Desert Diamonds: The San Francisco Peaks are Northern

Touching down in Phoenix really punctuated the change of environment. Takeoff that morning had been conducted amidst a Seattle downpour so heavy I doubted we’d be cleared to fly. Now, a scant few hours later, I was walking around in shorts and a T-shirt, gawking at cacti. In alldirections-nothing but sand, rocks, and cactus. Not exactly what comes to mind when visualizing asnowboard destination. I reflected on why I made it one as I grabbed the rental: El Niño was sending waveafter wave of late-season storms into California, in turn leaving the Pacific Northwest’s snowpack a bit on thelean side.

There’d been good days, but if that Pacific menace was intent on making conditions perfect forCascade Concrete at home, we’d simply follow the jet stream out of the Northwest and deep into thedeserts of the Southwest. “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore,” mused Jane Mauser, loading her gear intoour minivan. Bruce Mullinax and Travis Thompson had similar reactions as they each landed in Phoenix andpiled in. We headed north to Flagstaff, rising steadily toward the San Francisco Peaks, home of the ArizonaSnowbowl. Cactus and cottonwoods gave way to thick ponderosa pines as we rolled into Flagstaff-“Flag,”as the locals say-a high-Alpine college town at the foot of magnificent San Franciscos, a series of fourpyramids that are all that remains of an ancient volcano. Snowbowl lies nestled on the fringe of a thick pineforest, sprawling up two of the four San Francisco Peaks-Humphries and Agassiz. Humphries Peak is thehighest point in Arizona, topping out at 12,760 feet, and Flagstaff’s not too far down at around 7,000 feet.Arriving in town after dark, we checked into a hotel and immediately headed out. Flag is the home ofNorthern Arizona University, a small but lively school that began as a teacher’s college and now pushes itshotel and restaurant management program.

The school makes for a wide range of restaurant options, from country barbecue to Thai cuisine, with most of the places concentrated in Flagstaff’s historic downtown. The Mexican food is legendary, but in the mood for Italian, we chose Stromboli’s on the edge of town forcalzones big as your head. We found the evening’s amusement at the bar of the historic Hotel Monte Vista,where the funky crowd keeps things interesting. The next morning we discovered that El Niño was throwinga temper tantrum, and unfortunately the howling winds and puking snow forced lift closure at Snowbowl.Presented with the perfect opportunity to explore lower elevations, we weighed our options. Arizona’s full ofhistory, containing more national monuments and parks than any other state. For centuries, the great Hopiand Navajo tribes flourished here, and their cultural influence is hard to miss.

We could also head to the Grand Canyon, which gaped open an hour and a half northwest of us. Forty-five minutes to the south wasSedona, home of red sandstone cliffs and starry-eyed New Age mysticism. The heavy snow simplified ourchoices-the Grand Canyon in zero visibility, or a mysto storm mission to Sedona, cultural center ofweirdness? In no time, we were on our way down highway 89 to Sedona. Getting there, however, requiredwhite-knucklin’ it down a series of tight, steep switchbacks. Through the rapidly falling snow and hairpinturns, we focused our collective auras on keeping the vehicle on the road. Then the suffocating clouds andmist began to break apart, revealing soaring buttresses of red rock dusted with new snow. The incrediblelandscape was like nothing any of us had seen. We cruised Sedona’s mix of galleries, espresso stands, andmore crystal stores and mystical offerings than we could shake a snowboard at. Admittedly, Sedona’s beautyis unearthly, particularly under a layer of fresh snow, but if local sources are to be believed, it’s also home toalternative phasing realities, extra-terrestrial outposts, dimensional vortexes, and portals to parallel universes.

The X-Files should be based here. Sedona gives off a certain mystical vibe, that’s for sure, but mostly it’s thepeople who are weird. It might be the heat, maybe the local peyote. Either way, if no one wants to talk aboutit for fear of alien bounty hunters, consider yourself lucky the subject is closed. The storm lasted 28 hours,and two feet of fresh snow waited for us on the hill. Ty Smith, a friend of Jane’s and our local guide, wasstoked to show us around the mountain for the next few days, so we hurried up to Snowbowl. There arefour chairs in all at Arizona Snowbowl. Operations are centered out of two lodges at the base of what wasonce the volcanic crater that created the San Francisco Peaks.

Resort boundaries fan out from the base up the slopes of Humphries and Agassiz Peaks, with the broad face of Upper Bowl in between. The bulk of theresort development lies on Agassiz-two chairlifts service that side, which includes a well-maintainedsnowboard park off the lower Sunset chair. There are two beginner chairs on Humphries. The longest lift, theAgassiz triple, won’t win any speed records, but the rewards are worth the wait. Sweeping views of Flag andthe state, including the rim of the Grand Canyon, greet those arriving at the top. While the marked trails arefun, the lines through the trees are some of the finest anywhere and definitely the locals’ favorite flavor. Fromthe top of Agassiz, it’s possible to stay on the Spur catwalk and work an outstanding section of trees. Hightraverse lines lead into Upper Bowl, and even onto the shoulder of Humphries. True diehards hike to the topand relish long, blissful runs down the face of Humphries or Agassiz. A chair is planned for Humphries, butnot until after a full environmental impact statement is published. Many Native Americans consider the Peakssacred and don’t want the resort there at all. In addition, a variety of Alpine lichen grows only on thesevolcanic rocks and it’s feared that further development will endanger the species. Those who visit the SanFrancisco Peaks usually fall in love, but hopefully the masses won’t love the Peaks to death with overbearingdevelopment. You can ride down the back side of the Peaks into East Flagstaff. With it’s steeper terrain andmore cliff drops, many wish the resort would have been built on this side in the first place. If you ride theback side, make sure to arrange for someone to pick you up. This may seem like a waste of time when youcan do laps on the lifts instead, but when the weekend warriors have tracked out the resort, fresh back sidebounty awaits the resourceful rider.

All too soon, our time in Arizona ran out. On the return flight to Seattle, I happened to be on the right side of the plane to see northern Arizona slide by below. First Sedona, in all its fantastical beauty, lay beneath me. Beyond it, the Grand Canyon loomed large. Between the two reared theSan Francisco Peaks, shimmering in bright rays of Arizona sun. As we blew past, sated on the powder runswe’d mined, I fancied I could even see the lines we cut that very afternoon, sparkling in the sun like the finegrooves of a brilliant gem. A pleasure to admire, a sin to ignore. Finer Points: From Phoenix, you can rent acar or catch a bus cheaper than the half-hour commuter flight into Flagstaff. Numerous hotels are available.Calling the Arizona Snowbowl at (520) 779-1951 will net you current conditions and a list ofaccommodations. In Flagstaff, head to AZP (owned by Mike Batt and ex-pro/snowboard-park mastermindBrian Harper) for all your snowboarding needs. Food and beverages are available in quantity, as Flag is acollege town. Flagstaff, Mogollon, and Beaver Street are all pubs that brew their own suds. Alpine Pizzaoffers good pie and cheap beer, and Martan’s or El Charro can curl your hair with Mexican eats. Other thanthat, you’re on your own. Explore. Enjoy.