The first time I witnessed a big snowfall, it was in Northern Arizona. I was walking back to my hostel from a yoga class when the flakes first started. After having lived full-time in the Southern US, where snow seldom makes an appearance, I was super-excited to see it. Two days later, there was an accumulation of three feet, and I was over the moon. My car was buried, and I was lacking a proper coat and snow boots. But what a delight!
Later, after spending time in the Northeastern US, I learned that the snow in the Southwest was different; in addition to making everything beautiful, it was light, easy to shovel, and didn’t stick around for long. After a bit more exploration, I knew that I wanted to spend many more winters in that high desert environment.
The topography of the state of Arizona is an anomaly, and the weather reflects that. Cities sit at elevations separated by thousands of feet, mountains rise up sharply from arid desert floors, and forest covers about 25% of the state. Much of the state’s deserts are hot and dry. But on average, Flagstaff, in northern AZ, receives about 100 inches of snow each winter, making it one of the snowiest places in the country.
One of my favorite snow scenes is what I call a “spray-painted tree.” It is one with many small branches and without leaves on which the snow has fallen gently for hours, causing each of the little branches to be thoroughly coated. I also love the way the snow appears on the boulders, large and small, near the San Francisco Peaks, which are the majestic result of volcanic activity eons ago. And, of course, snow on the red rocks of Sedona is unforgettable.
The reason the snow doesn’t usually linger here is due to the frequency and strength of the sun. Northern Arizona gets upwards of 300 days of sunshine annually, and the elevation increases its strength. For example, Sedona, sitting at about 4000 feet in elevation, is just under a mile higher than areas at sea level. Flagstaff, perched at 7000 feet, is closer to a mile and a half above sea level! You can imagine how the sun might feel stronger and melt snow quickly in these areas. (Of course, this doesn’t apply to the highest elevations where temps stay lower – like the ski area!) Owing to our strong sun, many cold days, even with temps in the 20’s, can be tolerable for hiking and other outdoor activities.
But there is more to the area’s extraordinary winter than snow. Some evergreens here exude an intoxicating fragrance in the colder months. Sometimes you have to cozy up to the trees to smell them, but other times you walk by and they just seem to be broadcasting their lovely scent. You know when you’re walking down the street and you smell some really good food and turn to see where it might be coming from? Same idea!
And the skies, oh the skies! To look up in the frigid night and see a gazillion stars in the big Western sky is absolutely glorious! In the early morning, the sun creeps over the horizon, heralded by tender shades of pink and baby blue. In the evening, when a snowstorm is blowing in or out, sunset skies can display brilliant hues of yellow, orange, red, pink, silver, black, gray, and violet. Photographs don’t do it justice, you really must see it first-hand.
In some years, the cold weather is prolonged here (we can get snow in June!), and we just need a break. When that happens, we hop in the car and within 2 – 3 hours, we find ourselves in a lower elevation with a higher temperature. Phoenix, for example, typically has winter temperatures between 20 and 30 degrees warmer than points north. A fabulous respite!
I do hope you are enjoying the season as much as I am! The snow, sun, skies, elevation, and evergreens make the high desert a true paradise in winter months. Especially now that I have a winter coat and boots!
For more photos and info on Arizona, check out my article Arizona: A Love Letter.