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SW Aviator Magazine
3909 Central NE
Albuquerque, NM 87108
Phone: 505.256.7031
Fax: 505.256.3172

Flagstaff: Arizona's Winter Wonderland
story and photos by Gerrit Paulsen

A winter getaway to Arizona is usually synonymous with sun-baked cactus, golf, swimming pools, and a great tan. But less than an hour away from the balmy links there is another world; a frostbitten alpine environment of dramatic scenery, pristine ski runs through tall pines, and clear cobalt skies. This is Arizona's winter wonderland of Flagstaff.

Located a mere 103 nautical miles north of Phoenix Sky Harbor, the city of Flagstaff is nestled at the base of the lofty San Francisco Peaks, and - at over 7,000 feet - is one of the highest cities in America. This high elevation is what differentiates the climate here from the more well known arid desert typically associated with Arizona. Flagstaff's cool climate and central location makes it a year-round destination and the ideal headquarters for exploring northern Arizona. Winter is the perfect time to come enjoy the cold weather sports and experience the unique snow-covered beauty of the state's most famous landmarks.

Flagstaff's origin dates back to the mid 1800's when it was a stopover along an old wagon road to California. Flagstaff became a town after the Santa Fe railroad arrived in 1881. The unusual city name commemorates a local ponderosa pine tree made into a tall flagpole in 1876 to celebrate our country's Centennial. Growth continued with the arrival of the now historic Route 66, which passes through the middle of town. Flagstaff today is the largest city in northern Arizona, and is perfectly located for touring the area's many year-round attractions.

Two of Arizona's best known scenic wonders, the Grand Canyon and Sedona, are within easy reach of Flagstaff. The Grand Canyon is just over an hour's drive north, making for a terrific day trip. Fresh snowfall brings a unique beauty and depth to the Canyon, and the lack of summertime crowds makes the experience magical. Now that the Grand Canyon airport is prohibited from offering rental cars, flying in to Flagstaff is a good alternative to the pricey airport shuttles at the Canyon.

A short drive south from Flagstaff is the red rock splendor of Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon. Try the popular scenic loop by taking Interstate 17 south to Sedona. After lunch and sightseeing in Sedona take U.S. highway 89A through beautiful Oak Creek Canyon back to Flagstaff. Use caution driving through the deep, narrow canyon, since the shaded road can be icy and treacherous for several days after a winter storm.

Looming high over Flagstaff are the San Francisco Peaks. This imposing dormant volcano is Arizona's highest point at a respectable 12,633 feet. The mountains are sacred to several western Indian tribes living within sight of the peaks, including the Zuni, Havasupai, Hopi and Navajo. The Hopi believe them to be home to the Katsinas (Kachinas), supernatural beings who visit their villages. The Katsinas have power over the weather, punish offenders of ceremonial or social law, and serve as messengers between this world and the spiritual domain.

The west facing slopes of the San Francisco Peaks are also home to one of Arizona's best ski resorts - the Snowbowl. With an average annual snowfall of 260 inches (over 21 feet), the Snowbowl is definitely not an arid desert. There are four chairlifts serving 31 scenic trails, some with over 2,300 feet of vertical drop. The Snowbowl offers a smaller, more intimate ski experience than the mega-resorts of Colorado and Utah, and also lacks the rampant development and commercialism found there. Lift tickets are reasonably priced at around $37 for an all day pass, down to $22 for a pleasant mid-week afternoon. Snowbowl is also a great place to learn to ski, with some of the best learning terrain in the southwest. There are over 50 acres of easy terrain and two chairlifts in their extensive beginner area. The Nordic Center, located a few miles north of Snowbowl is renowned for its excellent cross country skiing and facilities. Ski season usually runs from mid-December through mid-April, depending, of course, on weather. Call the snow report at (520) 779-4577 for current conditions. From mid-June through mid-October, the ski area's chairlifts are used for scenic rides up the mountain for a pilot's-eye view of northern Arizona. For more information visit

In addition to the Snowbowl, there are several other popular tourist sights in and around Flagstaff. Just east of downtown is the Lowell Observatory. Astronomers discovered the planet Pluto through Lowell's telescope in 1930. The observatory is open to the public daily, and has tours, interesting astronomy exhibits, and beautiful grounds. A highlight is viewing the crystalline night sky through Lowell's century-old Clark Telescope, still housed in its wooden dome. Call (520) 774-2096 or visit for hours and information.

More education is available at the Museum of Northern Arizona ( or (520) 774-5213), featuring exhibits on the region's natural sciences and native peoples. The museum houses some of the finest examples of Navajo and Hopi Native American art in the world, as well as a fascinating introduction to the area's history and geology. The well-stocked gift shop offers exquisite items for sale, including hand carved Hopi Katsina dolls. Pilots might be particularly interested in the Katsinas who influence weather.

