10 Best Winter Travel Destinations in Arizona
Courtesy of The Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau
In the 2016 edition of New Times' Winter Guide, we've rounded up our 10 favorite cold-weather destinations in Arizona.
Arizona Snowbowl has been stepping up its game the last few years, adding snowmaking-equipment in 2012 and a new four-seat lift this year that should speed up lift lines and open more ski terrain. A new Snowbowl partner invested $10 million in improvements in Flagstaff and at its three sister resorts in Colorado and New Mexico.
Skiing started at Snowbowl in 1938 and it operates on leased Forest Service land below Mount Humphrey, the state’s highest peak at 12,633 feet. Snowbowl’s ski runs descend from 11,500 feet to 9,200 with some challenging terrain for experts and a mix of runs for beginning and intermediate skiers and snowboarders.
The resort’s day lodges are nothing fancy and there are no overnight lodges on the mountain. And unfortunately there are no real mountain lodges in Flagstaff, just thousands of motel rooms, a few downtown hotels and some cozy B&Bs.
The trip north from the Valley is about 2 1/2 hours so it’s doable for a turnaround day trip. But after a day on the slopes, it makes sense to stay overnight. There are good brew-pubs, restaurants and night life downtown with live music frequently at the Weatherford and Monte Vista hotels.
Adult lift tickets are $69 per day and $79 on holidays. See www.arizonasnowbowl.com.
Sunrise Park Resort
Arizona is not known far and wide as a winter sports destination but local skiers and snowboarders know they can get their downhill thrills at Sunrise Park Resort when snow drifts across the White Mountains.
Operated by the White Mountain Apache Tribe, the ski reseort has three peaks, 800 acres of ski terrain and snow-making equipment to keep slopes slippery. Annual snowfall is about 200 inches. Sunrise also has enough lift capacity so boarders and skiers can avoid long, buzz-kill lift lines. The three peaks—Sunrise, Cyclone and Apache—start at 9,200 feet and rise to just over 11,000 feet.
The downside of Sunrise is a long drive. It’s about four hours in decent weather. The Sunrise Park Resort Hotel is nearby but it’s not exactly a cozy mountain lodge. Otherwise,lodging and apres-ski restaurants are scattered miles and miles away in Greer, Pinetop-Lakeside and Show Low.
The most challenging ski terrain accounts for about one-fifth of the mountain and the rest is split between inter- mediate slopes and beginner hills for desert dwellers new to skiing or snowboarding.
Adult lift tickets are $66 per day and $71 on holidays. See www.sunriseskiparkaz.com.
Courtesy of The Flagstaff Nordic Center
Flagstaff Nordic Center
If downhill ski resort crowds are not your thing, strap on some cross-country skis at the Flagstaff Nordic Center to explore 25 miles of groomed trails. Enjoy some wintry solitude while practicing your telemark turns.
The Nordic Center, 10 miles north of Flagstaff on U.S. 180, can also provide skate skis or snowshoes for exploring the San Francisco Peaks at an elevation of 8,000 feet. Fat-tire bikes round out the recreation options. And there are four cabins and eight yurts for hardy folks who want to stay overnight.
Some Friday evening bonfires are planned for a winter season that is expected to have above-normal precipitation, according to National Weather Service Meteorologist Brian Klimowski. See www.flagstaffnordiccenter.com.
Courtesy of Xanterra
If you’ve never visited the Grand Canyon or never seen it dusted with snow you owe it to yourself to visit Arizona’s signature national park in winter. It’s far quieter with fewer tourists crowding the South Rim and the sand and pink hues of the Canyon are muted like watercolors in snowfall.
Dress warmly. The wind blows cold at an elevation of 6,900 feet on the South Rim. The North Rim is closed in winter.
If it’s too brisk outside, warm up by the fireplace in the historic El Tovar or Bright Angel Lodge. Overnight guests can book one of the two suites or four cabins on the rim that have fireplaces.
Try to make time for a meal in the fine-dining El Tovar restaurant. Breakfast is a real treat at El Tovar after you’ve watched a sunrise on the rim or later in the morning.
Day hikes into the Canyon are still possible but the trails can be slippery and muddy so wear sturdy boots. A hiking stick or ski poles could help you stay upright and prevent a tumble into the abyss.
