With a front-row seat to space science marvels, scenic desertscapes and the Main Street of America, Flagstaff provides the perfect recipe to recreate a Wes Anderson-style caper.
Marked by whimsical wardrobes, stark color contrasts and painstakingly perfect symmetry, auteur filmmaker Wes Anderson’s fantastical cinematic flair has the remarkable ability to whisk audiences away to a different time and place. Whether they’re set in a yellow submarine, a remote Hungarian ski resort or a train traversing the Himalayan foothills, Anderson’s films often focus on expeditions in far-flung locales that evoke an unequivocal sense of adventure.
Though primarily filmed in Spain, Anderson’s latest movie takes place in a fictional town in the Arizona desert. Featuring an all-star ensemble cast including Margot Robbie and Tom Hanks, Asteroid City is inspired by postwar extraterrestrial lore and the Southwest’s significance in space exploration.
The hype around the film’s release in June might explain the recent uptick in social media users romanticizing everyday moments via pastel-tinged filters and quirky background music. Accidentally Wes Anderson, a book and social media phenomenon that skyrocketed in popularity amid the pandemic, pays tribute to Anderson’s penchant for unconventional architecture and strict adherence to the rule of thirds. AWA’s Instagram – which gives everything from a midcentury motel in New Jersey to a formidable fjord in Norway the trademark Anderson treatment – has garnered more than a million followers since it started six years ago. It also produces “adventure guides” for decidedly Andersonian destinations – a museum in Vienna or farmhouse in Vermont, for example.
With all the ballyhoo about the director’s aesthetic, I ponder which part of Arizona is the most “accidentally Wes Anderson.”
Ultimately, I figure Flagstaff has all the quintessential ingredients for a Wes Anderson-inspired road trip (short of Bill Murray in my passenger seat): retro-futuristic motifs, anachronistic elements, plenty of backdrops for the perfect tableau vivant and attractions purpose-built for astro-tourists. Armed with a cache of dog-eared road maps, a threadbare suitcase and a pair of my granddad’s old birdwatching binoculars, I set out on the open road with one question at the forefront of my mind: What would Wes do?
ESTABLISH A HOME BASE
Most of Anderson’s movies take place in ethereal make-believe mise-en-scènes. Flagstaff is rife with sufficiently transportive historical inns, modern motor courts and boutique bed and breakfasts, but few stir up the same immersive quality of Anderson’s films quite like the Americana Motor Hotel (americanamotorhotel.com).
Originally constructed in 1962, the Route 66 motel returned to its midcentury resplendence this summer. With wood-paneled walls, pop art-inspired interiors and disco balls in every guestroom, the nostalgic lodge is a nod to the region’s ecological, historical and astronomical roots.
Designed by Graduate Hotels alum Andrew Alford, the Americana is an homage to the roadside respites that freckled The Mother Road in the mid-1960s. Starting this fall, guests can get their kicks by sunbathing in the heated pool or stargazing through complimentary telescopes around communal firepits.
On my visit in early August, these recreational areas have yet to open to the public, but I’m none the wiser. I’m far too preoccupied fawning over the property’s dandelion-hued doors and neon sign beckoning passersby to pull into the “host to the traveling world.”
Make no mistake – Americana isn’t just some flophouse for you to store your steamer trunks and field glasses while you hit the open road. Sure, its proximity to national parks, lunar landmarks and a Natural Wonder of the World make it a practical ground zero for Northern Arizona adventuring, but the property also exudes genuine charm and old-fashioned comfort. In fact, I’d lounge around in the retro-cool courtesy robes in the room all day if I didn’t have to embark on a crusade to capture photos of some of Flagstaff’s most Wes Anderson-y destinations. Next time.
GET OFF THE BEATEN PATH
I like to think of myself as an adventurous gal tuned into Arizona’s great outdoors. I’ve picnicked at the Grand Canyon, trekked to Fossil Creek, camped in the Coconino National Forest, stargazed in the Sitgreaves, summited Humphreys Peak and hiked countless trails in Red Rock Country. So, I’m surprised – and marginally offended – when I pay a visit to the Flagstaff Visitor Center (discoverflagstaff.com) and ascertain a slew of nearby attractions with which I’m wholly unfamiliar, but Wes Anderson would love. I aim to check this previously uncharted territory off my to-do list.
