Three Ski, Ride Resorts Attract Winter In Arizona High Desert
For ski and snowboard mountains in the West, the old marketing refrain "location, location, location" holds particularly true in Arizona.
A full third of Arizona sits atop the Colorado Plateau, a massive uplift that occurred in concert with the appearance of the Rocky Mountains between 70 million and 40 million years ago. This uplift produced an elevated land 6,300 feet above sea level into the middle of the state.
This altitude encourages winter storms to drop snow on the state's three ski and snowboard mountains: a pair of extinct volcanoes, Arizona Snowbowl and Sunrise Park Resort, that pop up on the plateau; and, the nation's southernmost ski area, Mt. Lemmon Ski Valley, off the southern edge of the plateau.
Winter moisture content varies widely around Arizona, tending toward feast-or-famine snowfall seasons. Southerly storms off the Pacific sometimes arrive, sometimes not. Sunrise (11,100-foot summit) got no measurable snowfall during 2016-17 season, then more than 200 inches the next season. Same for Snowbowl (11,500 feet high): a meager 99 inches in 2017-18, a bonanza 331 inches in 2018-19.
To hedge against down seasons, both Arizona Snowbowl and Sunrise Park have modestly increased snowmaking in recent years: 13% on 777 acres at Snowbowl, 6% at on Sunrise's 1,200 acres.
A member of the Power Pass family, Arizona Snowbowl's terrain breaks out comfortable for all levels. Blues and blacks that dominate Snowbowl's southern flank, while a premier learning area sits on the north side. Recently installed high-speed "chondola" has reduced impact of high winds. Parking remains clunky, and base lodges in need of remodel.
Owned by the White Mountain Apache Tribe, Sunrise Park Resort's trail map also splits nicely between green and blues off high-speed Sunrise Express, and advanced terrain off Fort Apache-Geronimo fixed-grip pairing. Winds can be high, so strong and frequent that wind meters sit on lift towers. Both base lodges are in midst of much-needed upgrades.
U.S. Forest Service-operated Mt. Lemmon remains old-school: No snowmaking, no grooming, closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays, bare basic base facilities. It's surprisingly steep -- a 900-ft. vertical drop -- with limited green pitches at the base only, and can get dumps because of its isolated high ground. Switchbacking road up from Tucson can be an adventure.