Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town.
Today, I’m happy to introduce you to the Caskey/Peppers family, who live in Flagstaff, Arizona (where I’ve been based this year so far). They’ll be giving you the inside scoop on this Grand Canyon-adjacent slice of Northern Arizona. This is just part of their epic interview, the whole of which will publish in this year’s Arizona and Colorado guide.
First, tell us about you.
Hey! We’re the Caskeys (and Peppers)—Tina, Robert, Emily, Matt, Eric, and Chris (and Ryan and another Chris, who couldn’t be here today to put in their two cents). We’re all related and we’re long-time Flagstaff locals.
For work, we cover the gamut. We’ve got two orthodontists, a middle school math teacher, and an about-to-publish fantasy novelist.
For fun, we’re runners, hikers, bikers, travelers, skiers, and explorers. Matt is a self-proclaimed staycation expert. Tina has a blog that shares her personal journey with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and food intolerance (and includes low-allergen recipes). And Robert skis out of helicopters from time to time.
What should first-time visitors do and see in Flagstaff?
Lowell Observatory is well worth a trip. That’s where Pluto was discovered. Don’t mention that Pluto isn’t a planet around here, by the way. That’s a faux pas.
Go to Lake Mary or hike up into the peaks or to the observatory at night for some amazing star-gazing.
Head to Buffalo Park for a nice, easy nature walk with the peaks in the distance.
There’s a farmer’s market every Sunday spring to fall down by city hall.
For local gifts, head to Fire on the Mountain. You might even get a glass-blowing demonstration while you’re there.
Riordan Mansion (two interconnected homes built in 1904) is gorgeous and the Pioneer Historical Museum and Museum of Northern Arizona (which is cheap and has a meteorite) are excellent.
And make sure to go downtown. See Heritage Square. Walk around and visit the shops.
What are some of the more hidden gems in the area?
The mile-long Lava River Cave, about 14 miles from Flagstaff, is very cool. You’re basically taking a long, mostly level walk underground. Bring your own flashlights. It’s pitch black down there. It’s also not paved (so bring good shoes) and gets pretty chilly even in summer (so bring warm clothes).
Wupatki National Monument—with its native American ruins—and Walnut Canyon—a canyon full of cliff dwellings—are also worthwhile.
For a pretty drive, try Schultz Pass Road. The drive is through forest and if you’re up for a hike, it takes you to Old Weatherford Road to Doyle Saddle—a cool hike that not many people do.
What part of town should visitors stay in?
Stay downtown or on the west side of town. Or, if you have the budget, stay at the Little America Hotel (flagstaff.littleamerica.com). It’s particularly neat in December with its Christmas lights. In fact, even if you’re not staying there, head over during the holidays to check out the lights.
Let’s talk about day trips…What nearby places should we make sure to visit?
Start with Sedona. The red rocks there are unique in the world. It’s also 2,000 feet lower than Flagstaff in elevation, which means it’s still gorgeous and temperate in the winter. There’s a creek down there that’s perfect for summertime dips. There’s blackberry picking in the fall. And there are beautiful autumn colors.
Speaking of Sedona, the Sedona Pink Jeep Tours are fun and scenic.
For excellent hikers, the whole West Fork Drainage is a great place. There are some mandatory swims along the route and it takes a whole day, but it’s wonderful. The trailhead is off Woody Mountain Road (for directions, check out toddshikingguide.com/Hikes/Arizona/Coconino/Coconino16.htm). Parking fills up fast, so go early. [Editor’s note: Keep in mind that camping is prohibited here, no open fires are allowed, and the water is very cold. Go prepared.]
Of course, the obvious and important day trip is the Grand Canyon. But make sure to get out of the main South Rim tourist trap. Desert View Tower (a viewpoint along the south rim) is incredible. The whole south rim drive is good—and even better on a bike if you can get one and do the trail.
If you have plenty of time and money, rafting the Colorado River is a special gem of an experience. The rapids had to have a whole new classification system invented for them because they’re so crazy and big.
We also love Jerome—an old mining town that’s basically a ghost town that never quite died. The old insane asylum is now a restaurant. The town has a history of sliding down the hill every time there was a mine blast. And people—even the people you wouldn’t expect—claim to have seen ghosts there.
If you can’t be very active while here, take the train from Williams to the Grand Canyon. It’s a nice ride and they stage a train robbery and in the winter you see Santa. The Polar Express version was cool. It’s a very kid-friendly thing to do.
Let’s talk about the outdoors…where are the best places to walk or hike in and around Flagstaff?
