Sedona vs. Flagstaff: 7 key differences to know before you visit

If you’re planning a day or weekend trip from Phoenix, Arizona, two of the most enticing places are Sedona and Flagstaff. If you’re traveling by car, you can easily reach both in just over two hours. If you have a few more days, you can visit both. The cities north of Phoenix are only 30 miles apart but offer very different experiences.

Both are aimed at holidaymakers and offer good hiking opportunities and restaurants. Sedona’s greatest appeal is its spectacular scenery and several art galleries. The main street offers a wide range of restaurants and souvenir shops and has a touristy flair. Flagstaff, on the other hand, offers an eclectic, small-town vibe, with a main square set amongst a grid of shops. You can feel the impact of a university town – innate energy and authenticity.


View of Sedona from Bell Rock (Photo: Judy Karnia)

1. Landscape

A sense of awe surrounds you as soon as Sedona comes into view. The dirt gradually turns red and the beautiful red spiers of rock rise on the horizon. Driving into the city you have to force yourself to pay attention to traffic and not to be distracted by the beauty that surrounds you. Fortunately, there are drop-off points along the way where you can stop and have a drink.

The main street of Route 89A is home to major shopping and dining, and is surrounded by red cliffs in all directions. The scenery is the main reason to visit.

Flagstaff, on the other hand, nestles among ponderosa pine forests in the shadow of the San Francisco Peaks. In summer, many come to Phoenix to escape the heat, while in winter, the snow is what makes it so appealing. North of the railway tracks is the historic city center with residential and shopping areas spread out in all directions.

Dwellings along a trail in Walnut CanyonDwellings along a trail in Walnut Canyon (Photo: Judy Karnia)

2. Hiking

Sedona has more than 200 hiking trails totaling 400 miles. Whatever difficulty or length you desire, you will find the perfect trail. I can’t remember a hike here where I wasn’t enchanted by the landscape. Bell Rock and Courthouse Butte are the first large formations you see as you enter the area. There is easily accessible parking from the main road. Difficulty ranges from sitting at the lookout point to hiking and climbing Bell Rock. You can also take a jeep tour to delve deep into the trails.

Pro tip: If the parking lots at these trailheads are full, go to the Yavapai Point trailhead and take the path under the road to Bell Rock.

The Sedona Trail Map (PDF) shows all trails and helps you choose which one to follow. My family’s favorite is the Brins Mesa Trail. It meanders through a gorge and then takes you to a stunning plateau overlooking the entire area. You can walk as far as you like and turn back or continue to Soldiers Pass Trail for a loop.

You’ll have to drive a bit out of town in Flagstaff, but you’ll find several hiking trails that offer different experiences. The Sandy Seep Trail takes you through fields of wildflowers, while trails at Sunset Crater National Monument follow lava fields.

At Walnut Canyon National Monument, you can see what it was like to live in this area 700 years ago. The 1 mile trail descends 185 feet of steps and then winds around an island crest. Along the way, you can enter 25 cliff-side dwellings once occupied by the indigenous people archaeologists call Sinagua. You can also gaze into the surrounding gorge and spot other dwellings in the opposite cliffs.

Pro Tip: Flagstaff’s 7,000-foot elevation can present problems for visitors who aren’t used to it. Drink plenty of water and take it easy at first, as you’re more likely to get tired.

Arizona Snowbowl in winterArizona Snowbowl (Mariusz S. Jurgielewicz / Shutterstock.com)

3. Attractions

Many people travel to Sedona for wellness and spirituality practices. Many resorts, spas, and shops offer yoga, meditation, massage, and alternative healing methods. Certain locations are said to contain vortices or concentrated sources of energy. Simply spending time in nature and contemplating the awe-inspiring views will induce a sense of calm and well-being.

In the winter, Arizona Snowbowl utilizes 260 inches of snowfall each year. Located 12 miles outside of Flagstaff on the slopes of Mount Humphreys, it is home to 40 ski slopes ranging from beginner to intermediate. Snowboarding is also very popular here. Many area locations offer other snow fun such as sledding, tubing, and cross-country skiing, including Arizona Nordic Village and Flagstaff Snow Park.

But Flagstaff also offers enjoyment without the snow and cold. Learn about the cultures and natural history of the Native Americans of the Southwest at the Museum of Northern Arizona. Explore 700 plant species at the Arboretum or explore the universe at the Lowell Observatory. Take a tour of the Riordan Mansion, built in 1904 in the American Arts and Crafts style. If you are in Flagstaff for a few days, drive 80 miles to the Grand Canyon.

