Winter in this part of the world can mean different things to different people. If you are looking for snow and cold, you need to head to the mountains around Flagstaff or Durango, or maybe cross-country ski in the North Rim where elevations are high enough to hold snow. If you are looking for an escape from the cold, head down to Sedona where winters are mild and snow-free allowing you opportunities to hike and mountain bike. Whatever your desire, there are plenty of things to do from November through March with the biggest plus being the fact that the crowds are gone.
Located at 7,000 feet above sea level, Flagstaff is one of the highest cities in the United States. This elevation brings winter weather. The snow starts flying at the end of November and usually doesn't stop until spring comes in March.
The city is located at the base of Arizona's highest point, San Francisco Peak, and is the home of Snowbowl Resort, a family ski hill with more than 2,300 feet of vertical drop and an average of 260 inches of snow per year. Cross-country skiers can find 40 kilometers of groomed trails at the Flagstaff Nordic Center, and two designated snow play areas in the Coconino National Forest, one at Wing Mountain, the other at Crowley Pit, have been set aside for tubing and sledding.
For snowmobilers, the Coconino National Forest allows snow machine use when snow cover is adequate. The forest has two established trails systems: the Kendrick Snowmobile Trail System north of Flagstaff and the Mormon Lake/Pinewood Snowmobile Trail System south of the city. Both have more than 50 miles of designated snowmobile routes winding through ponderosa pine forests that are home to elk, deer, coyote, porcupine and other animals.
Mormon Lake Lodge offers guided snowmobile excursions for those who don't have their own machines.
While Durango is a good day's drive from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the city's alpine setting makes it a winter destination for skiers, boarders and snow machiners and worth the effort if you want to add a bit of winter magic to your Grand Canyon trip.
Ski Magazine named Durango Mountain Resort/Purgatory one of the "Seven Best Mountains to ski with your kids". The resort has 85 trails, 11 lifts and 1,200 acres of ski-able terrain for all levels of ability. If you are up for some fresh powder skiing, consider a day of snowcat skiing or take a snowshoe tour to escape the crowds and immerse yourself in the silent winter wonderland of the San Juan Mountains.
The town of Durango has lots of shops, restaurants, and galleries to keep non-skiers and boarders entertained during the day, and for a breath-taking glimpse of the spectacular alpine scenery surrounding the city, take a ride on the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railway, which has been in continuous operation for 127 years. Winter-train rides take a shorter route than the summer trips, but are especially magical with snow covering the landscape.
Sedona's average winter daytime temperatures rarely dip below 50 degree and the city enjoys abundant sunshine all year round, perfect weather for being outside and enjoying the red rock scenery surrounding the town. Forbes Magazine has called Sedona "one of the prettiest towns in America" for good reason, and winter is a perfect time to explore its beauty without the crowds.
Check out the Institute of Ecotourism downtown. Open 10-6 daily, the institute has a number of interactive displays to introduce you to the region's flora and fauna. You can also get recommendations on hiking trails from their helpful staff.
One highly recommended trail, Munds Wagon Trail, is a good introduction to the area offering great views along a gentle 8-mile round trip walk. Sedona also has an extensive network of mountain biking trails that are in great shape in the winter or you can take a jeep tour if you want to cover more terrain during your excursion. Many of these trails take you through energy vortexes.
The town of Sedona has lots of restaurants and galleries and in February they host a film festival and a marathon.
Grand Canyon West
For a slightly different Grand Canyon experience, head to the Hualapai Nation's Grand Canyon West.
The resort is open all year and offers a unique blend of cultural activities and natural history in its offerings. It's kind of a "one-stop shopping" tourist experience perfect if you only have a day or so to "do" the Grand Canyon.
You can walk out on the world-famous Skywalk, a glass bridge that hangs suspended several thousand feet over the canyon bottom; or have a Wild West experience at Hualapai Ranch, which features wagon rides, horseback tours, cowboy cooking and a western show complete with gunfighters.
Grand Canyon West also offers scenic helicopter rides, guided hikes, a reconstructed Indian Village, and whitewater rafting (March through October), giving you a chance to sample a wide range of Grand Canyon experiences.