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Changes, upgrades give Arizona Snowbowl ski resort a fresh outlook

Arizona Snowbowl, just outside Flagstaff, has been around for 78 years, but these days it feels like a new place.

“We are a new ski area with snowmaking, new chairlifts and soon-to-be base expansion,” General Manager J.R. Murray said. “The next five years are going to be exciting.”

New this year is the Grand Canyon Express, a high-speed, six-person chairlift.

“It will go up Midway Ridge so you can ski 85 percent of the mountain from one lift,” Murray said. “It’s going to be a game changer just like snowmaking.”

It was 2012 when Snowbowl added the snowmaking system — the result of some long-range planning — and at the time was the first upgrade of the resort in decades, Murray said.

Opened in 1938 in the San Francisco Peaks, Arizona Snowbowl is one of the longest continually running ski resorts in the West.

“We went 30 years without a new lift, 20 years without any change in the parking lots or the lodges. And we couldn’t put any money into it,” Murray said. “If you had a good year, you had to save it. You couldn’t spend it, because you needed that money to get open.”

The lack of snowmaking was bad for business.

“Without any of that predictability, you could never guarantee a season, you could never guarantee an opening date. And you had no certainty on the business cycle,” said Murray, who has been with the resort for more than 30 years. “I call it a lack of marketplace confidence. If you live in Phoenix, it’s like: ‘Is Snowbowl open?’ ”

The resort now has snowmaking on 75 percent of the mountain.

“The conditions are great. And then if it snows, that’s a bonus,” Murray said.

And with a guaranteed season, the resort has been able to get money from a lender to make other capital improvements. Last season, the resort installed a quad lift near the beginner skier terrain, a dedicated area with two magic carpets (people-mover conveyor belts) and two double chairlifts. The new four-person lift added access to 40 acres of new trails, mostly lower intermediate.

“So you can progress now from beginner to the Humphreys (Peak) lift and work your way around, Murray said.

The new Grand Canyon Express parallels the Agassiz triple chairlift, a 15-minute ride to the upper slopes of Agassiz Peak at 11,500 feet. On a clear day, you can see the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, which is more than 80 miles away.

Until this season, the Agassiz chair had a drop-off about three-quarters of the way up the mountain — where the Grand Canyon Express ends and a variety of intermediate trails begin. Now Agassiz heads straight to the black-diamond trails on top. Although black diamonds are designated for advanced skiers, a good intermediate skier should have no problem traversing down the groomed Upper Ridge trail, which can be icy in the morning.

For expert skiers and boarders, Agassiz provides hike-to-terrain access to Upper Bowl, a wide-open space of double-black-diamond runs. There’s also good tree skiing midmountain.

Arizona Snowbowl is comparable to Southern Utah’s Brian Head Ski Resort, which is 40 miles closer to Las Vegas. But the two resorts also differ.

They have similar base elevations, although Snowbowl has the higher summit elevation and longer vertical drop. Snowbowl has more skiable acres, but Brian Head gets more snow. Brian Head also has more runs, and both resorts feature several terrain parks.

The big difference, however, is that 30 to 35 percent of Brian Head’s customer base comes from Southern Nevada. According to Murray, 85 percent of Snowbowl’s clientele is from Arizona.

And unlike Brian Head, which has two hotels and a number of condominiums at its base, Snowbowl has no lodging on the mountain. The Snowbowl region is sacred to 13 Native American tribes, which oppose further expansion of the ski area.

Fortunately, nearby Flagstaff has about 5,000 rooms and, as home to Northern Arizona University, is full of restaurants and nightlife.

“Flagstaff is more fun than Brian Head,” Murray said. “Flag is rocking and rolling every night — bars, restaurants — it’s fun.”

Several Flagstaff hotels have partnered with Arizona Snowbowl to offer discounts to skiers. For the third season, the Ski and Stay Free package offers a free room with the purchase of two adult lift tickets.

“We’re a ski town where lodging is off-season, so rates are lower in the winter than they are in the summer, and that’s unheard of,” Murray said.

Along with the Grand Canyon Express and expanded snowmaking this season, Arizona Snowbowl has its eye on further improvement such as more parking and renovation of the two lodges. Murray credits the addition last year of James Coleman, a Durango, Colorado, businessman and owner of other ski resorts, to Snowbowl’s leadership team with helping make upgrades happen.

“He is full of energy and ideas,” Murray said.

“The skiers in Arizona — and Nevada — are the winners. They’re just going to see more improvements and capital investment,” he added.

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