The Hopi Building in Heritage Square, FlagstaffThe Hopi Building at Heritage Square in Flagstaff (Mystic Stock Photography / Shutterstock.com)

4. Walking around

First, Sedona: For more souvenir-oriented shopping and of course a fudge shop, head down the strip of State Route 89 just north of where Route 179 meets it. Here you will find restaurants, candy shops, gift shops, and places to sign up for jeep and hot air balloon rides. It’s fun to stroll in the sun, listen to the street musicians and admire the red rocks all around you.

Start in Flagstaff at Heritage Square on Aspen Avenue between San Francisco Street and Leroux Street. The blocks are arranged in a grid here, so you won’t get lost while strolling through the city center. Many buildings remain from the time Flagstaff was formed in 1882. A fun stop is the historic 1926 train station, which now houses the visitor center.

Tlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village in SedonaTlaquepaque Arts & Crafts Village in Sedona (FiledIMAGE / Shutterstock.com)

Sedona offers over 80 art galleries and shops to browse. The Tlaquepaque Arts and Shopping Village has many galleries with everything from paintings to sculpture to glassworks. A few restaurants and takeaways are interspersed with other businesses. It’s fun to stroll through the Mexican-style village on cobblestone paths among flowers and fountains. Along State Route 179 and scattered throughout the rest of Sedona, small art galleries offer plenty of opportunities to find wonderful works of art. The beauty of the red rocks inspires many artists to live and work in Sedona.

Flagstaff has more than forty public works of art coordinated by the Beautification and Public Art Commission. A stroll through the historic district will take you past 23 colorful murals and several sculptures. You can also stop at unique shops to browse Native American crafts, art, clothing and outdoor gear.

View from the Oaxaca restaurantView from Oaxaca Restaurant (Photo: Judy Karnia)

6. Dining options

Sedona and Flagstaff both offer a variety of great restaurants. Sedona’s restaurants cater more to the view from your table, while Flagstaff offers a cozier historic setting.

While walking Sedona’s Main Street, my family often stops at Canyon Breeze. A casual eatery with a wide variety of choices, from burgers and salads to pizza and quesadillas. After lunch, enjoy a smoothie, coffee, or ice cream. Dine outside on the large terrace overlooking a vast red rock. For a more formal meal, cross the street and dine at Oaxaca Restaurant’s rooftop cantina. They have been making sauces and salsas using local vegetables every day for forty years. Hearty traditional Mexican dishes compliment the wonderful margaritas.

Flagstaff also offers many great Mexican restaurants, as well as many other types of cuisine. However, my choice usually falls on one of the craft breweries. Just off historic Route 66, Mother Road Brewing Co. has been brewing craft beer for a decade. Try sliders or street tacos while sampling one of 14 beers on tap. At Dark Sky Brewing Co., you can choose between five different volumes of their 16 craft beers, ranging from 5 ounces to 32 ounces. In the Pizzicletta you can get a wood-fired pizza with your beer.

Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, ArizonaPICTOR PICTURE COMPANY / Shutterstock.com

7. Accommodation

If you choose to stay overnight, views are key in Sedona, while location is more important in Flagstaff.

Sedona offers many options from luxury resorts to cabins along Oak Creek. Many resorts offer relaxing spas, yoga classes and excursions. Ask for a room with a window or balcony overlooking the red rocks.

There are many national chain hotels in the Flagstaff area with varying price levels. In the historic area, you can stay at the Weatherford Hotel, established in 1897, or the Hotel Monte Vista, built in 1927. These hotels give you a good feel for what it was like to live in a railroad town and put you right in the heart of the action. However, you have to put up with some noise and not the most modern facilities. Short-term rentals also abound in the area. My family likes to live in the neighborhood close to downtown to have some space to relax while still being within walking distance to restaurants and shopping.

View from a hiking trail near Flagstaff showing countryside and pine treesView of countryside and pines from a hiking trail near Flagstaff (Photo: Judy Karnia)

bottom line

Sedona and Flagstaff are great destinations that are easy to drive north of Phoenix. Both offer beautiful landscapes, fun excursions and great food. Enjoy an escape from the heat of summer or a frolic in the snow in winter. Sedona is more of a resort vacation, while Flagstaff is a historic city, but you can have a fun visit in both.

pro tip

Drive along Route 89A from Flagstaff to Sedona for a scenic hairpin canyon drive. And if you find yourself in either place, keep these articles in mind:

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