Sonoran Desert Snow

I didn’t go to Tucson looking for snow.  Like most people who organize a trip to Arizona’s southernmost city in February, I was hoping to escape winter and wear flip flops for a couple of days. Only, I happened to arrive the night before one of the biggest storms to hit the state in decades came through.

Tucson does get snow from time to time.  After all, the city sits at 2390 feet – about 1200 feet higher than Phoenix, its sprawling neighbor to the north.  But it’s not common, and when the white stuff falls, it’s big news.

I left Flagstaff two days early for my Tucson trip, having watched the serious winter storm predictions become more and more ominous as the weekend approached.  I moved my Thursday class online, figuring my students would be relieved not to have to trudge through a snowy university campus in the dark to get to an 8am class, and I scooted out of town on Wednesday night.  I left about an hour too late, so the drive from the high country down to Sedona was a bit harrowing.  Once I was below 5000 feet, however, I was in the clear, and I coasted the rest of the way downhill to Phoenix.

The next morning, I awoke to pouring rain in downtown Scottsdale – an unusual occurrence in itself – as well as reports from Flagstaff that the town had been buried overnight and the snowfall showed no signs of letting up.  I also had an email from the university saying they’d cancelled all classes.  Apparently, this was the first time they’d done so in over a decade.

I left chilly Phoenix to drive the rest of the way south, to Tubac, a tiny town near the Mexican border.  There I met up with my friend Erica who was also fleeing winter, although she was running from the much more serious version that the Tetons have been experiencing this year.  She and I whined about the fact that we were wearing hats and down jackets, rather than the sundresses we’d packed, but at least it wasn’t snowing there, within spitting distance of Mexico.

At least not until the next morning, when big fluffy flakes started covering the saguaro cactus outside our window.  On our drive from Tubac north to Tucson, the highway was completely white, and we spotted no fewer than four cars off the road during one hour of driving time.  We arrived in Tucson with our mouths agape at palm trees covered in whitish slush and cactus spines with collected crystals.

By the end of the day, Flagstaff had received thirty-six inches of snow in twenty-four hours, breaking a record that had held since 1915.  My housemate texted to tell me she shoveled eight times and was having trouble moving her shoulder.  Tucson’s half-inch of snowfall was the first measurable accumulation in six years, and even low-lying Phoenix saw some flakes in the hills outside of town.  According to the news, both the Las Vegas Strip and the town of Malibu, CA tuned white too.

While Erica and I mostly hunkered down during our Tucson snow day, the blue skies and white-capped mountains surround the city got us up and out early the day after.  We cruised around amidst snowy-spattered teddy bear chollas, hedgehogs, and saguaro cacti west of town, near the national park and in the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, a combination zoo/museum/open space dedicated to preserving and interpreting the area’s flora and fauna.

By the time I got back to Flagstaff, the roads were clear; however, the four foot mounds on either side of the driveway were testimony to the storm of the century – along with the sign on the place across the street that said “We Survived Snowpocalypse 2019.”

I don’t regret missing it.  Snow on saguaros is pretty darn cool.

To see a great collection of Tucson snow pictures by area photographers, click this link.

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