A ski resort with terrain for all levels and closeby lodging, lots of apres ski activities and a good ski school make for great vacations on snow.
Flagstaff, Arizona, is one of those places set like a hub in a wheel. Spokes radiate out from the city to mountain resorts for skiing and snowboarding. Surprised? You might think of Arizona as an arid land of cactus sprinkled with golf courses, but locals know better as the state's mountains pile up a respectable amount of winter snow.
The hub - the city of Flagstaff - sits on major crossroads. Interstate 40 provides the east-west link to Albuquerque, Las Vegas and Los Angeles while I-17 connects southward with Phoenix, Tucson and El Paso. Even those from Salt Lake City can drop from the north on Highway 89. Amtrak also routes through Flagstaff on the Southwest Chief Line, and the city's Pulliam Airport welcomes daily flights from Los Angeles and Phoenix.
Arizona Snowbowl, located in the Coconino National Forest, is only seven miles from Flagstaff. Its 2,800 feet of vertical drop yields enough terrain to challenge even experts. Those coming from sea level, however, may find themselves winded faster as Snowbowl's summit tops out in the San Francisco Peaks at 11,500 feet - the highest of any ski resort in the state.
An average annual snowfall of 260 inches can stretch the ski season from mid-December through mid-April in good natural snow years. Snowbowl finally won the right to add snowmaking, pumping water uphill from Flagstaff. It's has been at least a decade-long battle, but the result is a win for snowsports fans.
But Snowbowl isn't just for lift-riders only. The neighboring Kachina Peaks Wilderness has gained a reputation for backcountry skiing, luring telemarkers and all-terrain skiers to skin up to the top of broad bowls. Free permits, valid for the whole winter, are required for accessing the wilderness through Snowbowl.
Snowbowl's proximity to Flagstaff yields extensive lodging options. You can select from more than 70 hotels and motels with access to the city's nightlife. The Flagstaff Nordic Center grooms 25 miles of trails, plus a sledding and snowplay hill one mile away adds alternative winter fun. Also, one of the side benefits of visiting Flagstaff on a ski vacation is taking a day trip to the Grand Canyon, located only 81 miles to the northwest.
Three other ski areas are within reach outside of Flagstaff. Elk Ridge Ski Area, a tiny family ski area located in Williams, has 2, lifts, 11 trails and a single-lane tubing hill. You can zip to the ski hill in a 45-minute interstate drive to the west.
A 3.5-hour drive to the southeast leads to Sunrise Park Resort in the White Mountains. The resort, run by the White Mountain Apache Tribe, offers skiing on three peaks: Sunrise, Apache and Cyclone. The highest tops out at 11,100 feet, enough to make those from the coast huff and puff at the elevation. A casino sparks the nightlife, and Sunrise is a favorite of Phoenix skiers and riders for its relative proximity.
The resort features 8 lifts, 65 runs, a special children's ski area and a terrain park with rails, jumps and a half-pipe. There are also cross-country ski trails. Lodging is available nearby.
Drive 5.5 hours to the south, and you'll reach Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley, which hangs high above Tucson in the Santa Catalina Mountains. It has the claim to fame of being the southernmost ski area in the United States, but despite its sunshine, it receives about 200 inches of snow each winter. Its 3 lifts add up to 950 feet of vertical reaching a summit of 9,157 feet. There is no snowmaking, so always check conditions before heading up the highway.
Find overnight accommodation - lodges, cabins and bed and breakfasts - in the nearby village of Summerhaven. But an hour's drive at the end of the ski day can put you on the golf courses of Tucson.
Arizona may be the land of sunshine, but it's also the land of snow, too. Its ski resorts are a testament to that.