Highs and lows in the Grand Canyon State
Visitors to Arizona – home to the Grand Canyon, the towering cactus of Saguaro National Monument and the red rocks of Sedona – may only think of the state’s climate in terms of the blistering hot summers of the desert southwest. But, the state’s mountain ranges, highlands and warm winters ensure that on any given day, the weather is perfect somewhere in Arizona.
Arizona’s three weather zones
Because of its topography, Arizona has three distinct climate zones. Desert zones, typically in the southwestern and southern parts of the state, home to Tucson and Phoenix, have lower rainfall, and rain that does fall quickly evaporates. Winter is dry and mild, and summer temperatures frequently top 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The summer temperatures are mercifully made more bearable by low humidity.
The steppes zone, east of the desert and surrounding the mountain zones, also has lower rainfall, but temperatures are cooler, with wide variations between night and day. Snow is common in the winter. The highlands, the mountainous region stretching from the southeast to the northwest between Phoenix and Flagstaff, have cooler summers and sometimes frigid winters.
Half of the state gets less than 10 inches of rain annually, though Arizona feels the effects of neighboring New Mexico’s monsoon season. The rainiest times are December through March and July through September.
The best times to visit Arizona
The cooler months of January through March are the best time to visit the desert region, while the opposite is true of the mountains. You’ll find the best bargains during summer in the desert, but deals are available in the shoulder seasons. In the mountains, shoulder season is April and May in the springtime and September through December in the fall and winter. Prices are lowest and crowds are thinnest from January through March.
In cities like Sedona in the steppes zone, peak tourist seasons are the spring and fall. Tourism drops off in January and February.
Keep in mind that the Grand Canyon, Arizona’s prime destination, has its own ecosystem. At the bottom of the canyon, daytime summer temperatures frequently reach more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but rapidly drop during the night. During the winter, snow falls on the rims, but precipitation turns to rain as it falls into the canyon. Snowfall is so heavy on the North Rim that areas of the park close for the season. The best time to visit is early spring or late fall.
Arizona travel tips
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is the state’s largest, but Tucson, Yuma and Flagstaff also support airports with smaller fleets. Amtrak’s Southwest Chief chugs across the state, making stops at Winslow, Flagstaff, the gateway to the Grand Canyon and Kingman.
You can drive a 90-mile-long segment of Route 66, the Mother Road, in Arizona. The road arcs north of Interstate 40 between Kingman and just west of Ash Fork.
About a quarter of Arizona is Native American territory. Keep in mind that the rules for visitors vary among the state’s 22 reservations. Don’t treat the reservations as though they are tourist destinations; if you have any doubts about what’s allowed and what’s not, contact the tribe for a list of their rules and regulations.
If you’re visiting in the summer, wear loose clothing, a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.