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Flying With Faber: Flagstaff, Arizona – An Alpine Desert Oasis

By Stuart J. Faber

Sunset on the desert. (Stuart J. Faber)I grew up in the midst of rolling prairies, thick forests, and cool, deep blue lakes. Of course, I feel most comfortable and at home in these environments. That being said, many of my desert excursions have been memorable. For example, the Atacama Desert in Chile is a magical place. The solitude and lunar-like terrain lends a feeling of being in space. In contrast, the dramatic hues of the red-rock desert in Sedona, Arizona are electrifying. No artist could duplicate the colors of these rocks. The desert surrounding Dubai, UAE, with its waves of sand, reminds me of the Arabian knights movies of my childhood. We spent a thrill-packed afternoon surfing up and down the sand dunes in all-wheel drive vehicles – as the SUVs banked almost 90 degrees, we were terrified that we would flip upside-down.

The high terrain surrounding Flagstaff, Arizona has become one of my favorite desert destinations. At 7,000 feet above sea level, millions of ponderosa pine forests spring from the desert floor. Conifers are not the region’s only anomaly. For example, the desert around Flagstaff receives approximately 100 feet of snowfall annually. Additionally, the terrain is composed primarily of volcanic soil – not a sand dune in sight. Summer temperatures rarely rise above 80 degrees F. Winter temperatures can plummet below zero. Within an hour from Flagstaff is the Grand Canyon. This real estate resembles no desert I’ve ever seen.

A Brief Geography Lesson

Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico join together at one point where their borders form a set of perpendicular lines. As far as I can determine, no other American states can make this claim. That geographical phenomenon, referred to as the “four corners,” is roughly the center of a 130,000-square- mile-expanse known as the Colorado Plateau. Much of the Plateau is composed of high desert with scattered areas of virgin forests – plus a geologic wonder known as the Grand Canyon. A large portion of Arizona lies at an elevation range between 1,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level. As one heads northwest toward the Flagstaff area, the journey up the Colorado Plateau elevates the traveler to 7,000 feet. Within the region, there are the highest mountain peaks in Arizona.

Flagstaff is located adjacent to Mount Elden, just south of the San Francisco Peaks. Just north of Flagstaff is Humphreys Peak. At 12,633 feet above sea level, this is the highest point in Arizona.


Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (KFLG), at 7,014 feet above sea level, has one runway, R3-21, which is 8,800 feet long. ILS, VOR (there’s a VOR at the field), RNAV and GPS approaches are published. Wiseman Aviation, 877/947-3326, UNICOM 122.95, is the FBO. Rental cars are available at the main terminal. 

On this recent trip, I left my airplane in the hangar and flew commercially with a group of journalists. It presented an opportunity to try out my two new TSA-proof belts. One was a metal-free leather model––reversible for either black or brown trousers. The other was a military-style green heavy woven nylon belt. I wore one to Flagstaff, the other on the return trip. They were stylish and comfortable. I whizzed through security without removing the belts. Thomas Bates made both, and bother are made in the U.S.

Little America Hotel Flagstaff, 2515 E. Butler Avenue, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, 928/779-7900,

The lobby of the Little America Hotel at Christmas. (Courtesy Little America Flagstaff)We touched down, retrieved our gear and headed for the Little America Hotel. The van pulled up to the reception area, and I observed what appeared as an Alpine oasis in the middle of the desert.

What I love about Little America is that it is unlike traditional hotels. Not many hotels or resorts are surrounded by dense native forests. Four separate, two-story buildings, housing 247 guestrooms and suites, are nestled amidst 500 natural wooded grounds. I had the feeling that I was in an Alpine townhouse.

Each guestroom, over 400 square feet, and with large sitting areas, is tastefully furnished with English wool carpeting, hand-carved wooden desks and headboards, a spacious shower, 42-inch flat screen HD LED TVs, in-room safe, complimentary high-speed Internet, coffee maker, fridge, and residentially styled furniture. The bedding and pillows are super-plush. Hypoallergenic bedding is delivered on request.

A gorgeous suite at the Little America Hotel. (Courtesy Little America Flagstaff)If you are bringing the family, I recommend one the commodious suites. Some have 60-inch TVs, full kitchens, washer-dryers, microwaves, and cooking utensils. The Fireplace Suites have marble fireplaces framed by two large Arcadia doors. All suites have additional sleeping accommodations. Some have two marble bathrooms. Suites have their own decorated trees at Christmastime.

This hotel is ideal for a pilot’s association gathering, a destination wedding, or a high-powered corporate meeting. The 10 meeting rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows with spectacular views of the outside. The outdoor facilities can accommodate up to 350 people.

Several outstanding local restaurants are mentioned below. But I concluded that the hotel dishes are the best food in the region – and at prices on par with the local establishments. Breakfast buffets are chocked full of goodies from special omelets to homemade pastries. Graze through the steel cut oatmeal, fresh fruit, biscuits and gravy, pancakes, or French toast.

The lunch menu includes French onion soup, Caesar salad, chicken salad, juicy burgers, BLTs, mac and cheese, tacos, and fresh hot turkey sandwiches. For fish lovers, I heartily recommend the trout served on a bed of fresh spinach, diver scallops with bacon beurre rouge sauce, or jumbo shrimp served with basil pine nut pesto. I also dived into the fettuccine Alfredo and the ziti baked in a rich marinara sauce. Meals are served in the dining room, patio, or within the comfort of your guest quarters.

