Most people visit the Grand Canyon during the summer. But once you’ve been there in the winter months you will be convinced that is the time to go. When you see photos of the Grand Canyon, it is hard to imagine how much more beautiful it can be, but add some snow and it is truly magnificent.
Why visit the Grand Canyon in winter?
- Beauty – Add a little bit of snow to the incredible landscape and it is truly a winter wonderland.
- Crowds – The average number of visitors to the Grand Canyon during the months of December, January and February this past year was around 230,000. During July and August this number jumped to over 750,000 per month. (Reference: National Park Stats.)
- Traffic – Fewer people means less traffic, making the scenic drive far more pleasant. No waiting at each overlook for a parking spot, or having to wait your turn to take that perfect photo!
- Hiking – If you like to hike, all of the trails are less crowded and quieter in the winter. Not as many noisy people to scare off the birds and animals. You are far more likely to see mule deer and big horn sheep, often walking on the same trail you are on! You will have many of the rails along the rim to yourself. And if you are hiking down into the canyon, you will be far more likely to be able to book an overnight at Phantom Ranch or get a backcountry camping permit.
- Temperature – Yes, it may be chilly at the top, but the elevation in the bottom of the canyon at Phantom Ranch is 2,400 feet. That’s about 4,600 feet lower than the elevation at the top. It can be snowing up there, but at the bottom you get temperatures similar to Phoenix. That means an average daytime temperature in winter of around 60 to 70 degrees F. Contrast that to an average summer day … you may begin your hike in 70 or 80 degree temperature and have it exceed 100 at the bottom. Personally, I’d rather be a bit cooler for a hike!
What are the challenges?
Of course, visiting any National Park Unit in the winter brings with it some special challenges due to possible weather conditions so you need to be flexible and plan accordingly.
- Changing Conditions – You have to be prepared for anything. A few years ago, we hiked down to Phantom Ranch on December 12th in a tee shirt and shorts. When we hiked out two days later, we were in winter parkas, hats and gloves. There was at least a foot of snow on Bright Angel Trail and we really should have had crampons (we didn’t.)
- Closures – The National Park Service does a great job of keeping parks clear and open, but some close for the winter months. That includes the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The lodge closes every year on October 15th, not to reopen until May 15.
Are there Alternatives?
You betcha! If you are worried about the snow, take the Grand Canyon Train! It’s an easy way to get to and from the Grand Canyon. You don’t have to worry about the weather, or parking … All you have to do is sit and enjoy the view!
Stay overnight in Williams, Arizona, and then take a day trip to the South Rim. Williams is a cute town with lots of Route 66 history. And the train is a fun way to travel. You’ll have lots of time at the South rim to look out over the incredible vistas, take a ton of photos, enjoy a meal and have a relaxing trip back to Williams. They even have special Christmas-themed train trips – great if you have young children.
Another alternative is to go with an outfitter. They have all the gear and the experience, plus they get the permits well in advance. You don’t have to worry about anything (except the price tag!)
What about the North Rim in winter?
You can still visit the North Rim during the daytime until December 1st, provided that State Highway 67 is open. That means you can drive in and visit Bright Angel Point (gorgeous!), Point Imperial and Cape Royal.
There is also access to North Kaibab trailhead so you could drop off hikers there to start a rim-to-rim hike. But at that time of year, I wouldn’t plan on picking them up there after a south-to-north hike because if the Arizona Department of Transportation closes the highway before you get them, they could be stranded! Once the snow starts to build up that highway is closed until the spring.
If you have a backcountry permit, you can hike or cross-country ski to the North Rim, but the distances are pretty long. Jacob Lake (the only lodging) to the North Rim is 42 miles. That’s a long hike!!!
Even in winter, you must book in advance - not just back country permits. Phantom Ranch books over a year out and many hotels at the rim book up, especially around the holidays.
Why go in the Summer?
Rafting … Grand Canyon Rafting trips only run in the summer months and even then the water is COLD. The water released into the Colorado River comes from the bottom of Lake Powell, so even if the air temperature is in 100+ the water is frigid.
We did a seven day rafting trip and it was amazing. We camped on sandbars, ate amazing meals, swam in waterfalls and hiked every day. Oh yeah, and took some rapids! Fun!
We have visited the Grand Canyon many times, at many different times of year, but our favorite remains the winter months. We look forward to celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Grand Canyon in 2019. Thank you to the National Park Service for protecting one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.