by Blake Herzog
Greater Prescott has a unique position as a winter destination.
It gets enough snow a few times a year to draw hordes from the desert floor to sled and build snowmen in our relatively mild temperatures where the powder often melts away by midday, but in most years doesn’t get the kind of deep freezes that create reliably skiable surfaces to build an industry.
Skating on a solid layer of ice over Watson Lake while the Dells are caked with snow would be an absolutely stunning experience — but it isn’t going to happen. Don’t forget that Findlay Toyota Center in Prescott Valley has open skate and pickup hockey throughout the winter, albeit indoors.
We can also go up to Flagstaff for skiing and other winter sports. Or we can stay close to our beautiful homes and do pretty much what we always do outside, with a few more layers of clothing and extra precautions.
Trails are less crowded with tourists this time of year, but local traffic keeps them hopping on all but the snowiest and stormiest days of the year. Still, everyone should try to stay off the wettest paths shortly after it rains or snows.
All of those “exposed” trails you may shy away from in the summer are now your happy places; Constellation, the Storm Trails, anything around Watson or Willow lakes, the Peavine and the Pioneer Park trails turn their lack of shade trees into their biggest winter asset.
Higher-elevation trails do offer more opportunities for breaking out your snowshoes and finding more Arendelle-esque (think the movie “Frozen” or Norway) scenery.
The Aspen Creek Trail in the Prescott National Forest is easily transformed into a wintry wonderland with pines and oaks shimmering under snow and ice. The loop around Thumb Butte and the Miller Creek Trail also can be good options for finding the crystalized beauty you crave.
Of course, severe weather can close off trails and recreation areas, so be aware of any that might interfere with your plans. There’s no generally accepted cutoff for when it’s “too cold” to go hiking, so go with your comfort level with cold temperatures and amount of clothing needed.
Most experts recommend wearing at least three layers (top and bottom) while hiking in temperatures under 45 degrees or so. The base layer should be a nylon or wool wicking fabric to keep perspiration away from your skin, topped by a middle layer of wicking fabric, thicker than the base. Denim or other cotton fabrics retain moisture and aren’t a good choice for exercising.
On top, put on a shell layer that protects you from moisture and cold. Be prepared to take off and put back on the middle layer as your movement heats you up and the cold air chills you back down again. And don’t forget a hat, gloves and at least one good sock on each foot, preferably two.
Yes, even summery water adventures like kayaking don’t die off completely in the winter, though you will probably have the lake pretty much to yourself, an appealing concept for many.
Most lake-based watercraft rentals shut down for the season in September or October but Born to be Wild Adventures, which meets you at the lake with your kayak or canoe, is open year-round, weather permitting. For more information or to reserve a kayak call 928-499-5621 or visit www.b2bwild.com.
Gliding over Watson Lake in a canoe is a good substitute for that dream of skating across the lake, giving you intimate views of the boulders and wildlife along the shore. Since Willow and Watson lakes are designated as an “important bird area” by Audubon, they are fantastic places to watch migratory waterfowl and other species. Water levels are often higher in winter, allowing you to explore coves not accessible during the summer.
You do have to give serious consideration to the weather when kayaking in winter given the risk of hypothermia if you should fall into the water. Experts advise “dressing for immersion” no matter what the season, so in the winter many suggest wearing a wetsuit or dry suit (designed specifically for paddle sports) to keep you dry.
Many sources advise paddlers to wear one of these suits when the combined temperature of the air and water is 120 degrees or below. Wetsuits should be worn next to the skin and covered by layers of nylon or neoprene, topped by a waterproof shell. And always, always wear a lifejacket to keep yourself from going under the cold water.
Wet and icy conditions that follow snow or rain showers create particular problems for cycling, and everyone who hasn’t had a lot of experience in these should probably stay off the road in these conditions. Once things dry out a little more, you can venture out while taking a few extra preventive measures.
The same trails recommended for winter hiking are also good for mountain biking. You should also check out the new Spence Basin trails off Iron Springs Drive just east of the Alto Pit OHV Area, developed by the City of Prescott with the Prescott Mountain Biking Alliance. Given its newness, however, winter conditions may be hard to predict.
As you should know by now, the key to dressing is layer, layer, layer. You should expect to feel cold for the first 15-20 minutes of the ride, while layering allows you to shed clothing as you warm up without overheating.
Winter riding can be hard on bikes, so be sure you’re treating yours well. A thicker tire with better tread should help you stay upright, and lowering your tire pressure a bit can improve your bike’s grip on snowy surfaces. Be sure to clean and lubricate all mechanical parts after each ride and consider installing a mud guard if you don’t already have one.
Wearing a backpack for longer winter expeditions is a good idea for adding protection for your back as well as carrying the additional gear you may need: gloves, hat and other layers to take on and off as needed, along with food, water and a fully charged front lamp to prepare for those days when the dark sneaks up on you a little bit faster than you expected.