Southern Snow

Why Arizona is the best-kept secret in skiing

Like Las Vegas, Arizona has a bit of an identity crisis when it comes to skiing—it’s not the first place that springs to mind for moguls and snowy glades. But with a season that usually runs from December into early April, Arizona has five spots for Alpine and Nordic skiing, each offering a unique experience. And, if Mother Nature’s not cooperating this year, a second ski area will have snowmaking capability.

Flagstaff is an easy 3 ½-hour drive from Las Vegas, and it’s ski central for the state, with three developed areas and plenty of lodging options.

Just north of downtown, the 777-acre Arizona Snowbowl hugs the slopes of the San Francisco Peaks, offering six lifts, 40 runs, a terrain park, rentals, lessons, two day lodges and a vertical drop of about 2,300 feet, the largest in the state.

Last season, the ski resort added several intermediate runs and another snowcat to its fleet for grooming slopes. This year, for the first time in Snowbowl’s 75-year history, snowmaking on about 60 percent of the runs will ensure a stable season, even if the average 260-inch annual snowfall fails to float down from above. The $12.5 million snowmaking system, which makes use of reclaimed water from the City of Flagstaff, was approved in 2009 after numerous hard-fought court battles that pitted the resort and Forest Service against environmentalists and Native American groups who feel the use of reclaimed water harms what they believe to be sacred sites. “The water we will be using is A+ water, which is a higher grade than the reclaimed water the city uses on its parks and university grounds,” Arizona Snowbowl spokesperson Dave Smith says. “Forest Service biologists have approved the use of the water.”

The Slopes

Arizona Snowbowl, Flagstaff., (928) 779-1951. Adult lift ticket: $55.

Flagstaff Nordic Center, Flagstaff., (928) 220-0550. Trail pass: $18.

Elk Ridge Ski and Outdoor Recreation Area, Williams., (928) 814-5038. Adult lift ticket: $35.

Sunrise Park Resort, Greer., (928) 735-7669. Adult lift ticket: $51.

Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, Tucson., (520) 576-1321. Adult lift ticket: $37.

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In the next few years, snowmaking will be expanded to cover most of the runs, Smith says, and the resort expects to improve the lodges and add more lifts and runs to disperse skiers amid the pine- and aspen-lined runs. “Where else,” Smith asks, “can you stand at the top of the run and see the North Rim of the Grand Canyon?”

North of Arizona Snowbowl, Flagstaff Nordic Center has more than 25 miles of beginner, intermediate and advanced cross-country trails, plus an additional 10 miles dedicated to snowshoeing, all looping through meadows and hills dotted with aspens and ponderosa pines. The trails fan out from the small lodge, where you can sign up for lessons, rent equipment, buy snacks or enjoy a picnic. There’s also a snow-play area where visitors can sculpt snowmen. Recently, the center added four primitive cabins and five yurts on the trails, letting you quasi-camp amid snow, stars and pine cones.

Just west of Flagstaff, Williams—best known for its historic Route 66 main street and as the gateway town to the Grand Canyon—has a smaller, family- and beginner-friendly ski and snowboarding mountain. Opened in 1964 as the Bill Williams Ski Area, it’s been renamed Elk Ridge Ski and Outdoor Recreation Area and owned since 2005 by Tammy Fountain of Las Vegas. Fountain started her career on ski patrol at the Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Resort, then worked weekends at the Williams facility. “I’m apparently the only ski patroller who grew up to buy a ski area,” Fountain says.

Fountain has been improving the 37-acre site with its 650-foot vertical drop, adding two runs for a total of 12, a tubing carpet for winter and summer tubing, offering equipment rentals and spiffing up the café to offer burgers, beer and wine. The ski area is open on weekends and school breaks. “We’re old-school here,” Fountain says. “We only have a rope and a Poma lift, but you can sit on the deck and watch your kids ski or snowboard. Nobody gets lost here.”

In eastern Arizona, Sunrise Park Resort, which opened in 1970, is owned and operated by the White Mountain Apache Tribe. With 800 acres spread out over three peaks, a 1,800-foot vertical drop, eight lifts, 65 runs, a terrain park and 13 miles of cross-country ski trails, it’s the largest ski resort in the state. Because of its relative isolation (about 3 ½ hours’ drive from Phoenix, 4 from Albuquerque), it’s easy to find uncrowded runs. Snowmaking on one of the peaks guarantees a season.

Rentals and lessons are available at the modest base lodge, where you can get Indian tacos plus basic ski grub; four smaller day lodges on the peaks also offer sustenance. Tree skiers will like the glade runs, while late risers appreciate special night skiing offered Jan. 5 and 19, and Feb. 16 and 23. Best bets for overnight lodging are in the nearby town of Greer.

Just outside Tucson, Mount Lemmon Ski Valley in the Santa Catalina Mountains is officially the southern-most ski area in the continental United States, and one of those mythical places where you can ski or snowboard in the morning and make it back down the mountain to the desert for a swim or a round of golf in the afternoon. From the top of the lift, you can see remnants of the 2003 Aspen fire, which left the ski area largely unscathed. As you ski down past pines and meadows, you’ll catch glimpses of desert below.

Opened in 1952, the 200-acre ski valley has three lifts, 21 runs, a 950-foot vertical drop and an average annual snowfall of 175 inches. Rentals and lessons are available through the small base lodge. Get lunch at the weekends-only patio café or the Iron Door, a full-service restaurant. Want to spend the night? Unless you’re camping, you’ll have to go back down into Tucson.