When many think of Arizona, the only thought in their mind is how hot it is. Talk about one track minds. We have a huge state and while a great portion of our desert is hot and dry during the summer, the higher elevations can have quite mild summer temperatures and be down right cold in the winter.
Last December I knew there was an approaching winter storm and with the El Nino year we are having, it was certain a fair amount of moisture would be accompanying it. Living just north of Tucson and east of Phoenix, we do get a bit cooler than the two big cities but even being on the outskirts it is typically not cold enough for any snowfall. I would have to drive north into the mountains to get the snowy shots i was craving. Flagstaff was my first thought but the weatherman kept saying this was a pretty good size storm moving across the state and it was projected to drop quite a bit of snow throughout northern Arizona. Payson, being a much quicker drive at just around an hour, I could be in the much anticipated winter wonderland I was looking for.
The drive up was really rainy but no snow. I was getting a bit worried that I made the wrong decision and should of went with Flagstaff as I knew they were going to get hammered. I figured if I couldn't get snow at least I was going to be able to get some nice clouds, diffused light and the reflections produced by the rain soaked streets and landscapes. What I wasn't so excited about was the possibility of testing out my new FujiFilm X100S. It would be the first shoot in the rain and while it is extremely well made it is not rated as a waterproof camera. Still driving, I started thinking about where to go in the Payson area. What would be a good starting point for a rainy day in the mountains and the damp pine forest. With a plan of attack I approached the Payson city limits and as I did the game changed. White was starting to blind me as the landscape turned from brown and green to a nice white blanket of snow on the ground and plenty more falling from the sky.
I pulled into Payson and my original plans kicked back into place. Drive to Pine, Arizona and see if my expectations would come to light. Typically Pine has more snow than Payson and if you keep going just past Pine to Strawberry, even more snow begins to show up. There have been many times I have been in the Payson area and tried driving to Strawberry with out a four wheel drive and fresh plowed roads. Not a good mix unless you like getting stuck in the cold. Approaching Pine my eyes filled with excitement as expected, not only the ground was covered the fresh snowfall covered the dark green pine trees as well. Heading out to Control Road was first on my list. It did not let me down. Pristine snowfall on the stunning landscape all the while being in between a storm that just moved out of the area and an approaching storm moving in with plenty of fog for my added enjoyment. I drove quite a ways back along the desolate road. Only seeing an occasional truck pass me by with a friendly wave. The area is gorgeous in the summer but with the fresh snowfall, this was really a treat. Parking my truck and hiking out into the wilderness was better than I could of ever hoped for. The light was magical and ever changing as the approaching storm moved in and my new durable 35mm camera was up to the challenge. Not missing a beat. This was my first time out on a landscape shoot and not having a DSLR. I changed my camera system from many years of carrying multiple DSLR camera bodies, lenses, filters and of course a tripod. Tired of lugging around the weight and multiple items, the new system was mirrorless, had a fixed lens and I just didn't want to get the type of photos I had been shooting in the past. I never thought one camera could satisfy me like the FujiFilm X100S does but after shooting this whole day with it, this camera sealed the deal. No more DSLR's for me. The big Nikons were going to be put on the sell list.
Next up was the short drive back to the highway and head over to Strawberry, Arizona. As expected, Strawberry had quite a bit more snow and with the rustic flavor the town has I decided to stay in the very small business area and see what I could find. Luckily it was close to Christmas so many business and homes had there Christmas lights on. Picture perfect! I found a couple cool cabins with some Christmas decorations in the yard and lights a plenty. I got some really great photos that I could of never planed for. Getting close to the end of the day I wanted to leave enough time to get back to Payson and check out the East Verde River area. I knew I would never have enough time to get to Christopher Creek so the East Verde River would have to be it. I had plans on going to the Tonto Natural Bridge as well but with limiting daylight I would have to make it another time. Well I pulled into Payson and arrived at the river and I'm glad I made the choice. Not only was there a beautiful wash of snow, many of the trees along the river still had some very colorful leaves adding to an already gorgeous winter scene. I hiked along the water taking in the tranquil sounds and admiring the backdrop of amazing red rocks.
Spring, summer or fall Payson is filled with unbelievable beauty but on this particular day in December the stars aligned and white was the color of the day. Make sure you block out some time on your travels and add the Payson area to your list of must see Arizona destinations. From a day trip, a weekend cabin stay or maybe a summer week of camping, Payson has some amazing views to soothe your soul. Definitely worth the trip!