby, and one of the state’s finest museums, Flagstaff makes an ideal base for exploring northern Arizona.

The San Francisco Peaks, just north of the city, are the site of the Arizona Snowbowl ski area, one of the state’s main winter playgrounds. In summer, miles of trails through these same mountains attract hikers and mountain bikers; ride the chairlift and you’ll get a panoramic vista that stretches 70 miles north to the Grand Canyon. Volcanic eruptions 900 to 1,000 years ago turned the land east of the San Francisco Peaks into fertile farmland, which the Sinagua people cultivated. Today the ruins of their ancient villages, scattered across lonely, windswept plains, are all that remain of their culture, but their living descendants remain on the land today on the Hopi mesas.

It was as a railroad town that Flagstaff made its fortunes, and the historic downtown offers a glimpse of the days when the city’s fortunes rode the rails. The railroad still runs right through the middle of Flagstaff, and though the train horns don’t sound within the city limits, the ground still rumbles when the train passes. It makes a picturesque frame for an Arizona city that is emerging as a destination worthy of visiting on its own, quite apart from the neighboring attractions.