Ever bold and breathtaking, the Grand Canyon beckons your hiking boots, even in winter.
Any discussion of the Grand Canyon has to start with the staggering numbers associated with this national treasure: Eighteen miles wide. A mile deep. Carved by the Colorado River winding 277 miles through it. There’s simply no other place like it on Earth.
When visiting Grand Canyon National Park (20 S. Entrance Road, Grand Canyon, Ariz., 928-638-7888) in the winter, you’ll find all of the beauty and grandeur of summer but with cooler temperatures and fewer people. The park’s less-hectic atmosphere during winter encourages visitors to slow down and savor the vistas.
The park’s North Rim is closed in winter months while the South Rim remains open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It can be reached by car from Salt Lake City in a little over eight hours and is a four-hour drive coming from Las Vegas. Another option from Las Vegas is to drive three hours to Williams, Ariz., and climb aboard the Grand Canyon Railway. This 65-mile rail journey takes two hours and 15 minutes and lets you enjoy plenty of scenery along the way.
From Las Vegas, you can also let somebody else do the driving by booking with Pink Jeep Tours (1-888-900-4480). When booking a 13-hour tour package to the South Rim, they pick you up at most hotels along the Strip and transport you in one of their specially outfitted Tour Trekkers. The trip also includes various stops along the South Rim before returning to Las Vegas.
Once at the South Rim, you have a choice of just how much winter you want. If you stay up on the canyon’s rim, daytime high temperatures during the winter climb into the 40s (Fahrenheit), while falling below freezing at night. Storms occur on a regular basis, sometimes bringing snow. If you make the journey to the canyon floor, temperatures average about 15 to 30 degrees warmer. Either way, it’s important to layer clothing and plan ahead for inclement weather.
Multiple lodging offerings are available up top, with booking available at GrandCanyonLodges.com and VisitGrandCanyon.com. But for a truly memorable Grand Canyon experience, plan a stay at the bottom of the canyon with the Phantom Ranch (888-297-2757). This lodge offers a series of cabins, dorms and a canteen and, as the only lodging below the rim, it is usually full in summer months (you can book rooms 13 months in advance). In the winter, however, rooms tend to be more available, but advance reservations are a must before making the trek down. Hiking down the 10-mile Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch will take between four and six hours. The way back to the top will take from six to 10 hours.
Another option is to ride a mule down and back, and during winter months, one-night mule-trip packages are available. The ride down on Bright Angel Trail takes about 5 1/2 hours. Packages include a night’s stay at Phantom Ranch, sack lunch, steak dinner served family-style, and breakfast. After a night’s stay, the mules leave the next morning following breakfast and return up the shorter South Kaibab Trail, which is also a 5 1/2-hour trip. Drivers meet guests at the trailhead and take them to Bright Angel Lodge.
Whether you hike on the rim and take in the views or trek down to the canyon’s floor, you’ll need to plan for every contingency. The Grand Canyon National Park website emphasizes: “Everyone who hikes in the canyon for the first time reports that it was more difficult than they expected.” The very first sentence on the “Winter Hiking” page reads, “Every year, scores of unprepared hikers, lured by initially easy downhill hiking, experience severe illness, injury or death from hiking in the canyon.”
In other words, be careful out there. To find the safest route, consider taking one of the ranger-led hikes during the day. Note that the weather from the night before may largely determine if you can hike a particular loop or trail the next day and what equipment you’ll need once you’re there. Trails may be clear one day, then covered in inches of ice the next. If venturing out on trails where snow and ice may become an issue, be sure to have the appropriate equipment (i.e., crampons, poles, etc.).
Visiting the South Rim of Grand Canyon during winter is ideal for those who want to explore this stunning location in intermittent solitude, without the crowds and congestion of summer. Just make sure to bundle up and take it slow.