A mix of just enough snow and an abundance of sunshine have been luring people up the road from Flagstaff to ski in the thin air on the flanks of the San Francisco Peaks since 1938. That makes the Arizona Snowbowl not only one of the oldest continually operated ski areas in the country but also one of the more elevated—the lower of Snowbowl’s two lodges has a lofty elevation of 9,300 feet. The tallest point in this small range is close by at Humphries Peak (elev. 12,637 feet). So don’t be surprised if you feel a twinge of headache as you dismount the ski area’s highest chair lift, the Agassiz. It’s the 11,500-foot altitude talking to you.
The ski area’s sexiest feature, its massive upper bowl, is also its lease accessible. This open expanse is infrequently covered with sufficient snow to accommodate skiers. Even when the snow is deep enough, the area is not served directly by a chairlift, which is, as always, good and bad. You’ll need to yank your skis off and walk 10 or 20 minutes upwards from the top of the Agassiz lift. But if the snow conditions are right—it happens every few years—the area can produce ski runs that are the stuff of dreams. And the fact that it’s hike-to terrain means it doesn’t get skied out too quickly. If you are a fan of back-country and side-country skiing, the Snowbowl is a worthy destination in years when snowfall goes past the annual 208-inch average.
In more ordinary times, solid skiing can be found on the Snowbowl’s workaday runs, safely tucked into the forested acres below 11,500 feet. If you grew up skiing in the green hills of the chilly northeast, you’ll feel at home on the Snowbowl’s relatively narrow, groomed runs lined by tall evergreens. Most of the 40 runs here are set up to take maximum advantage of the tree shade. The trees prevent the snow on the runs from evaporating in the 40 to 50-degree air that envelopes this ski area on most afternoons.
Fortunately, the Snowbowl won the right to begin supplementing its natural snowfall with the manmade stuff made from reclaimed runoff in 2012. The result has been magnificent. The Snowbowl can now begin its early-season sessions shortly after Thanksgiving, expanding to nearly a full open by late December and, with a little help from Mother Nature, stay open until late March.
Beginner terrain all revolves around the area’s Heart Prarie lift, a family-friendly two-person chair that deposits skiers onto a broad, gentle slope that’s ideal for learning. The intermediate and expert ground all descends from the top of the Sunset and Agassiz lifts, which go further up the mountain.
Intermediate skiers fond of giant-slalom style carving turns should head for Logjam, the broad, gently sloped groomer east of the Agassiz lift. Prefer a steeper groomer? Try skiing Lava. Mogul expert? White Lightning is your run. Fancy a terrain park? There’s no halfpipe here, unfortunately, but you’ll find a few decent jib features over on a run called Southern Belle.
There’s another, slightly less elusive aspect of the Snowbowl that you should know about: tree skiing. Again, it takes an above-average snowfall, but the Snowbowl has some of the best tree skiing in the west. If conditions are right, head for the glades to either side of White Lightning.
Everything about the Snowbowl feels a bit like a throwback to earlier times. This is not by any means a modern ski “resort.” The area’s development, on 777 acres of U.S. Forest Service land, has been severely constrained. This is partly due to vigorous objections of local Native American tribes who consider these hills sacred. And it’s partly fact that most Phoenicians either don’t realize there’s some reasonably good skiing just two and a half hours north of their city or don’t care. The result, if you are a fan of slightly less developed mid-grade resorts like Maine’s Sugarloaf, is charming. Slopes here are only crowded on major holidays. The hillsides next to the runs are not dotted with condominiums. The beer and food prices are almost reasonable. A full-price single-day lift ticket here cost $62 in 2015 — half the price of entry at Lake Tahoe resorts.
Of course, lack of development isn’t all good. The Snowbowl’s three primary lifts are underpowered, low-speed affairs. Local apologists say that’s a good thing, since the lifts deposit skiers on the slopes sparingly, giving each skier a chance to tear into his or her run without having to battle with a crowd. But long rides are boring, unless you’ve found a good sparring partner for 20 Questions. The Snowbowl’s new owner, James Coleman, is allegedly going to push ahead with long-awaited plans to install a fourth major chairlift, this one a high-speed quad.
If you’re skiing at Arizona Snowbowl for more than a day, you’ll almost certainly be getting to know Flagstaff, since there are no hotel rooms to be had at the ski area. If you’re determined to sleep as close to the mountain as possible, the Snowbowl owns and operates a forgettable motel-and-cabins type affair about 15 minutes away from the lodges. (You can frequently stay there for free with the purchase of a lift ticket. But you get what you pay for.)
Most skiers would do well to drive the additional 10 minutes to downtown Flagstaff, a charming mountain town stuffed with good brewery pubs, college bars and affordable hotels running up to three stars. If you’ve got a few extra bucks and are looking for a comfortable, well-managed three-star hotel, try Little America, which is just a few minutes’ drive from downtown. If you prefer to be right in the middle of downtown and are a bit more pioneering when it comes to your accommodations, look at the Hotel Monte Vista.
A few words on the Snow at Arizona Snowbowl
Arizona Snowbowl averages 204 inches of mid-mountain snowfall but with very high volatility ranging from less than 50 inches to more than 400 inches. Snow is medium in density and rain is rare with the 9,000 foot base elevation. Upper mountain bowl and tree skiing is very good in the big snow years.
Accumulation and Preservation
With its boom and bust snowfall there have been several seasons where Arizona Snowbowl has barely opened or opened well past Christmas. Snowbowl now has snowmaking to open some beginner and intermediate terrain in the early season. Primary exposure is west though 1/3 of the area faces north. Widespread melt/freeze conditions are likely in March with strong low latitude sun. Arizona Snowbowl is generally most reliable in February and March with maximum coverage.