You can see history and geology in action at the nearby Sunset Crater and Wupatki National Monuments, located northeast of Flagstaff. The striking Sunset Crater cindercone volcano and the associated lava flows are the remnants of an eruption that occurred roughly 900 years ago. The volcano is named for the distinctive red-orange hue around the crater's rim. Remnants of Flagstaff's Anasazi and Sinagua Indian history can be seen at both Wupatki National Monument, adjacent to Sunset Crater, and at Walnut Canyon, just east of Flagstaff. Wupatki may be the easiest to tour, since, as the name implies, Walnut Canyon requires a steep descent down several flights of stairs into the tranquil, unspoiled canyon. The drive through the Sunset Crater/Wupatki Monuments is quite scenic, winding through jagged black lava flows, past green pine forests, and over sparse lunar landscapes of red and black volcanic cinders. The landscape is so unworldly that Apollo astronauts trained here for their expeditions with the lunar rover. Visit the Sunset Crater web site at for more information (this site contains links to Wupatki and Walnut Canyon).

Astronauts also trained for work on the moon's surface at Meteor Crater, east of Flagstaff. Thanks to Arizona's dry climate, this is the best preserved impact crater on earth. There is a visitor's center on the rim and a steep trail into the 500 foot deep, mile wide crater. The best view, however, is reserved for Southwest Aviators overflying the crater; a worthwhile detour when flying in the Flagstaff area. Meteor Crater and the museum are clearly depicted on the Phoenix sectional chart.

Flagstaff's Pulliam Airport is conveniently located two miles south of town, just off Interstate 17. Wiseman Aviation is the new, top-notch full service FBO on field. They have reasonably priced fuel, beautiful new facilities, and a great customer-oriented attitude. You'd never know it's the only FBO on field. Wiseman's lobby features a cozy fireplace and comfortable, overstuffed leather furniture. Check six before plopping down on the couch however, since it is often the undisputed domain of Albatross Al; Wiseman Aviation's resident four-legged "Rodent Control Technician."

There are accommodations and restaurants to suit every taste and budget in Flagstaff. Unfortunately, you cannot plan on eating at the airport, since once again the latest restaurant has gone out of business. This is probably due more to the unfortunate design of the city's airline passenger terminal - the restaurant faces the parking lot, not the runway - than to the food or service of the facility's occupants. There are plenty of good restaurants within a short drive from the airport, and within walking distance of most hotels. Many of Flagstaff's hotels offer courtesy airport transportation, and some have shuttles to the ski facilities, but your best bet for enjoying the area's charm is to rent a vehicle. Several of the name-brand rental agencies are represented in the passenger terminal. Call Wiseman Aviation at (520) 779-9585 for advice on the best deal, and to arrange to have your car waiting at the FBO upon arrival. Wiseman can also arrange discounted rates at several local hotels. More information about the local area is available on the web at

Winter weather in northern Arizona is predominantly good VFR, occasionally punctuated by strong winter storms riding cold fronts sweeping eastward. These storms usually last only a day or two, with clear, blustery weather returning within a few hours of frontal passage. The same snowfall that makes Flagstaff a great ski destination also affects the airport, briefly closing the single runway for snow removal at times. If arriving after the control tower closes, the plows monitor CTAF 134.55. Also be vigilant for deer, antelope, and elk on the runway and airport grounds. To the best of my knowledge, the local wildlife does not monitor CTAF.

While the warm southern desert may be Arizona's best known winter draw, the nearby mountainous beauty of northern Arizona is also a worthy winter destination. With beautiful, snow-draped scenery, exciting winter activities, and an ideal location, Flagstaff is the perfect headquarters when visiting Arizona's winter wonderland.

The Flagstaff Airport

At 7000 feet, Flagstaff's single runway (3-21) is about as long as it is high. Aircraft performance permitting, this high altitude makes Flagstaff a smart choice for refueling stops when traveling farther afield, by minimizing wasted time and fuel climbing back to cruise altitude.
Though the weather is usually VFR, the airport has good instrument approaches if needed, including VOR and ILS.

The designated calm wind runway is 21. When surface winds exceed 10 knots be alert for windshear and turbulence at both ends of the runway, and a tendency for the wind to shift to the opposite direction about halfway down the runway.

Be mindful of the effects of density altitude, which is an issue here year-round, but is especially critical in the warm summer months. Run your performance charts carefully before taking off, the dense pine forests surrounding the airport are quite unforgiving to those who discover too late that their aircraft will not climb. The recommended climbout for runway 21 departures is to turn south after takeoff to follow Interstate 17. The highway median provides a relatively obstruction-free option should a problem develop after takeoff.

Albuquerque-based Gerrit Paulsen is an Embry-Riddle graduate who, along with his wife Cindy, enjoys exploring the beauty of the Southwest in their modified 180HP Cessna 172.

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The material in this publication is for advisory information only and should not be relied upon for navigation, maintenance or flight techniques. SW Regional Publishing, Inc. and the staff neither assume any responsibilty for the accuracy of this publication's content nor any liability arising out of it. Fly safe.