Snow in the Arizona Desert

Yes, snow in the Arizona desert. And no, not in the high desert country – where it is the norm to have snow, and lots of it. Flagstaff and the White Mountains get enough snow to be home to ski resorts. Both places being only hours away from the Phoenix valley so you could conceivably ski in the morning and make it back to the valley for a round of golf, or at least a few holes.

But this most recent snow event happened down in the Phoenix valley – the low-lying desert with average elevation around 1000 feet. I have been coming to the Phoenix area for more than 40 years and have never experienced anything like this. Snowflakes here and there, but not actual accumulation of snow on the ground.

North Phoenix, Cave Creek area, can get ground accumulations on occasion but they are upwards of 2000+ feet in elevation; or down in Tucson where they have had several snow accumulations this winter of 4-6 inches or more, but they are at 2500+ feet in elevation or more.

Heavy snow accumulation in Tucson happened several times this winter.

For us, this is a once in a lifetime weather experience here in the desert so I felt it was worthy of a blog post, if for no other reason than to share some pictures not often captured in Arizona. I have often wanted to experience the desert with a little snow cover – but assumed I’d have to time a trek to Sedona or the like to get those photo ops. Never thinking I’d ever have the opportunity to capture these kinds of photos in my own backyard.

I live in the east part of the Valley where Four Peaks, Red Mountain, the Superstition and McDowell Mountains rise up out of the desert. Inhabitants here revel at awaking to the view of Four Peaks blanketed with snow on occasion. But generally these snow storms hang in these outward lying mountain ranges and just supply us with this ‘off in the distance’ majestic visual while we stay snow free, basking in the valley’s sun.

Being from the midwest, where the four seasons abound with diversity, I have truly missed experiencing a little snow here and there. So I was giddy with this anomaly snow event. With temps hovering around the freezing mark the snow quickly turned into sheets of ice by morning, leaving everything glazed over with a whitish hue.

Our home sits high on a hill, elevation of 1945 feet on top – with a steep curvy driveway and an elevation change of 300 feet from top to bottom. During the build we joked how it’s going to be a real challenge to shovel in the winter and worry about sliding down the icy driveway. Never in our wildest dreams did we think this could be a possibility. Luckily by the time we woke up during this recent weather event – the roads were wet, but not icy. I’m sure if we’d had to make a middle of the night run, it might have been a different case.

On February 22nd, 4 inches of snow fell in Fountain Hills, 9 inches in the McDowell Mountains, and 12 inches in the Tonto Hills and Carefree areas.** The last measurable snow event, of an inch or more, recorded in the Phoenix valley, was in 1937. There were traces of snow in 1998 and 1990.*

Waking up on February 23rd to snow in our Arizona backyard.

No golf today!

Rarely do we see temps low enough to create icy creations.

Even this ‘Elk’ was wondering ‘what the heck’ – he moved south to get out of the snow!

Red Mountain, although shrouded in clouds much of the day showed a hint of snow – first time ever.

The McDowell Mountains that separate the east valley from Scottsdale, and where we spend a lot of winter months hiking – just 10-15 minutes from our home.

Although the actual peaks of Four Peaks are slightly shrouded in clouds, the density of the whiteness of snow shows how deep it had to be – upwards on 3 feet for this mountain range about a 20-minute drive from Fountain Hills.

Palm trees and a golf course in the same picture of the snow-capped Four Peaks mountain range was a sight to see.

But don’t let this snow event deter you from heading to the desert in the winter to warm up and get a reprieve from the real winter wonderlands in the country, especially in a year that has experienced the extremes of snow and cold temps. By the end of the next week we were back up into the 70’s, still a little snow showing on Four Peaks, and a full 10-days later all traces of snow were left only in our memory banks.

Within days a good amount of the snow had melted off of Four Peaks.

And now 10 days later, not a trace of snow to be seen – even on Four Peaks. Ahhh…winter in Arizona.

Thank you to *12 News – KPNX-TV ( and **KTAR – FM news ( for stats used in this post.

Phoenix Arizona: from the rims of the surrounding mountains to the valley below

I grew up in the midwest, but spent enough time in Arizona to call it my second home. Like millions of other snowbirds that swoop down from the northern states or the frozen tundra and mountains of Canada during the winter months, my husband and I will eventually make our Arizona vacation home our permanent home upon retirement.

