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.
Think of Arizona and what comes to mind? The Grand Canyon, Sedona, Phoenix, Tucson? The White Mountains and Mogollon Rim, right? Well, that’s a mistake. Be sure to put Flagstaff on your list.
Flag, as it’s known to locals, is on I-40 (remember the iconic Route 66 – Chicago to L.A. via Flagstaff?). It’s a relatively small town of 78,000 people, but more than 28,000 of those attend Northern Arizona University, giving the place a “college town” feel. There are good hotels, excellent places to dine and, for our purposes, a long snowball’s toss to a ski resort – Arizona Snowbowl. Flag is considered the Gateway to the Grand Canyon (1.5 hours away) and, of course, the San Francisco Peaks.
You have several choices if you live in Arizona, and there is an on-going debate on whether Arizona Snowbowl near Flag or Sunrise Park in the White Mountains wins the “best” prize. More on that later. Either way, good skiing is only a few hours away from Phoenix and a few more hours from Tucson at the other end of the state.
Flagstaff Snowbowl is Arizona’s second largest ski area (777 skiable acres compared to Sunrise Ski Park’s 1,200 skiable acres). It’s located about a 30-minute drive from Flag and, on wintry days, it can be a bit of a challenge, but it's not truly daunting. There are several shuttle services, including a free shuttle service from town during peak winter season, so you can avoid the drive. You can even escape the drive altogether with a shuttle from Phoenix.
Arizona Snowbowl gets a solid dumping of natural snow each year – sometimes coming close to 300 inches, but normally in the 200- to 250-inch range. In fact, the town of Flagstaff usually tallies over 100 inches.
And then there’s the snowmaking and expansion story. Snowmaking on Snowbowl - actually a dormant volcano - only began in 2012, many decades later than most ski resorts. It took quite a while as the ski area began operations in 1938. Why did it take so long? Well, here’s why: Snowbowl skis on the San Francisco Peaks, which are held sacred to 13 different Native American tribes. These tribes include the Navajo, Apache, Hualapai and Yavapai.
Tribal members continue to use The Peaks as a site for ceremonies and religious activities, including those related to the world's water and life cycles. The Hopi claim to have settled on this land dating back to 1150. Using the water for snowmaking wasn’t exactly high on the tribe’s priority list and filed five separate suits to prevent it and Snowbowl’s expansion. They lost all of the suits. They still feel the same way, but skiing and riding go on unabated, covering as much as 65 percent of the mountain. Today, reclaimed water is sold to the ski resort by the City of Flagstaff under a 20-year contract.
We mentioned the top two in Arizona. Aside from Snowbowl, Sunrise Park Resort is near Greer in the eastern part of the state, just a bit farther drive from Phoenix than is Snowbowl. It sits about the same elevation as Snowbowl, but has considerably more of everything – lifts, runs, uphill capacity and ski lodge on site. Virtually every kind of lodging - from hotels, condos to cabins with a hot tub - is a short drive away to Pinetop. Sunrise is part of the extensive Indy Ski Pass program and is owned and operated by the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
There is also some skiing near Tucson at Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley and it’s likely the southernmost skiing in the U.S., though several resorts make the same claim. It’s tiny with only 200 skiable acres and 20 runs. The road from the valley floor is no day in the park, particularly on snowy days. Still, the ski area (even above 9,000 feet) is not regularly blessed by the snowgods and there is no snowmaking, so conditions can be a crapshoot. The skiing is available Thursday through Monday when there is decent snow. The little town (and we mean little) of Summerhaven is just a mile or so away and is a tiny gem.
It's a 4 to 5-hour drive from Flagstaff on I-40 to get to the major ski resorts of neighboring New Mexico such as Taos Ski Valley, Angel Fire, Ski Santa Fe and even Sandia Peak towering over Albuquerque. Regardless, all are as good as, or in some cases, offer a superior experience to Arizona resorts.
The short answer is “yes.” Understand you will be, in most cases, staying at lodging in town, not at the mountain. So, it’s certainly not “ski in-ski out” friendly. That said, Flag has everything you’ll need and probably more. Plus, there’s a distinctly college vibe.
The stats tell the story: The base elevation is 9,200 feet and it tops out at 11,500 feet. It makes a vertical drop of 2,300 feet. Take that into consideration if you plan to ski the same day you arrive from Phoenix that sits at 1,086 feet above sea level. Bring the Tylenol bottle. There are 55 trails spread over 777 acres, with 22 percent beginner terrain, 43 percent intermediate and 22 percent for advanced skiers and riders. There’s a terrain park with a pipe. Uphill transportation includes 8 lifts with 2 quads and a chondola (elements of a chairlift and a gondola).
As for Flagstaff itself: The combination of college students; free-spirited, outdoor, mountain culture; small, local businesses; and generally good weather makes for a vibrant downtown. Downtown Flagstaff offers modern dining, craft brews, local art and community events and a clearly laidback atmosphere. Visit the Weatherford and Monte Vista Hotels to say hello to the ghosts who are said to inhabit them. Lodging choices are good for any wallet.
It’s just about 14 miles, depending on where you start in town and will take just under 30 minutes. Remember, shuttles are available.
James Coleman is an entrepreneur who makes his name by buying and investing in improvements in Southwest ski areas, most of them small. Eight of those resorts are part of the little-known Power Pass that makes these mountain lift tickets – including Snowbowl – economical to ski.
That said, the Unlimited Power Pass, no blackout dates, runs $525-899; 12-Day Power Pass, with some blackout dates, is $249-649; 4-day Power Pass with blackout dates is $199-349; Weekday Pass access only to Snowbowl with blackout dates is $149-249; Power Pass Kids, free, 12 and under, no blackout dates; and Super Senior Pass, free, 75 years and older, no blackout dates. Daily ticket at the window goes from $39-$95, very reasonable even without the pass or deals you can find elsewhere.
You can usually count on Snowbowl to open around Thanksgiving in November and continue, most years (perhaps with only weekends), to the end of April. Check out all opening dates and closing dates for ski resorts in Flagstaff.
Winter months in Flagstaff, Arizona are usually very cool with the average daytime temperature around 38 to 40°F. Jackets and layers are a necessity, especially when the snow begins to fall. The cold season lasts for 3 to 5 months, from November 20 to March 6, with an average daily high temperature below 49°F. The coldest month of the year in Flagstaff is December, with an average low of 20°F and high of 43°F. In other words, this isn’t New England.
One nice perk of a family trip to Flagstaff is some members can head up the mountain for alpine skiing, while others can enjoy cross-country skiing, snow biking, sledding and snowshoeing when the weather cooperates at Nordic Village. The ski area sits in the Arizona foothills below the Snowbowl. There are more than 40 km of trails through Aspen and Ponderosa forests and all slopes are machine groomed for classic or skate skiing and 15 km of marked snowshoe trails. The center is at 8,000 foot elevation, with a lodge, cabin, and yurt accommodations.
There are plenty of flights into Flagstaff Pullman Field, but the majority of visitors come by car, either from New Mexico to the east or Phoenix and Tucson to the south in Arizona.
A visit to Flagstaff and skiing and riding at the Snowbowl will bring home memories of a nice ski vacation. A “WOW?” Perhaps not so much. But give it a try and draw your own conclusions.