Start with the San Francisco Peaks—a volcanic mountain range with some great hikes. We particularly like the Veit Springs Trail, a short trail that passes through an Aspen forest. For strong hikers, Humphreys Peak is great, as well. It’s the highest mountain in Arizona (at 12,637 feet). [Editor’s note: The Humphreys Peak Trail is about 5 miles each way and the views along the route include the rim of the Grand Canyon.]
Other favorite hikes in that area include the Inner Basin Trail, Elden Lookout Trail, and Kachina Trail, which is pretty easy and flat.
Fat Man’s Loop is a beginner trail with views of the east side of town. Sunset Crater Trail—a lava-rock strewn walk to a 1,120-foot crater. And Mount Elden offers views of the whole town.
For strong hikers, Horseshoe Mesa in the Grand Canyon is a great day hike. For more moderate hikers, we recommend Cedar Ridge (also in the Grand Canyon).
Now, to food. What dishes should we try and what are some of your favorite local restaurants, coffee shops, and eateries?
Cottage Place (126 W. Cottage Avenue; phone: 928.774.8431) is the highest end restaurant we have here, followed closely by Brix (413 N. San Francisco Street; phone: 928.213.1021). They’re swanky.
For Italian, try Mama Louisa’s (2710 N. Steves Boulevard, #14; phone: 928.526.6809) and Pasto (19 E. Aspen Avenue; phone: 928.779.1937).
For Mexican, our favorite is El Capitan (1800 S. Milton Road), followed by MartAnne’s Breakfast Palace (112 Historic Route 66).
If you like breweries, Beaver Street (11 S. Beaver Street, #1) and Lumberyard (5 S. San Francisco Street) are the best of the bunch.
And for coffee, White Dove (2211 E. 7th Avenue), Cedar House (2009 E. Cedar Avenue), Fire Creek (22 Historic Route 66), and Kickstand (719 N Humphreys Street) are our top picks. Macy’s (14 S. Beaver Street) is extremely popular and cool and the coffee is good, though you’ll stand in line for ages.
Any tips for staying low-budget while traveling here?
Hiking is free. So is star-gazing. We’ve got cheap concerts at the Orpheum Theater, cheap history tours through the visitor center, and a free art walk the first Friday of every month.
Chris, who is nine, loves the rock climbing gym, which is affordable.
You can also bike everywhere and save money that way. There’s an urban trail that goes out east and a 40-mile loop clear around town. The bike park at Fort Tuthill (the county fairgrounds) is free.
How can we better fit in with the locals? What do tourists do that locals find rude or strange?
Do not litter and absolutely obey all fire laws. This is a high-fire-risk area. Do not throw your cigarette butts on the ground or out the car window. Most years, campfires are not allowed. And all fires that are allowed must be fully extinguished—including the embers—when you’re done.
If you see something compelling on your drive, pull over. Don’t hold up traffic. As as for the elk situation: there will be more. Do not stop or feed them. There are always more deer, elk, and squirrels.
Leave no trace is a serious thing here. Don’t leave your broken sled behind; there’s no one whose job it is to clean that up. Don’t carve into the red rocks (which is a felony) or the trees. Don’t throw trash in the woods or break anything in nature. And, especially in the desert, nothing actually biodegrades here, including orange peels and sunflower seed. Pick it all up.
Finally, do not stop on the train tracks. The trains do not use horns and there are a lot of them.
What’s the best way to make friends in Flag?
Join a hiking club, biking club, running club…there are clubs for every outdoor activity around here. And through the university there’s any kind of group you can imagine.
Fire Creek has Sunday night story events or readings. There are plenty of bars if you’re into the brewery scene. The Museum Club even has 10-cent beers on Wednesday nights, we hear.
Where are some of your favorite places to take iconic local photos?
Head to the San Francisco Peaks, especially in the fall and especially at sunset. There are aspens up there. Aspen Corner is a particularly good spot.
Sedona is also great for photographs, especially if you’re lucky enough to be here when the snow level drops that low—Sedona is stunning in the snow. And West Fork is a perfect place for an easy walk and amazing photos.
Finally, of course, the Grand Canyon at sunset or sunrise…though that’s obvious.
Anything else you’d like to add?
During NAU graduation, family weekend, homecoming, and move-in days, the town gets packed with excited students, parents, and friends. If you love hustle, bustle, and high energy, it’s a good time to come. If you’re looking for a quieter getaway, you might want to avoid those times of year.
Finally, a weird fun fact: if you find a Ponderosa Pine with red bark, get close. It smells like vanilla.
Want more? My full-sized Colorado + Arizona guide (with 99 more of these interviews and the family’s full recommendations) comes out later this year. Jump on my mailing list and be the first to know when it’s ready.