Arizona’s Hidden Gem: Getting There
How to travel to and around Flagstaff, Ariz.
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Find out why Flagstaff is Arizona’s hidden gem for triathletes in this Inside Triathlon article and then learn more about the city below.
By Plane: Coming from the East Coast or Midwest with your bike? Fly Southwest or JetBlue to Phoenix to take advantage of their $50 one-way bike fees, then rent a car for the two-hour drive along Interstate 17 to Flagstaff. You can also fly directly to Flagstaff via US Airways (the only airline that serves Flagstaff’s Pulliam Airport) and rent your car there.
By Train: Amtrak will take you right into downtown Flagstaff.
By Automobile: If you live close enough, this is the cheapest alternative, as the state has some of the lowest gas prices in the nation.
Where to Stay
Many visiting athletes like to stay at the Embassy Suites at 706 S. Milton Road, but Flagstaff offers plenty of other hotels and motels to choose from. Stay close to downtown and you can walk to restaurants, coffee shops and bars, as parking can sometimes be a hassle. And if you’re staying for a week or more consider renting a condo or vacation cottage. Comfi Cottages (Comficottages.com) will set you up in one of eight individual cottages near downtown. Many real estate agents also rent vacation homes from owners in Scottsdale or Phoenix who have second homes in Flagstaff.
Where to Eat
The Himalayan Grill at 801 S. Milton Road, right across the street from the Embassy Suites, offers an awesome $8.99 all-you-can-eat healthy lunch buffet during the work week. For Thai food, check out Pa To Thai Cuisine at 104 N. San Francisco St. It has a large number of $10 dinner entrées that will fill you up after a long day in the saddle. Tinderbox Kitchen at 34 S. San Francisco St. offers an excellent dinner menu and running tips, as waiter Mike Smith is a U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon and the coach of local running group Team Run Flagstaff. For gourmet, hormone-free burgers, check out Diablo Burger at 120 N. Leroux St., in the downtown plaza, and for breakfast, Biff’s Bagels at 1 S. Beaver St. is the place to be. Right across the street at 14 S. Beaver St. is Macy’s European Coffee House and Bakery, a hotspot for java and pastries. Another popular coffee stop is Late for the Train, with three locations in Flagstaff. For happy hour brews, check out the Lumberyard Tap Room & Grille at 5 S. San Francisco St., near the Amtrak station, or Pay ’n Take at 12 W. Aspen Ave., a bar that doubles as the meeting point for the Saturday group ride and the place where Olympic gold and silver medalist Simon Whitfield and his Canadian training partners like to hang out when they’re in town.
The Northern Arizona Masters swim club has coached workouts in the indoor 50-meter Northern Arizona University pool during the summer Monday through Friday from 6 to 7:30 a.m. and Saturday from 6:30 to 8 a.m. You can also swim Monday, Wednesday and Friday nights from 5:30 to 7 p.m. The local spot for open-water swims is Lake Mary, but bring your wetsuit as the water can be chilly, especially early in the summer.
Flagstaff has an extensive network of running and mountain biking trails that extend from the downtown area throughout the city. A favorite for local runners is Buffalo Park, where you can run a two-mile, mostly flat main loop and miles of trails that extend from the park into the surrounding mountains. To see all of the trails, pick up a free copy of the Flagstaff Urban Trails and Bikeways Map from one of the local bike shops. You can also download a PDF of the trail map onto your iPhone or iPad at the City of Flagstaff website: Flagstaff.az.gov. Local running group Team Run Flagstaff meets for a weekly track workout on Tuesday nights at 6 at Coconino High School, 2801 North Izabel St. The Bagel Run meets on Thursday mornings at 8:30 in front of Biff’s Bagels, where you’re likely to rub elbows with famed distance running coach Greg McMillan and elite runners like Ryan Hall and Abdi Abdirahman.
Surprisingly there’s only one specialty running store in the entire city, Run Flagstaff at 204A E. Route 66. But then again, most runners in Flag are on shoe contracts.
The most popular route for cyclists is the 64-mile Lake Mary-Mormon Lake ride through the Coconino National Forest. It’s also the safest because the road is newly paved, the bike lanes are huge and few trucks travel along the route. From downtown, ride south through the NAU campus to Lone Tree Road, hang a right at John Wesley Powell Boulevard and take it all the way to Lake Mary Road. Ride south on Lake Mary Road past Upper Lake Mary, then turn right at Mormon Lake Road, which will take you around the now dry Mormon Lake. Most riders stop at the Mormon Lake Village to fill up water bottles and get a bite to eat before the return trip on Lake Mary Road.
The 28-mile ride from Flagstaff to Snowbowl is one of the best and most scenic climbs in Arizona (bring your camera). From town, take U.S. Route 180 North, the main route to the Grand Canyon, past the Museum of Northern Arizona. Turn right on North Snow Bowl Road, where you’ll make the steady 2,000-foot climb to the ski lifts at 9,200 feet. Ironman pros such as Patrick Bless like to do the Snowbowl climb following the Lake Mary-Mormon Lake ride to strengthen their legs and lungs for an Ironman. Stop at one of the gas stations along Route 180 to fill up your water bottles before you make the climb—the air is extremely dry near the summit.
For Ironman athletes preparing for Kona, the must-do, epic ride is the 82-mile Wupatki-Sunset Crater route. From downtown Flagstaff, ride east along the bike trail next to state Route 66 until you get to the Flagstaff Mall, then take U.S. Route 89 east toward Page. After 25 miles of steady descent, you’ll turn right on a 36-mile scenic loop road that will take you past the 900-year-old Pueblo ruins in the Wupatki National Monument and the lava flows along the flanks of the 8,000-foot Sunset Crater Volcano, which last erupted about 1,000 years ago. Make sure you stop to fill up your water bottles at the Wupatki and Sunset Crater ranger stations because the air is often hot and dry here. Bring some powdered drink mix or electrolyte tablets—the water coming out of the taps has a metallic taste. After descending from the volcano, you’ll again hit Route 89, where you’ll need to summon up your Ironman strength to stay in the aerobars as you battle a strong headwind while making the 2,300-foot climb along the highway back to Flagstaff.
The local group ride goes around Lake Mary-Mormon Lake, starting at 9 a.m. on Saturdays from Pay ’n Take, and can get quite aggressive, so bring your road bike. In fact, if you’re coming by car and have room, bring both your road and tri bikes to take advantage of all the riding opportunities Flagstaff has to offer. Absolute Bikes at 202 E. Route 66 has road bikes for rent, but the selection is limited and most triathlon equipment at the local bike shops has to be special ordered (this is a mountain biking town after all), so bring along plenty of spare parts when you come for an extended visit.