BELLEMONT, Ariz. – A winter storm pummeled the western U.S. on Thursday with fierce wind gusts, heavy rain and more than 2 feet of snow, closing hundreds of miles of roads and dumping a snowy mix of precipitation on the edges of Phoenix.
Officials closed a road into Yosemite National Park in California after a rock the size of a dump truck tumbled onto the road, and strong winds created snow dunes on rooftops, front yards and streets across mountainous areas of Arizona.
Snow and ice forced an hours-long closure of the two major thoroughfares in northern Arizona, stranding motorists south of Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. People in Phoenix were stunned at the sight of snow-type flurries that the National Weather Service said were a combination of hail and snow that melts before it hits the ground.
Drivers wanting to know how to get around the storms overwhelmed an Arizona hotline that provides automated updates on road conditions. State Department of Transportation spokesman Timothy Tait said the line took in 1.2 million calls in a 12-hour span Thursday.
Dorothy Brooks, of Dallas, was creeping along Interstate 40 at 20 mph on her way to Las Vegas, passing vehicles stuck on the side of the road, when she pulled into a Bellemont gas station to wait out the storm.
"It's devastating," she said, above the cry of a 9-month-old baby she was pushing through the aisles. "You can't call Mother Nature anyway. You never know when she's going to burst out."
The Silverton Mountain resort in Colorado reported 22 inches of snow, but only about 120 people were on the mountain because officials closed highways leading to the ski area for avalanche control and because of adverse conditions, resort co-founder Jen Brill said.
R.A. Burrell, of Colorado Springs, left home around 3 a.m. to avoid getting stuck on the way to the extreme ski area and made it before the lift started running.
"I thought we'd really just come on a magical day, which is what it turned out to be," he said during a break from making turns. "We just got lucky."
The weather service said snow could fall at a rate close to an inch an hour starting Thursday evening in the Denver area, which usually has around 25 inches of snow by this time of the season but had just 1.5 inches so far.
United Airlines, the dominant carrier at Denver International Airport, canceled 32 United and United Express flights from Denver on Thursday, spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said.
Major highways were also shut down in parts of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Nevada.
Forecasters said strong winds in California were expected to die down by early Friday, allowing a cold air mass to create frost and freeze problems in the region.
Phoenix braced for freezing overnight temperatures as well, a rarity in the desert city. Inmates housed at the city's Tent City jail facility were being issued extra blankets and pink thermal underwear — part of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's odd method for punishing prisoners.
Residents in the Phoenix area couldn't believe what they were seeing when white stuff starting falling from the sky. The wintry mixture of snow and hail had the appearance of snowflakes.
"Believe it or not, but I am looking out my window in Scotttsdale, Az & its SNOWING! Never thought I would see this!" former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner tweeted.
Southwestern New Mexico was being hit with blizzard conditions that were forecast to continue through midnight Thursday. Winds of up to 65 mph, heavy snow and rapidly falling temperatures made travel difficult if not impossible, forecasters said.
The California Highway Patrol reported downed trees on various Los Angeles-area freeways and streets. One gust north of Los Angeles was clocked at 94 mph.
Authorities in Kern County called off an evacuation of 120 homes after an irrigation canal overflowed with rain runoff. Fewer than six homes were damaged.
In the snow-laden Sierra Nevada, search teams found the body of a woman who disappeared while snowboarding at a Lake Tahoe-area resort, sheriff's Capt. Jeff Ausnow said. Shawnte Marie Willis, 25, became separated from friends Tuesday at Alpine Meadows Ski Resort, and bad weather had hindered the search.
Icy roads led to a collision on U.S. 50 in Nevada, killing a 26-year-old woman whose car spun out of control and into the path of an oncoming Hummer, the Nevada Highway Patrol said.
The Coast Guard called off a search after finding no sign of a 20-foot boat reported in trouble in rough seas off San Diego late Wednesday. A call picked up by a sea salvage company reported a man and three children aboard a boat taking on water. Eric Lamb, a captain at the company, said it may have been a hoax.
A camping Boy Scout troop had to be rescued after a snowstorm stranded them near Pocatello, Idaho. The seven boys and three adults had planned to spend Tuesday night at Lariat Cave but were unable to get out, Power County Sheriff Jim Jeffries said. They called for help Wednesday morning and responders brought them out by snowmobile several hours later.
Gordon Mason of Rockford, Ill., was taking it all in stride. The 62-year-old semi-truck driver was browsing through movies at a travel center in Arizona, grateful that something was open to occupy his time.
"The way the lot is, it's going to take a while to clear the trucks so the rest of us could get out," he said. "I'm not even going to try until tomorrow."
Managers at the travel center ensured their employees would be available to serve stranded motorists by renting hotel rooms for them next door.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Catherine Tsai in Denver, John Antczak and Robert Jablon in Los Angeles, Garance Burke in Fresno, Gillian Flaccus in Orange County, Haven Daley in Sonoma County and Sudhin Thanawala and Terry Collins in San Francisco.