The Best of Winter in Arizona

November to April, snowbirds settle in and everyone soaks up Arizona’s sun. But if you want snow, just go up! After golfing or swimming down in the desert, in less than an hour you can be up in Arizona’s mountains skiing among evergreen forests. Traveling to Arizona can mean fleeing from the snow or escaping to seek solace in a quiet white landscape. Take your pick; it’s here waiting for you.

9121 E Tanque Verde Rd #125, Tucson, AZ 85749, USA
The view from Windy Point on Mount Lemmon, near Tucson, Arizona is simply breathtaking. As elevation increases, the ecology becomes markedly different, going from arid desert to forest, while the geological formations rising like pillars add to an already stunning scene. (As you can see, it’s a great place for a photo!)
Arizona, USA
If, like most visitors, you head for Tucson between Thanksgiving and Easter, you’re probably seeking sun and warmth while the rest of the country deals with the winter blahs. And you’ll most likely find what you’re looking for. There’s a reason why golfers, cyclists, hikers, and runners flock to southern Arizona this time of year. But, once or twice a decade, the lush Sonoran desert might get a snowfall—it never lasts for long, but every saguaro, ocotillo, cholla, and prickly pear cactus will be edged in ephemeral white. As soon as the sun comes up over the mountains, you’ll start hearing the drip drip drip of the inevitable melting...And by the next day you’re likely to be wearing shorts again. Saguaro National Park, which flanks both the western and eastern edges of Arizona’s second-largest city, is the ideal place to go for a hike in the rare desert snow. The Eastern (Rincon Mountain) division of the park has a hilly eight-mile one-way loop road with access to numerous trails. Drive slowly and yield to the runners and senior-citizen-cyclists-in-spandex with thighs of steel. Get out and up into the saguaro-studded hills before the unlikely landscape disappears...Keep your eyes open for bobcats, mule deer, and the pig-like javelina. (You’re less likely to encounter a rattlesnake in the winter months, but this is still desert wilderness.) And if there’s no snow, you might be treated to spring wildflowers. Don’t forget your sunscreen...
2516 E 6th St, Tucson, AZ 85716, USA
Think of beverages in Arizona, and maragaritas may come to mind, but green tea? Lapsang souchong? Pu-erh? A few blocks east of the University of Arizona in Tucson, Seven Cups was recently named one of the best places in the U.S. to have authentic Chinese tea. The name of this tea shop comes from a 9th-century poem: The first cup kisses away my thirst, and my loneliness is quelled by the second. The third gives insight worthy of ancient scrolls, and the fourth exiles my troubles. My body becomes lighter with the fifth, and the sixth sends word from immortals. But the seventh—oh the seventh cup—if I drink you, a wind will hurry my wings toward the sacred island. So, when you want a break from the sun in the Sonoran Desert, step in to this unexpected find. (The ‘lotus moon cake’ makes a great sweet nibbly to go along with your cuppa.)
Sonoran Desert
Hike into Bear Canyon on the northeastern edge of Tucson, and you’ll be rewarded (most of the year) with a view of Seven Falls, gushing out of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Even though the hike in and out is around seven miles, it’s mostly flat. You’ll find that, as you’re zigzagging across the creek on large boulders, with cliffs above the cacti all around, traffic and strip malls are a world away. When you arrive at the falls, the rushing waters are a balm for the soul. Midwinter through the middle of spring is a good time to visit this oasis; the higher-elevation snowmelt guarantees flowing water and the daytime temperatures are comfortable. Midsummer monsoon rains can also fill this canyon, and flash floods can be a sudden danger.
279 S Linda Ave, Tucson, AZ 85745, USA
For about two decades now, this city in the Sonoran Desert has become a February gathering place for artists and vendors from all over Africa. For a couple of weeks, a tent city pops up and about a hundred vendors set up shop. Associated with the six-decade-old tradition of the international Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase, this is one of the largest gatherings of its kind in North America. A small outdoor kitchen serves up Lamb stew, rice and plantains so you can get a taste of West Africa before or after browsing. There’s something for almost everyone, from strands of beads for jewelry-makers to monumental sculptures, and, of course, tie dyed clothing. Furniture from Mali, textiles from Burkina Faso, totems from Sudan, sculpture from Côte d’Ivoire, Zulu baskets, reproductions of Bénin bronzes, and masks from across the continent—all in one place. The rest of the year, it’s a nondescript desert lot behind a Waffle House adjacent to the Interstate highway, but every February, it’s a polyglot bazaar.