Why Arizona? I am often asked – mainly by people who have never been there. Understandably a good question when Arizona finds itself in the news because: of haboobs (dust storms) that can be 50 miles wide and 5,000+ feet high; high temperatures that reach 110+ for weeks on end in the summer; critters that include rattlesnakes, tarantulas and scorpions; and cactus that have thorns sharp enough to pierce car tires.

Showing the size of the fast moving haboobs.

Showing the size of the fast-moving haboobs.

Western Diamondback rattlesnake scurrying across the cart path.

Western Diamondback rattlesnake scurrying across the cart path.

Over the years I traveled to other warm weather destinations across the country, but I always found myself being drawn back to Arizona. Coming from the hot humid summers of Minnesota, the dry arid weather of Arizona is a welcome relief. August has become my favorite time of year to be in Arizona. When temperatures rise into the triple digits, the pool becomes perfectly heated by the warm air and works as a natural cooling element for the body, allowing you to spend hours outside in those kind of temps.

One of my sons showing me his Adonis pose while his buddies cool off in the pool on a 115 degree day

One of my sons showing me his Adonis pose while his buddies cool off in the pool on a 115 degree day

And then there’s the golf. There are a multitude of golf meccas across the country – but generally isolated to a resort or small concentrated area of golf courses. Not many states can call themselves a golf mecca – Arizona can. I have been going to Arizona for almost 40 years, and am an avid golfer, but I have only played a small percentage of all the amazing courses available. The public courses rival some of the better private clubs in other states. The topography varies from a dry naturalized desert course to pine tree-lined mountain courses.

View from a high point in Fountain Hills, east of Scottsdale, looking down on one of many valley golf courses.

View from a high point in Fountain Hills, east of Scottsdale, looking down on one of many valley golf courses.

The views from some of these courses are un-matchable. Looking back across the flat valley of Phoenix and Scottsdale, you can see for miles to the mountains across the valley. And the views on these courses are like walking through your own private zoo. On any given day I have been up close and personal with: bobcats, deer, coyotes, javelina (looks like a wild boar but is actually a large rodent) and rattlesnakes. If you respect their space, they will respect you. The only time you hear of a run in with any one of these critters is when someone is doing something they shouldn’t be doing, like reaching into a blind area.

A lazy bobcat strolling across the 16th fairway.

A lazy bobcat strolling across the 16th fairway.

And then there’s the food and the shopping and the dine-in movie theaters – which by the way all have great air conditioning to escape to during those hot summer days. Mastro’s Steakhouse has become a family favorite and a tradition. Fashion Square Mall can compete with some of the best shopping in the country being anchored by Barney’s, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus, Dillard’s and Macys. And who could resist being served wine and dinner while kicking back in a reclining leather chair, blanket and pillow provided, to watch their favorite new release at iPic Theaters.

But it is the sunrise and the sunset that really showcase the beauty of Phoenix. The hiking in the Valley of the Sun is plentiful, giving you ample options to climb peaks allowing you vistas rarely replicated anywhere in the country or the world. Enjoying a cup of coffee while watching the sunrise over Four Peaks east of Fountain Hills is tough to beat. But sipping an Arizona wine while watching the sun set over Camelback Mountain, a mountain in the shape of a sleeping camel with a praying monk perched on the camel’s nose, is matched only by the brilliant red earth tones lit up by the setting sun on the appropriately named Red Mountain at the east end of the valley.

Sunrising over the mountains rimming the east valley of Phoenix.

Sunrising over the mountains rimming the east valley of Phoenix.

Sunsetting over the back edge of Eagle Mountain and the Phoenix valley.

Sunsetting over the back edge of Eagle Mountain and the Phoenix valley.


What to do: Visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s western abode, Taliesan West. Check out the Desert Botantical Garden, especially when the Chihuly Exhibit is there. Sports lovers are covered: besides golf, check out any one of the professional teams or high level ASU sporting events. Hiking: Camelback Mountain for a good workout and a test of climbing skills or Pinnacle Peak for a well trodden path for an easy to moderate hike.

Where to eat: For the steak lover, a perfectly seasoned steak served on a 400 degree plate at of three Mastro’s Steakhouses ($$$$) is a solid choice. For great appetizers Wild Fish and Sapporo have a tantalizing selection ($$$). For an outdoor fine dining experience Lon’s at the Hermosa Inn is a unique and flavorful experience ($$$$).

Check out extra pictures in the Global Gallery: Arizona