My first stop is Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument (nps.gov/sucr), a commanding cinder cone in the San Francisco volcanic field that was formed by a series of eruptions nearly 900 years ago. Several paved trails allow visitors to view the 1,120-foot crater and the hardened lava flow left in its wake. I take the Bonito Vista Trail to get a glimpse of a brand-new plaque commemorating the area’s listing on the National Register of Historic Places and integral role in Project Apollo. The park’s topography is so similar to the surface of the moon that it became the official site for astronaut field training and equipment testing for the 1969 lunar landing.
The crater is located along a 34-mile scenic loop that meanders through picturesque meadows and pine forests that give way to a seemingly endless swath of desolate desert. I follow this remote road for about 15 miles before arriving at Wupatki National Monument (nps.gov/wupa), where I take in striking panoramas of centuries-old sandstone pueblos inhabited by the Hopi people and the Painted Desert beyond.
I learn more about the ancient peoples who inhabited the region – and the creatures who preceded them – at the Museum of Northern Arizona (musnaz.org). Exhibits feature everything from pottery, jewelry and textiles crafted by Native American artists to a cast Dilophosaurus skeleton, while lush courtyards showcase the diverse flora native to the Colorado Plateau.
The museum is a 20-minute drive from Arizona Snowbowl (snowbowl.ski), which offers Summer Scenic Gondola rides through October. The winding, ponderosa-rimmed road to the top of the mountain is an adventure in itself, but the gondola ferries me several thousand feet farther up. As I offload at the top, I know the spirit of Wes Anderson is on my side when I spot a sign that says “Highest Toilet in Arizona” above the only building on the summit. See what I mean about uncharted territory?
The characters in Asteroid City celebrate the anniversary of the day in 3007 B.C. when an asteroid collided with the desert and created a massive crater. At Meteor Crater Natural Landmark (meteorcrater.com) about 40 miles east of Flagstaff, visitors can gawk at the real-life, 750-foot-deep dent left by a nickel-iron meteorite more than 50,000 years ago. Perhaps one of the most impressive – and certainly one of the most remote – astro-tourism sites in Arizona, Meteor Crater is a must-see.
AVOID MUNDANE MEALS
Of course, no fantastic voyage would be complete without a little culinary exploration. My Parts Unknown moment starts at new-to-me Proper Meats + Provisions (propermeats.com), an old-timey deli and 2023 James Beard semifinalist lauded for its pastrami, patty melts and pulled-pork fries. Thoughtful touches like a craft soda fountain, chalkboard menu and market purveying specialty salts and local wine add to its authentic atmosphere.
Teatro Italian Food & Wine (teatroitalianfoodandwine.com), from the folks behind Flagstaff staple Tinderbox Kitchen, opened last October and has already made a name for itself thanks to scrumptious scratch-made pastas and an extensive wine list. Seasonal dishes like imported burrata with fresh melon, standout entrées such as squid ink spaghetti with Scottish salmon, and antipasti including fresh-baked bread and herb-flecked butter quickly garnered it a cult following.
What would Wes do? He would definitely get dessert, especially if it includes rich, layered pearls of tiramisu made to look like cured fish roe and served in a repurposed caviar tin. Not only is it one of the most inventive preparations I’ve encountered, but it completely reshapes my preconceived notion that tiramisu is a bitter, soggy bore.
Uncharted territory, indeed.
Flagstaff’s Lunar Legacy
Every Apollo astronaut who went to the moon, from Neil Armstrong to Eugene Cernan, trained in Flagstaff. Walk a mile in their moon boots at the six designated Lunar Landmark sites integral to NASA’s Apollo missions from 1961 to 1972. Pick up a Lunar Landmarks Trail Map & Passport at the Flagstaff Visitor Center, get it stamped at three of the six stops and trade it in for a commemorative keepsake.