20 Main St, Bisbee, AZ 85603, USA
As “killer bees” (or, more accurately, “Africanized honeybees”) continue to make a home in North America, most news stories about them are scary... ...but in Bisbee, you can taste their sweet side. You may have seen the man behind this diminutive store, local master beekeeper Reed Booth, on television. He’s “the killer bee guy.” And here on this Victorian mining town’s Main Street, you can sample the sticky results of his semi-dangerous labor: honeys, honey butters, whole seed honey mustards. They’re almost worth the drive down to Bisbee...but you can also buy them online. And sometimes, if you time it just right, you’ll find yourself strolling in the snow. Bisbee is over a mile high up in the Mule Mountains.
Arizona, USA
This is a great option for a day hike in the Grand Canyon. South Kaibab Trail is a well-maintained (but steep!) stretch of dirt with very little shade and a trailhead that’s accessible only by shuttle bus. No private vehicles are allowed in this portion of the park. It’s a scenic adventure through and through, but South Kaibab’s main destinations include Ooh-Aah Point (at the highest elevation of 6,660 feet), Cedar Ridge (good for novice hikers and late starters), and Skeleton Point (an unobstructed view of the Colorado River with steep switchbacks).
2400 E Missouri Ave, Phoenix, AZ 85016, USA
Marilyn Monroe once proclaimed that her favorite swimming pool was at the Arizona Biltmore. And Irving Berlin, obviously a person who didn’t know how to relax, is said to have written “White Christmas” while a guest at the hotel. Other musical guests have included Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., who were known to play on a piano in the lobby. But that’s history, and the Jewel of the Desert, as the 90-year-old hotel was once known, is now just one more sparkling gem in a treasure chest of Arizona resorts. To continue shining, the Biltmore underwent a major renovation that was completed in late 2016. Much of the update focused on restoring the hotel’s original main building, but the guest rooms, meeting spaces, ballrooms, and spa were also polished. The contemporary style that now dominates the Biltmore was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, who played a significant role in determining the hotel’s original look. In the guest rooms, Wright’s influence is most notable in the wall coverings, embossed with a design similar to that found on his “Biltmore Blocks,” used in the construction of most of the resort. Of course, for guests who didn’t come for the history, or the design lecture, there are still the eight swimming pools, seven tennis courts, and, next door at the Arizona Biltmore Golf Club, 36 holes of golf.
Mt Lemmon, Arizona 85619, USA
On the northern edge of Tucson, you can drive through a condensed version of western North America’s ecosystem in about half an hour. On the way up the Mount Lemmon Highway (also known as “Catalina Highway” or “Sky Island Scenic Byway”), you traverse almost all of the different life zones you would encounter if you were to actually drive from Mexico to Canada: starting with the saguaro-studded Sonoran desert, up through grassland, junipers and oaks, pines, and finally a mixed-conifer forest with stands of aspen. You begin at about 2500 ft. and end up at almost 9100 ft. above sea level (about 760 to 2770 meters). In the summer, especially, southern Arizonans love this road: “thirty miles, thirty degrees cooler,” as the saying goes. When it’s 105 degrees down in the city, it’s a perfect 75 up on the mountain. In the winter, you can go skiing in the southernmost ski resort in the U.S.
Romero Canyon, Arizona 85619, USA
One of the best day-hikes from Tucson is just north of town, on the ‘back side’ of the Santa Catalina Mountains: Romero Canyon. Drive up to Catalina State Park for the trailhead, and you’ll begin trekking through mesquite woods and towering saguaros before beginning to climb the rocky foothills into this mountain range. Then you’ll scramble down into the canyon itself, with a flowing stream at its heart. Most years, even in the early summer dry season, you can still find pools to cool off in--it’s a popular trail for Tucsonans. (Just get an early--dawn--start.) Continue past the pools and you can hike all the way up to Romero Pass, in the heart of the Pusch Ridge Wiliderness, where naturalists are trying to re-introduce a herd of mountain bighorn sheep. Late fall through early spring are perfect here... “Desert oasis” might be a hackneyed phrase when describing places like this, but desert-dwellers don’t take them for granted. Fortunately, when you’re in southern Arizona, seek and ye shall find...
2400 N Gemini Rd, Flagstaff, AZ 86004, USA
Flagstaff, Northern Arizona‘s winter-playground-college-town, is often overlooked as visitors drive through it on their way to or from the Grand Canyon. But if you have time to linger, this town will reveal its charms. In recent years, it’s become a regional mecca for farm-to-table dining, with new restaurants repopulating its 19th-century downtown. After getting your fill of locavore dining and microbrews, work it off by going for a run or a hike up on McMillan Mesa, an ancient lava flow with superb views of the San Francisco Peaks, the highest mountains in Arizona. Buffalo Park has a two-mile loop through grassland and ponderosa pine forest, connecting to trails that go up into the wooded slopes. Remember, though, that Flagstaff is over 7000 ft/2133 m. above sea level--give yourself time to acclimate to the lower oxygen levels...
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