When one thinks of snow, generally the powder-covered roads of the East Coast or ski runs and mountains of Colorado come to mind. Many hear "the Southwest" and assume dry. Desert. Sun.
While that remains true for much of metro Phoenix, Arizona gets snowfall all over the state, ranging from around 10 feet (think Flagstaff, Williams, the Grand Canyon), to a significant foot-or-two showing (like Jerome, Payson, and Prescott) to a healthy handful of inches (Bisbee, the Chiricahua and Coronado National Monuments, and even Tucson).
Longtime residents and passing travelers alike will be familiar with Snowbowl outside of Flagstaff, Sunrise Park Resort in the White Mountains, Mount Lemmon Ski Valley north of Tucson, and similar runs that draw the bulk of snow-season visitors each year, but there are a few other places to play in the snow — some free, some not — across the Grand Canyon State. Here are three designated "snow play areas" up north that are ideal for sledding, snowman building, and a good snowball fight. Thanks to La Niña and a jet stream with a northern trajectory, the snowy side of the Southwest could see below-average precipitation and storms this winter. Snow hasn't started to fall just yet, but keep an eye on December and make plans to bundle up, buckle up, and head north.
Oak Hill Snow Play Area
Situated just outside Williams off Historic Route 66, Oak Hill Snow Play Area is a great stop for beginner skiers and budding sledders. The area features a 900-foot run, but no ski lift. There are two tubing runs: a 600-foot one that has seen a lot of use and a 400-foot run. At Oak Hill, only inner tubes of "flexible" material are allowed on runs, which means metal, wood, or hard plastics should stay home or in the car.
The Oak Hill Snow Play Area is about 10 miles east of Williams on Historic Route 66. There are two routes from Central Phoenix, via either Flagstaff or Williams. After taking the I-17 North to Flagstaff, take I-40 West to Parks exit #178, approximately 16 miles. Turn right onto Historic Route 66, then make a left and continue along this road for four miles until you see the sign. From Williams, take I-40 East to exit #171. Follow signs for Route 66 and go east two miles. The signs for Oak Hill Snow Play Area will be on the right — keep an eye for the sign.
Though Williams is slated for possible snow showers late next week, Williams doesn't turn into a winter wonderland until after Thanksgiving. The area averages about 74 inches of snowfall a season, and the U.S. Forest Service recommends waiting until there's at least a foot of snow to cover stumps and rocks before planning a sled day on Oak Hill. There is a designated free parking area and admission is free. Hours vary depending on snowfall and access. For weather information and other details, visit the Kaibab National Forest section of www.fs.usda.gov. Forest service hotlines, like the Kaibab National Forest Supervisor's Office, 928-635-8200, or the Williams Visitor Center, 928-635-1418, can offer detailed, daily updates.
Wing Mountain Snow Play Area
A large run and an easy shot just north of Flagstaff, Wing Mountain Snow Play Area is a great destination for big groups and snow-play novices. The facilitiy also prohibits metals, woods, or hard plastics, so only "soft materials" are allowed on trails for sledding and the like. Haven't invested in a sled since you live in 60- and 70-degree winters? No problem. Wing Mountain sells them, along with hot chocolate and other concessions. The recreation area is also the only one up north with managed parking and boasts bathroom facilities — which is a plus, until you've remembered you've re-enacted the layering scene from A Christmas Story.
From Phoenix, take the I-17 North into downtown Flagstaff, then take the U.S. 180 North. At mile marker 226 (nearly three miles past Snowbowl Road), turn left onto Forest Road, 222B. (I-40 connects to U.S. 180 as well.) It's about a two-and-a-half hour track one way, so plan ahead and carve out a day — or at least an afternoon.
Though some forecasts have Williams slated for possible snow showers as early as Thursday, November 17, the town doesn't turn into a winter wonderland until after Thanksgiving. In past years, Snowfall in the Flagstaff and Coconino National Forest area has begun as early as October and as late as New Years Eve. Weather patterns indicate a warmer, drier winter this year, so snowpack isn't expected to build up until at least December. Once snow has fallen, the recreational are is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the season can run as long as mid-December through March. Still, it's best to call ahead for up-to-date information at 602-923-3555. Admission is $15 per vehicle and sleds are available to rent. For more details, visit www.snowplayaz.com.www.snowplayaz.com.
Crowley Pit Snow Play Area
Because it's a little further up Snowbowl Road, Crowley Pit Snow Play Area tends to attract fewer crowds (but more snowfall!) than the family-friendly Wing Mountain. Backcountry travel in the San Fransisco Peaks requires an annual "backcountry" pass. The free permit can be found at both the Peaks Ranger Station and Mormon Lakes Station weekday business hours.
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There are no restrictions regarding snow play items, so all types of sleds, skis, et cetera, including metal, wood, and hard plastic are allowed. Due to Crowley Pit's higher elevation, slopes can get icy, so proceed with caution and keep an eye on the weather reports.
Much like the drive to Wing Mountain, once in the Flagstaff area take the U.S. 180 north. Crowley Pit is denoted by a parking sign, parking is free, near mile marker 233 — about a mile north of the Flagstaff Nordic Center (which itself offers a variety of snow-centric activities, from skiing to sledding). Most Coconino National Forest offices and their hotlines are closed on national holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Martin Luther King Day.
Entrance into the park is free and open to the public. For more information, call 928-526-0866 or visit the Coconino National Forest section of www.fs.usda.gov.
Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version, which first appeared in November 2015.