During leisure moments, you can take a trip to town, hop on a zip line, swim in the pool, or work out in the fitness center. Plus, the hotel can arrange a round of golf at the nearby Continental Country Club where you can play in the cool mountain air surrounded by splendid scenery. I devoted every spare moment roaming through the hotel-owned 500 acres of ponderosa pines, cottonwoods, blue spruce, box elder, and juniper trees. The deciduous trees were shedding their green foliage and dressing in resplendent reds, yellows, and rusty browns for their autumn attire. This majestic forest was not planted. Most trees existed for centuries before the hotel was built. I studied shrubs and rocks identified to us by the local arborist and native plant specialist, Christi Sorrell. I searched for bears, deer, and elk. How many resorts offer such opportunities?

Dining in Town

For dining in Flagstaff, I recommend the following:

Beaver Street Brewery, 11 S. Beaver Street, Flagstaff, AZ, 928/779-0079, Best pizza in Flagstaff! Delicious chicken potpies, meat loaf platters, pasta dishes, pork chops, fondues, great soups, and salads. Their sister property, Lumber Yard Brewery at 5 S. San Francisco Street, serves lunch platters of ribs, tri-tip steaks, chili, and roast beef. As the name implies, they brew and serve outstanding beers.

Tinderbox Kitchen, 34 S. San Francisco St., Flagstaff, AZ, 928/226-8400, They serve upscale, comforting cuisine, including tempting macaroni and cheese, grilled pork tenderloin, chicken breasts, or steaks.

Josephine’s, 503. N. Humphreys St., Flagstaff, AZ, 928/779-3400,  A modern American bistro housed in an historic bungalow, this charming place serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Good burgers and other sandwiches, steaks, salmon, and osso buco are among the choices.

MartAnne’s Breakfast Palace, 112, Old Rte. 66, Flagstaff, AZ, 928/773-4710. This is a Popular spot for breakfast. Standard American items, plus spicy breakfast enchiladas, and other south-of-the border specialties make for a great experience.

A Day at Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon (Stuart J. Faber)About 20 years ago, Ben Murphy, the convivial owner and head guide of All-Star Grand Canyon Tours, migrated from Vermont to attend college in Flagstaff. He never left. After graduation, he devoted his next few decades to exploring virtually every square mile of the Colorado Plateau and Four Corners region of Arizona. He, and his wife, Cari, created a tour company that is steps above the best.

Ben greeted us at the hotel early one morning. His casual and affable manner belied what we would soon learn to be a human treasure of geographical and biological knowledge of the region. From the moment we boarded his luxurious hi-rise vehicle, we were entertained, educated, guided, and pampered.

Gourmet Lunch prepared by Ben Murphy of All Star Tours. (Stuart J. Faber)During the one-hour drive to the Grand Canyon, he acquainted us with the geology of the land and the ecology of the surrounding forests and its wildlife inhabitants. The outdoors were our classroom and lab. The professor was burgeoning with knowledge and bubbled with infectious, earthy passion. Within moments, we felt as if we had known him our entire lives.

He explained to us how the Canyon was probably carved out by the Colorado River during the Precambrian era some five or six million years ago. He described in exquisitely simple language how the river created four plateaus of sedimentary rocks first lifted the layers to about 12,000 feet above sea level, then how the climate produced erosion culminating in the Canyon’s mile-high walls. 

He ushered us through geological history, the dinosaur age and up to the present. He pointed out distinct layers of sediment and guided us to precipices on the rim of the Canyon so we could observe the deep blue-green meandering of the Colorado River.

We negotiated reasonably steep hikes to remote areas of the Canyon where Ben showed us fossils embedded in the shale. He explained the origin of some of these fossils and pointed out how many were sea creatures; evidence that the sea once covered the area.

We walked, drove, huffed and puffed, and rested. We weaved through portions of the Canyon, which afforded breathtaking views. We visited Hermit’s Rest and marveled at early 20th century architecture designed by the pioneer woman architect, Mary Colter.

At noontime, he drove us to a hidden spot where he suggested we take a short walk and return within 30 minutes. We came back, took a peek, and were greeted by a picnic table set with linens one might find in a fine dining restaurant. We devoured fresh fruit and veggies – plus made-from-scratch chicken, fish, and beef delicacies. We scraped every last morsel as we gazed over the rim into the depths of the Canyon. During lunch, we discussed geology, flora, fauna, anthropology, biology, and cuisine. Our tummies full, we drove to the eastern most viewpoint of the Grand Canyon National Park and home to Mary Colter’s historic Desert View Watchtower.

Perhaps the most soul-inspiring and serene portion of the day was our visit to Wupatki National Monument. We trekked up a steep hill to where ancient Native Americans constructed red-rock pueblos and lived in these exiguous surroundings between the Painted Desert and the ponderosa highlands. These ruins date back to 500 AD. We all stood without muttering a word. The silence was riveting. Spellbound, we witnessed one of the most glorious sunsets we had ever seen.

As darkness embraced the desert, we headed back to the hotel. The pining gazes on our faces communicated our reluctance to part company with Ben. Happy, content, and exhausted, we discussed elaborate plans for heading to town for dinner. We each parted to our rooms. No one appeared for the rendezvous. The next day, each “energetic, tireless” journalist  confessed to falling  asleep by 9 p.m.

For more about All-Star Grand Canyon Tours, call 928/814-8887, 800/940-0445 or visit



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