Tourists come from around the globe to see the grandeur of the Canyon but it’s is only four hours from Phoenix. See www.grandcanyonlodges.com.
Courtesy of Visit Tucson
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Mount Lemmon Ski Valley
Few people would ever believe that Tucson has its own ski area. But the Mount Lemmon Ski Valley about 30 miles north of town is a sky island of 9,000 feet occasionally blanketed with enough snow for winter sports.
The Lemmon, as it’s affectionately known, boasts of being the nation’s southernmost ski area. It has two lifts and 22 ski runs. Lift tickets are $40 for adults and $20 for children 12 and under.
Journalist Lowell Thomas and Davis-Monthan servicemen are credited with starting the ski area during World War II. The Sahuaro Ski Club, with a patch showing a skier wrapped around a cactus, got things started and Thomas sent out honorary memberships as a joke to friends around the world. The ski area has endured and it’s no joke when the weather is just right. See www.skithelemmon.com.
Courtesy of Molly Butler Lodge
Sunrise skiers find their way to Greer’s lodges and cabins about 18 miles from the slopes, but the summer getaway is also a laid-back winter destination for nonskiers. It’s an ideal spot for desert dwellers to get a taste of winter before returning to the Sonoran desert. Bundle up and with a scarf and your Ugg boots for playing in the snow or just cozy up by a fire with a book and watch it snow.
There’s plenty of snowfall at an elevation of 8,400 feet. And on clear nights the stargazing is spectacular.
There are several inns and cabins to choose from, including Greer Lodge, Red Setter and Molly Butler Lodge, which boasts of being Arizona’s longest continuously operating lodge. Molly Butler also features a well regarded restaurant. See www.greerarizona.com.
Oak Hill Snow-Play Area
How about getting your kicks — in your snow boots— on Route 66? The Oak Hill Snow-Play Area west of Parks has a tubing run along Route 66 north of Interstate 40.
Drive 16 miles west of Flagstaff to Exit 178 and turn right and then a quick left on Route 66 for four miles. Oak Hill, a free Kaibab National Forest site, is a former alpine ski area used in the 1950s. There are three runs, one of 900 feet for skiing and snowboarding (no lifts) and two shorter ones for tubing. Oak Hill also has a warming shelter and bathrooms.
Courtesy of Elk Ridge Ski Area
Elk Ridge Ski Area
The Elk Ridge Ski Area four miles south of Williams is described as “old school” and “family friendly” by its Own- er-Manager Tammy Fountain.
It operates on 37 acres of leased Forest Service land on Bill Williams Mountain. Elk Ridge has a vertical drop of about 650 feet from a top elevation of 8,150. There is only one rope-tow lift serving the lower slopes but skiers and snowboarders can hike up further to explore higher terrain.
Elk Ridge has tubing runs and a day lodge with burgers and other snack food available. Adult lift tickets are $30. A family pass for two adults and two children for the tubing run is $45. See www.elkridgeski.com.
Courtesy of The Flagstaff Convention and Visitors Bureau
There is something about careening wildly downhill on an inner tube in the snow that brings out the 8-year-old in all of us. Pile a few friends on one or more tubes for a downhill run and see how many laughs, bumps and bruises ensue.
But finding designated snow-play areas is tricky since the Forest Service discontinued use of sites north of Strawberry and atop Mingus Mountain. That leaves Wing Mountain and Crowley Pit, both about 10 miles north of Flagstaff, among the top snow-play destinations.
Wing Mountain, 2.8 miles north of Snowbowl Road, is operated by Phoenix-based Recreation Resource Manage- ment. It charges $15 per car for access to the tubing runs. Crowley Pit, a cinder pit a mile past the Nordic Center of Flagstaff, is free. See www.snowplayaz.com.
Mormon Lake 27 miles southeast of Flagstaff is not much of a lake but the vast meadows and hilly terrain in the Coconino National Forest are ideal for winter sports. Mormon Lake Lodge offers cross-country ski equipment, groomed trails and forest terrain to explore on snow- shoes.
Visitors can take guided snowmobile tours for $60 to $75 per hour when there’s enough snow. Cabins and rooms are available and the lodge has a restaurant and general store. Mushers also race their dog sleds at Mormon Lake. See www.mormonlakelodge.com.
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