Travel

This Northern Arizona Mountain Town Is a Veritable Winter Wonderland in the Desert State

Come to Flagstaff for the epic skiing. Stay for the cozy resorts, local brews, and crystal-clear stargazing.

Courtesy of Arizona Snowbowl
Courtesy of Arizona Snowbowl
Courtesy of Arizona Snowbowl

Welcome to Two Days Away, our series featuring weekend-long itineraries within a five-hour drive of your city-because sometimes we all just need a little adventure fix.Flagstaff is a mere couple of hours north on the I-17 from the cactus-covered capital of Phoenix. Home to Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff is an equal blend of college town and idyllic retreat amongst the Ponderosa Pines. With history dating back to the late 1800s, this former hub of Route 66 activity has continually reinvented itself without losing its mountain town charm. At nearly 7,000 feet elevation, Flagstaff is a respite from scorching temps during the summer. But come wintertime, visitors are drawn to the powdery hills of Snowbowl.

Although the drive from Phoenix is easy, it can be plagued with heavy traffic. There is a small regional airport with flights from Phoenix Sky Harbor. Flagstaff is also a stop on Amtrak for those who choose to ride the rails into town. Ultimately, there’s no excuse to not come and enjoy this star of Arizona’s cool High Country.

Drive time:

2 hours from Phoenix, AZ
4 hours from Las Vegas, NV

Courtesy of Arizona Snowbowl
Courtesy of Arizona Snowbowl
Courtesy of Arizona Snowbowl

If you don’t do anything else: Hit up Snowbowl

At the peak of Mount Humphreys, the highest point of the San Francisco Peaks and the state, is Arizona Snowbowl. The skiing and snowboarding destination, one of only a couple in the entire 48th state, is situated approximately 20 minutes north of Flagstaff, which makes the city a perfect base camp for a weekend of snow-driven activity. With a top elevation of 11,500 feet that can be reached by lift, there are 55 trails for attendees to carve up that provide every degree of difficulty. The average snowfall is over 200 inches, though it can vary wildly; if Mother Nature isn’t playing nicely, the season will still open in November, albeit with man-made snow.

Once you’re finished up on the slopes, hit up the Basecamp Restaurant to refuel with chili or potato rounds off of the hearty menu. Don’t feel like driving back to Flagstaff? Basecamp offers lodgings that range from family-friendly modern hotel rooms to small cabins with gas stoves.

Courtesy of Lowell Observatory
Courtesy of Lowell Observatory
Courtesy of Lowell Observatory

Fill the weekend with: Outdoors activities in Flagstaff

Flagstaff has a long history with space, being named the world’s first International Dark Sky Place and home to the Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was first discovered. Visitors can check out the telescope that spotted the former 9th planet as well as two other telescopes, an open deck observatory, talks with astronomers, stargazing, and more.

More of a cross country skier than downhill? Go check out Arizona Nordic Village and get your skis on! About 20 minutes from town, there are 24 miles of trails available to go trek cross country style or strap on snowshoes to make your way through the snow and stunning scenery. Yurts and cabins are on site to book and bunk down for the night.

For the more geologically inclined, drive 20 miles to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. Almost 1,000 years ago, its violent eruption shaped the entire area and is currently the youngest volcano on the Colorado Plateau. There’s some great hiking to be had but you can also explore the 34 mile loop via car.

Tired of schlepping through the snow? Make sure to spend some time winding through the adorable streets of Flagstaff’s Historic Downtown. There’s plenty to keep you occupied, between art galleries, vintage markets, shops with seasonal goods, and spots to grab a quick bite or drink. Keep an eye on the calendar for lots of free entertainment events as well.

Courtesy of Atria
Courtesy of Atria
Courtesy of Atria

Eat, drink, and sleep

The best restaurants and bars in Flagstaff

Before a day of wintertime sports or soaking up the sights, start things off with a cup of hot java from Matador Coffee Roasting Co. The local father and son company took their coffee shop knowledge from Seattle and brought it down to the Southwest, providing NAU students well-crafted caffeine. Plus, a purchase of a drip coffee provides you free refills all day long. Head to local legend Bun Huggers for charbroiled burgers, which have been served amongst scarred wood tables and walls laden with memorabilia since 1979. Besides the burgers, everything fried is delicious-mushrooms, onion rings, and of course, French fries that you may also want to drench in chili and cheese.

Situated appropriately in one of the last lumber buildings from Flagstaff’s past, Lumberyard Brewing Co. has been brewing and serving visitors since 2010. Their award-winning year round brews are all named to reference the town; the Taproom and Grille restaurant is in the perfect location to grab a drink and some food before exploring the rest of Historic Downtown. Your exploration should take you to the nearby Dark Sky Brewing. The wildly popular company has crafted over 750 different recipes over the years and keeps 40 different beers on tap between their Taproom and Beer Garden, the two locations sitting adjacent. Grab one of their award-winning IPAs or lagers to warm up against the winter cold.

For a taste of the Italian tradition, go to Fat Olives for Vera Pizza Napoletana slices. Chef John Conley introduced patrons to his award-winning pizza over 25 years ago and is one of only a few VPN-certified pizzerias in the state. Their fresh, handcrafted pies with imported ingredients are wood-fired to finish off the authentic flavors. If you’re looking for wood-fired ingredients done a different way, head over to the Old Town Shops for Bigfoot BBQ. The basement restaurant smokes all their meats in-house using hickory and the tantalizing smells easily permeate the adjoining Basement Marketplace shop full of trendy clothing and accessories. You can find all the traditional barbecue delights, including a selection of items that are inspired by food at truck stops in the South.

At dinner time, book a reservation at Atria from James Beard Semifinalist chef Rochelle Daniel. Her seasonality focused menu showcases all of the finest ingredients from Northern Arizona. The restaurant’s light and breezy vibe contrasts well against snowy nights and hearty homemade pastas and meat-based entrees warm the soul against the cold. If you have the time, book the eight-course tasting menu.

Matt Baxter / unsplash
Matt Baxter / unsplash
Matt Baxter / unsplash

Where to stay in Flagstaff

Flagstaff is part of the historic Route 66 and a couple of newly restored hotels are embracing the nostalgia vibes. High Country Motor Lodge has taken its former roadside motel property and renovated the 123 rooms to have updated yet rustic accents and astronomic charm. It also partners with Snowbowl to provide guests discounted ski passes. There’s the Nordic Spa to take advantage of after a day on the slopes with a hot tub, sauna, and cold plunge.

Also reopening after an extensive renovation, Americana Motor Hotel is a retro-futuristic motor hotel with 89 artful rooms, a year-round heated pool, fenced in “Barkyard” with dog wash station, a spacious backyard with firepits, and telescopes. There’s even a vintage travel brochure rack in the lobby to complete the Route 66 vibes.

Accommodations with lodge-style rustic vibes that ultimately feel cozy and luxe, Little America Hotel is another great spot. For a truly historic stay, get a room at the Hotel Monte Vista, which will celebrate their 100th anniversary in 2026. The Historic Downtown spot is rumored to be one of the most haunted places in the entire state, but it stands to reason after all the change the hotel has been part of over the previous century. The longstanding anchor point of the city is the perfect place to check out all that Downtown has to offer and its bed & breakfast style accommodations make it a cozy place to return to each night.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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