“I had no idea Arizona got any snow!” – It’s a comment I see often when I post snowy photos on Instagram.
And yes, it can be confusing.
Towering saguaro cacti, 115-degree temps, and sunny poolside scenes: These are the images that likely come to mind when most people think of Arizona. But snow? I’ll admit it’s a little counter-intuitive.
But the state is split by elevation. For most parts of the lower-altitude Phoenix and Tucson, snow is almost unheard of. Northern Arizona is a whole different story though. I like to think of it as a hybrid – part desert, part mountain.
When I hear myself explaining the winter-weather scenario to newcomers in my hometown of Prescott, Arizona, I can understand where the confusion comes in: “Well, the winters are pretty mild,” I say. “Depending on the year, we might get a snowstorm or two. But it almost always melts within a few days.”
See what I mean? Lots of caveats.
Still, when we do get snow, it can come down hard. Take this past Christmas Eve. By 2 p.m., the morning’s torrential rain had turned to snow, and all of sudden, the streets, sidewalks, and trees were covered in several inches of snow.
Oh, and the mountains in the surrounding Prescott National Forest? They were transformed into veritable winter playgrounds.
Since the snow is fairly fleeting, Arizonans take advantage in a big way. Any news of snow in the “high country” brings with it a tsunami of Phoenix-area residents looking for a good sledding/skiing/snowshoeing opportunity.
For me, the activity of choice is snow-hiking. I’m not even sure if it’s a thing, but it should be! I simply love tromping along the snow-covered forest trails, where just weeks before I had hiked in warm sunny weather.
I took in several areas in the Prescott/Prescott National Forest area after the Christmas Eve storm, and found plenty to love. Here are some of my favorites:
Yeager Canyon, Mingus Mountain
Located just off Highway 89A between Prescott and Jerome lies the Yeager Canyon Trail – a mountain route that climbs fast, and offers good snow cover and stellar views.
After parking in the small trailhead alongside Highway 89A (about a mile and a half east of the twin power transmission lines that cross the highway), I like to head up Trail 533, to the right. A series of switchbacks takes you through beautiful stands of ponderosa and piñon pines, which, if you’re lucky, will be covered with mounds of snow. On the sunny day I visited, clumps of snow were falling to the ground with soft plops. Gorgeous!
Willow Lake Trail
With easy accessibility along Willow Lake Road, the Willow Lake Loop Trail offers a quick route to the picturesque snow-covered Granite Dells. I like to park in the small dirt trailhead off Willow Lake Road, not far from the Highway 89 roundabout, and head either left or right. Whichever way you choose, you’ll be in the midst of the Dells in no time. Climbing the granite rock formations can be a little slippery after a big snow, but it offers some great views of Willow Lake.
Popular as a spot for sledding, the Senator Highway area gets busy after a big snowstorm. But keep going south toward the Watershed Trailhead, and you’ll get beyond much of the traffic. Hiking northeast on the Prescott Circle Trail will take you along a ridgeline with great views of Prescott, the upper and lower Goldwater Lake dams, Thumb Butte, and Granite Mountain.
There are many trails in the Thumb Butte area, but I decided to drive up Thumb Butte Road – west past the main trailhead parking area, to the spot where the Prescott Circle Trail intersects the road. There, I headed north through the gate for some great views of the back side of the Butte, and then turned back and walked down toward the Miller Creek Trail. I got there a few days after the storm, and the warm weather had already started melting the snow. It was a real treat to see runoff water coursing through the creek.
Probably because Arizona’s snow IS so short-lived, it’s easy to appreciate. So, when it falls, I recommend heading to the mountain trails, and let’s make snow-hiking a thing!