Flagstaff, Ariz.: A High-Altitude Getaway For Runners

The Sunset Trail is a popular location for runners and mountain bikers to tackle an out-and-back 8-mile climb. Photo: Courtesy of the Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association

Experience a runner’s “high” on the trails of this Northern Arizona town.

Elevation isn’t the only attraction of this tree-covered sanctuary in Northern Arizona. Endless trails, eclectic restaurants and an enthusiastic running community are a handful of reasons Olympic-level endurance athletes as well as recreational outdoor revelers call Flagstaff home.

With an extensive network of trails, surrounded by one of the world’s largest Ponderosa pine forests and highlighted by mountain backdrops, running in Flagstaff is like being part of a moving postcard. The off-road options go on for miles, and the scenery never disappoints. Regardless of when you visit, the trails (and some of the roads heading out of town) are frequented by runners, hikers and cyclists taking advantage of the clean, thin air and serene surroundings that make “Flag” an increasingly popular vacation spot for endurance athletes.

Run Flagstaff, a running specialty store located on East Route 66, hosts weekly group runs on Wednesday mornings. Runners of all speeds also meet on Thursdays for the popular “bagel run” that leaves from Biff’s Bagels on Beaver Street at 8 a.m. for a casual jaunt on the local trails adjacent to the campus of Northern Arizona University. On Saturdays, the Northern Arizona Trail Runners Association meets at a different spot, rain, snow or shine. Regardless of your distance desires or pace goals, there is no shortage of camaraderie in the city—if you’re in the market for new elevations and running encouragement.

“The community support in Flagstaff is incredible,” says Stephanie Rothstein Bruce, a professional runner with Northern Arizona Elite and a longtime Flagstaff resident. “There’s always someone you can run with on any given day, any time of year.”

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Where To Run

For trail runners, Buffalo Park is a mostly flat, 2-mile loop featuring a smooth dirt surface that’s marked every quarter-mile. From the park, you can access the 5.5-mile Oldham Trail, which will take you up the south side of Mount Elden, offering outstanding views of Flagstaff and its surrounding areas. For city dwellers, the Urban Trail runs through Flagstaff and is easily accessible across the street from the softball fields at Thorpe Park; runners can create an out-and-back 11-miler. Another popular option is the Schultz Creek Trail off Schultz Pass Road, which offers up to 8 miles if you head out and back. (Look for dirt parking above the trailhead past the last private home on the left.) For road warriors, covering ground on Lake Mary Road southeast of town is a popular option. On any given day you may find one of Flagstaff’s many elites knocking out a fast tempo run on the rolling terrain of this 25-mile stretch of open road.

Where To Race

Racing isn’t easy at 7,000 feet, but that doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of great events. The Run Flagstaff Summer Running Series welcomes athletes of all ability levels to tackle six races of varying distances (May–August; runflagstaff.com). For the swift of foot, the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce sponsors the Team Run Flagstaff Downtown Mile (July 4; runflagstaff.com), which promises to be a definite lung buster! The Snowbowl Hill Climb (July 20; runflagstaff.com) is a 7-mile ascent from Snowbowl Road to Agassiz Lodge. For those seeking a long-distance challenge, the Flagstaff Marathon, Half Marathon and 10K (Sept. 20; runflagstaff.com) is the perfect option, but sign up early—the field is limited to 300 runners. Flagstaff will also host the U.S. Skyrunner Championship Final (Oct. 3–5; runsteep.com/flagstaff) on the rugged terrain of Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort. Sign up for the 56K ultra, the 37K SkyRace or the Vertical Kilometer (an uphill 5K with 1,000 meters of vertical gain) and run in the same races as some of the top trail runners in the country.

Where To Eat & Drink

Flagstaff does not disappoint in the culinary department: With options ranging from burger bars and pizza joints to more ethnic options, such as Thai and Mexican, Flagstaff has a little something for everyone. Start your day downtown with an impeccable cup of coffee and fresh-made pastry at Late for the Train (22 E. Birch Ave.; lateforthetrain.com). Down the street sits Diablo Burger (120 N. Leroux St.; diabloburger.com), a popular lunch and dinner spot that serves—you guessed it—burgers that pack a devilish punch. They come served on a branded English muffin with arguably the best fresh-cut frites. The Beaver Street Brewery (11 Beaver St.; beaverstreetbrewery.com) is a great location for an early evening happy hour (especially on the outdoor patio during warmer months), with a solid lineup of local and homemade brews and made-to-order food. Salsa Brava (2220 E. Route 66; salsabravaflagstaff.com) serves up some amazing Mexican dishes and has a nice bar to boot. The street-style tacos taste extra amazing after a long and/or tough run.

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Where To Shop

Run Flagstaff (204A East Route 66; runflagstaff.com) is the only running specialty store in town, and it’s worth the trip all by itself. Stop in and tap their staff for expert advice on shoes and gear, browse their selection of top brands and hit them up for information about where to run and race. Babbitt’s Backcountry Outfitters (12 East Aspen Ave.; babbittsbackcountry.com) has supplies for trail running, such as shoes, socks, hydration packs and nutrition, but it’s also got the goods you need for camping, hiking, climbing and almost any other outdoor sport that strikes your fancy. Aspen Sports (15 N. San Francisco St.; aspensportsflagstaff.com) offers running shoes and gear and is also fully stocked for skiing and snowboarding in the winter, and hiking, rafting, camping and climbing during the summer months.

Weather

Due to its high elevation, Flagstaff doesn’t battle much humidity, regardless of when you choose to visit. The seasons can experience the elements, however, with winter temps ranging from highs in the 20s to the 40s; large dumps of snow are not uncommon. Summer temps range from the mid-70s into the low 80s—typically cool mornings make for a pleasant experience out on the trails.

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Did You Know?

The Attractions: Astronomy geeks and casual star gazers will get a kick out of Lowell Observatory, a privately owned observatory best known for the discovery of Pluto.

The History: Now a modern entertainment venue that plays host to some well-known musical acts, the Orpheum Theater (constructed in 1911) was once an old movie house. It was completely renovated in 1999.

The Route: The historic Route 66 that originally ran between Chicago and Los Angeles passes right through Flagstaff.

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