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Chasing Snowflakes: Arizona Outdoor Recreation in the Wintertime

December 28, 2023 9:01 AM | Anonymous

Author: Elise Lange, AWF Communications Manager

I won’t lie. I was startled the first time I saw snow on a saguaro cactus. As a native Arizonan who has lived most of her life in Phoenix — the hottest large city in the U.S. — that particular sight is not one I’m used to. It seems an odd combination — a green cactus, covered with spines, that is known for adapting to the heat as opposed to dealing with cold, white, fluffy snow.

Nevertheless, while Arizona is known for its incredibly hot temperatures, it’s also a fantastic winter destination — especially if you’re hoping to enjoy some outdoor recreation time. While many states have winter seasons so extreme that they might frighten off even the most experienced hiker, skier, or snowboarder, Arizona has much milder winters, making for plentiful opportunities to get outdoors and experience the beauty of Arizona’s landscapes. Additionally, the diversity of Arizona’s landscapes offers a myriad of winter activities, from traditional winter fun like skiing or sledding in the mountains to hiking in the low deserts (something that’s not recommended in the summer!).

Consider adding these three destinations to your list of places to visit and recreate in this winter season.

1. The Grand Canyon

Courtesy of Grand Canyon National Park.

How could I not mention the Grand Canyon on this list? If you thought seeing snow on saguaros was a cool sight, just wait till you see the utter majesty of the Grand Canyon covered in snow. The North Rim of the canyon typically receives the heaviest snowfall, averaging about 142 inches each year — though I have to mention that in 1978, the North Rim received a record snowfall of 272 inches. That’s about 23 feet deep. I recommend checking the weather before you visit so you’re prepared for whatever this winter season plans to offer! The South Rim typically receives less snow, averaging just around 58 inches of snow annually.

Another major benefit to exploring the canyon during winter is that the trails and paths are far less visited. So, if you’re not a fan of crowds, winter is the perfect time for you to make a trip with your friends and family.

If you decide to visit, get ready to see the fantastic contrast of the snow with the green flora sprinkled across the warm reds, browns, and oranges of our Grand Canyon.

2. Arizona Nordic Village in Flagstaff

The Arizona Nordic Village (formerly the Flagstaff Nordic Center) is a great destination for snowsports enthusiasts, hikers, and campers. This cross-country ski resort has been open since 1984 — that’s nearly four decades! The original lodge and many ski trails from when they first opened are still in use today. They have over 24 miles of trails designed for both skate and classic cross-country skiing, trails for snowshoeing, hiking, and fat tire biking. They also have cabins, yurts, and campsites available for longer stays.

Currently (at the writing of this blog), there’s not quite enough snow on the ground for skiing, snowshoeing, or fat tire biking at the village. They’re resting at just about 10 inches and will continue to update on their website. However, all of their trails are still open and available for hiking until then, making for a great opportunity to enjoy the cooler weather and do some wildlife watching.

If you’re new to snowsports, you’re not alone — 42% of Americans have never been skiing, as of 2022. Arizona residents are lucky enough to live in a state that has a variety of landscapes, and thus, a variety of climates, offering a wide diversity of opportunities for outdoor recreation. So, if you’re new to outdoor recreation in the snow, we encourage you to get out of your comfort zone and try something new this winter season!

3. Whitewater Draw in McNeal

Winter is an exciting time for birders across Arizona because many bird species spend their winters here. Of course, they are also coming for our climate! From white-crowned sparrows to Lewis's woodpeckers, there are plenty of avian winter visitors to take notice of.

One of the most well-known migratory birds that spend their winters in Arizona is the Sandhill Crane. Each year around November, this species starts arriving to their wintering grounds, including at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area in southern Arizona. Most years we expect to see around 20,000 to 25,000 cranes at this location, making it a favorite attraction for bird watchers and enthusiasts, photographers, and hunters alike.

If you arrive around dusk or dawn, you’ll get the chance to see thousands of these three to four-foot-tall birds taking flight, making for a truly unforgettable viewing experience.

Where will you plan to visit this winter in Arizona?

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PO Box 1182,  Mesa, AZ 85211
(480) 702-1365


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