It’s almost a cliche to say it, but winter is a special time in Grand Canyon National Park. Why? Because you have the place to yourself. No crowds, no stress, but you’ll find the same spectacular scenery you would if you were visiting in summer. What you need to know about winter in the Grand Canyon is that the South Rim is open year-round, but the North Rim has limited access from mid-October until mid-May.
The Grand Canyon’s South Rim is Open Year-Round
You’ll find plenty of activities to keep you entertained on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim during winter. Ranger-led walks and evening programs are held daily and vary from an insider’s look at the historic Kolb Brothers Studio (reservations needed) to a 45-minute stroll along the rim discussing the canyon’s dramatic geologic past. Artists in residence spend three weeks in the park at different times during the year and offer public programs as part of the conditions of their stay.
Of course, for most people, the allure of our national parks is spending time outside. Winter on the South Rim, while capricious at times, can be a perfect for exploring the natural world.
Watch the weather. Storms roll through making conditions icy and dangerous, but they tend to pass quickly leaving you with clear, crisp days full of sunshine. Gone is the Los Angeles smog that often mars the summer panoramas. Your views will stretch away for miles and miles, each cliff, rock and tree etched with precision and clarity against the vivid blue sky. You may be lucky enough to be in the park after a snowstorm when the landscape is transformed by an icing of white to contrast against the pinks, reds and greens of the canyon’s normal palette.
Temperatures in the winter can be ideal for hiking! No blazing heat to sap your energy! Plus you are unlikely to encounter more than a handful of people on the trails. Even the Bright Angel Trail, which in peak season sees a steady stream of traffic, is almost empty come November. Some trails, especially those that face north, harbor snow and ice long after it has melted everywhere else, so care must be taken to navigate these sections. You can pick up in-step crampons (simple metal spiked plates to strap onto your hiking shoes) at the shops along the rim to make travel over ice secure and safe. Or you can buy your own ice traction devices. Here is a good selection of traction devices available at www.rei.com.
Before you head off for your hike, stop into the Backcountry Information Center near the Maswik Lodge in the South Rim Village to get up-to-the-minute reports on trail conditions and weather. All overnight campers need permits! Even in the winter. (www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/backcountry-permit.htm) During peak season, you must apply for these in advance. In winter, you can usually walk-in and secure a permit on demand, but if you know you plan to camp out on your trip, it’s still best to call ahead.
If walking isn’t your thing, you can take a mule ride along the canyon rim or down to the Colorado River for an overnight stay at Phantom Ranch even in the winter (weather permitting).
The Tusayan mountain bike trails adjacent to the park boundary in the Kaibab National Forest are in great condition in the winter, the sandy bits are firm and fast and the dust is at a minimum, so bring your bike and go for a ride. You can opt for a three-mile loop or complete a 32-mile circuit of linked trails.
Temperatures can be extreme, of course. It is winter at 7,000 feet, but the average high is usually in the 40s and lows are in the 20s. That’s cold enough to require bundling up, but not cold enough to keep hearty souls inside for long. Plus, many of the South Rim hotels have fires crackling away in the lobby throughout the day to warm visitors coming in from the cold. You can’t go too wrong with a brisk walk along the rim of the spectacular Grand Canyon followed by a steaming cup of hot chocolate next to a roaring fire.
Read more: Winter in the Grand Canyon Photo Gallery
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon Has Limited Winter Access
The North Rim of the Grand Canyon closes for winter. That means you’ll have a gate across the road, so you cannot drive into the park. However, the public can still visit the North Rim by foot, skis or snowshoes. This is not recommended unless you are a seasoned outdoors person equipped with all the winter camping gear and supplies you would need to spend a night or more outside in freezing temperatures.
Snowmobiles are not allowed. Camping permits are required at all times and can be obtained through the Backcountry Information Office. Day use of the North Rim is permitted during winter as long as Highway 67 remains open. However, there are extremely limited visitor facilities (gas, restaurants, water) available. The Arizona Highway Department closes the highway once snow accumulates precluding all vehicular access.
Read more: North Rim’s Winter Caretaker