You have read about it, heard about it and dreamed about it. Now experience Arizona this winter!
Home to saguaros, prickly pears, rattlesnakes, the Grand Canyon, roadrunners, the world’s oldest rodeo, and the bolo tie, the state is rich in attractions that entertain the cultured, the curious, the wild, and untrammeled.
When you go out to play in wintertime around these parts, you need to decide whether you want to engage in actual winter or Arizona winter. Snowbirds travel thousands of miles to soak up the languid sun and 70-degree days that pass for a winter wonderland in the Sonoran Desert.
But if you get a hankering for skiing, sledding, and snowball fights, those are easy to find as well. Mount Lemmon Ski Valley, the southernmost ski area in the U.S., is located high in the Santa Catalina Mountains just an hour’s drive from Tucson. Reach the area via Sky Island Scenic Byway, a 27-mile ascent from saguaro-studded desert to ponderosa pine slopes. The chairlift operates all year, lifting riders for panoramic views of Tucson, mountains, and desert.
Arizona is one of the few places where winter comes with an opt-out clause.
Unless you’ve actually visited Arizona’s amazing desert areas, any mention of the region probably conjures up images of an arid wasteland devoid of life. Nothing could be further from the truth: the landscape is, in fact, full of life—and when the desert blooms you’ll want to be there.
This amazing transformation usually happens in mid-March during the years when winter rains have been just the right amount (think, El Niño) and springtime temperatures just the right range of degrees. Even though the calendar says winter, wildflowers could start showing their happy faces in several weeks.
Arizona in the spring is the right place at the right time. It’s when the Mexican gold poppies, brittle bush, globemellows, fairydusters, chuparosas, desert marigolds, lupines, fiddlenecks, owl’s clover, scorpionweed, desert chickory, sand verbena, desert pincushions, and numerous other wildflowers bloom.
A seemingly dried and lifeless desert floor springs to life in a glorious tapestry of purple, blue, white, yellow, orange, and green. More than 600 species of flowers, plants, and shrubs join the spectacle with their short-lived but profuse blossoms.
The Sonoran Desert still appears dry and void of color but just below the sandy surface billions of tiny wildflower seeds lie dormant, waiting for those magical years when the winter and spring rains come at just the right time and in the right amount.
Since those magical years typically follow an El Niño pattern, you’ll want to be in Arizona to see the resulting explosion of color. Over the past 18 years of snowbird travel we experienced several such years when generous winter rains turned the desert a vibrant green with a generous splash of colorful wildflowers. This spring (2016) promises to be such a year.
At this stage it’s all guesswork as to where the gaudiest displays will burst across the landscape. But a few spots are reasonably close to sure things. Keep an eye on Lost Dutchman State Park, Boyce Thompson Arboretum State Park, Picacho Peak State Park, and Catalina State Park. As wildflower time gets closer, monitor the Ranger Cam on the Arizona State Parks website. Photos are submitted from all parks to provide up-to-the-minute images of colorful blooms.
Be ready to jump in your toad at a moment’s notice. When you find the blooms, take a minute to appreciate what a wonderful Arizona winter day really looks like: people in shorts, standing in sunshine amid a field of golden poppies.
Ansel Adams once said, “Sometimes I do get to places when God’s ready to have somebody click the shutter.”
Remember to bring your camera.
When I walk in the desert the birds sing very beautifully
When I walk in the desert the trees wave their branches in the breeze
When I walk in the desert the tall saguaro wave their arms way up high
When I walk in the desert the animals stop to look at me as if they were saying
“Welcome to our home.”
—Jeanette Chico, in When It Rains