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Flagstaff, located at the intersection of Interstate 17 and
I-40 is the largest city and is the regional center of northern Arizona.
It is the county seat for Coconino County, the second largest county
in the U.S., with 12 million acres. Flagstaff, at 7,000 feet, is one of
the highest U.S. cities and its breath-taking backdrop is even higher.
The community sits at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, Arizona’s
highest point at 12,633 feet. Flagstaff is a year-round Mecca for visitors. Many Arizonans maintain second homes here. Summer temperatures average 20
degrees cooler than Phoenix, which is 146 miles south on Interstate
17. In winter there is skiing, ice skating, and hunting.
Flagstaff has long been a transportation hub. Located along an
old wagon road to California, Flagstaff began after the railroad
arrived in 1881. Today the town links I-40 to I-17, Highway 89 to
Page and Utah, and Highway 180 to the Grand Canyon. Historic
Route 66 passes through Flagstaff.
Flagstaff’s name comes from a tall pine tree made into a flagpole
in 1876 to celebrate the Declaration of Independence
Centennial. Flagstaff is a governmental, educational, transportation, cultural
and commercial center. Tourism is a major source of employment.
Traditional economic activities continue to employ people.
New scientific and high tech research and development industries
have located in Flagstaff. Approximately 16,000 students
attend Northern Arizona University. More than 100,000 people do
business in Flagstaff, both in the historic downtown area and at several
shopping centers. Most of Flagstaff is a designated Enterprise
Flagstaff and the surrounding area are abundant with attractions.
The Grand Canyon is the top area attraction with some 5 million visitors
annually. Other popular sites nearby are the dormant volcanoes at
Sunset Crater National Monument, the Indian ruins at Wupatki and
Walnut Canyon, Meteor Crater (the world’s largest), Oak Creek’s red
rock canyons and Monument Valley. The San Francisco Peaks attract
people all year. Aspen forests sport bright yellow colors in the fall and
wildflowers appear each spring. In winter, there is abundant snow.
Many recreational activities are found in the city itself. Lowell
Observatory, with both historic and modern telescopes, is open to the
public. The planet Pluto was discovered at the observatory.
The Museum of Northern Arizona features Native American displays.
Riordan State Park features a mansion built by two brothers prominent
in the lumber industry. Flagstaff’s locales also attract the film and still
photography industry. Flagstaff Winter fest is held annually to celebrate
There were four military surveys that passed through Flagstaff before the town came into existence. The first was by Captain Lorenzo Sitgreaves and Lieutenant James Simpson in 1851. Then in 1853, Lieutenant Amiel W. Whipple journeyed through the area. The next survey was in 1858 with Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives. Finally, Lieutenant Edward F. Beale came through with camels used as beasts of burden. All of these military surveys proved to be beneficial when it came to the railroad heading west.
However, it wasn’t until 1876 when the first group of Bostonians arrived to start a new life in the west. This group did not last long. After being disappointed with the farmland and not finding any gold they headed back. Then in 1876, another group from Boston arrived. It was with this group that the name Flagstaff was created. There are many stories surrounding the manner in which Flagstaff got its name. However, this one story seems to surface most frequently. The story refers to a lofty pine stripped of its branches and used to hang an American flag with rawhide strings for a Fourth of July celebration. The Flagstaff became a symbol for the valley and could be spotted miles away. It was said that that journeying west was told to travel straight west until you come to a Flagstaff where you will find a good place to camp. Still, the second group of Bostonians did not like the area and them to left too.
However, it was in this same year that Thomas F. McMillan arrived and set up his home near a spring. He is recognized as being the town’s first permanent settler. He built a cabin at the base of Mars Hill. Then in 1881, the first post office opened and the railroad barreled into town. Flagstaff began to grow. The town had timber, sheep, and cattle and by 1886 Flagstaff was the biggest city on the main line between Albuquerque and the Pacific coast.
By 1891, Flagstaff had grown to 1,500 and Coconino County was established. The county soon became the second largest county seat in the United States. The famous Lowell Observatory was built in 1894. Dr. Percival Lowell chose Flagstaff for its great visibility. This proved to be correct when the planet Pluto was discovered at the observatory in 1930.
In 1899, Flagstaff was home to the Arizona Teachers College. Later, in 1966 it became Northern Arizona University and is still regarded as one of the best small colleges in the United States.
During the 1920’s, Route 66 was built and passed right through town making Flagstaff a popular tourist stop. It also became an important source of income for the town. Flagstaff was incorporated as a city in 1928.
Flagstaff continues to grow today. The city has so much to offer with outstanding outdoor activities minutes away and many attractions surrounding Flagstaff.
Percival Lowell founded Lowell Observatory in 1894. He chose Flagstaff to build the observatory because of its clean air and high altitude, which create exceptional visibility. Lowell spent his time learning about the planet Mars. It was through Lowell’s twenty-two-year study of the planet Mars and his theory of the expanding universe that led to the discovery of Pluto, fourteen years after his death. Clyde W. Tombaugh discovered the planet in exactly the position that Dr. Lowell had calculated. The Clark telescope that located Pluto is still at the Observatory, housed in a historic wooden dome.
The Lowell Observatory continues to be active in research and welcomes visitors to come explore the sky. There are hands-on exhibits that will interest children and help explain concepts. The Pluto Walk gives visitors an up-close view of the sequential order of planets through the use of models. Tours of the observatory are offered throughout the day. These guided tours begin with a slide show describing the history of the observatory and its founder.
Lowell Observatory is open every day from 9:00 to 5:00 during April through October and 12:00 to 5:00 during the remaining months of the year. The cost of admission is $3.50 for adults, $3.00 for seniors and students with I.D., $1.50 for children 4 to 17 and $10.00 for a family rate.
Night Sky programs are available on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 7:00 and 7:45. These evening programs are becoming increasingly popular. It is important to call ahead for more information at 520-774-2096 or 520-774-3358.
Lowell Observatory is located at 1400 West Mars Hill, near downtown Flagstaff. If you are coming from Phoenix or Tucson take Interstate 17 north out of town to Flagstaff. Once you are in Flagstaff take Milton Road through town until you come to a bend in the road. Take Mars Hill Road on the left and head up to the Observatory.