Grand Canyon, Travel

Visiting The Grand Canyon, South Rim in The Winter

“You know it’s going to be cold, right?”

“No one goes to the Canyon in the winter”

“I hope you have warm clothes”

These are all things we heard up until we reached the Canyon on 12/3/2016. Even the people we encountered on our drive from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon were saying these things. It made us nervous because we had no idea what we would encounter when we arrived. Would we be able to hike anywhere? Were we wasting our money going in the winter? Also, we’re southerners through and through, so our “winter gear” is basically just lots of layers and not fancy insulated jackets or cold weather hiking gear.

The Grand Canyon will always be cold in the winter and, just like anywhere that experiences freezing temperatures, there’s a chance there will be snow. We went at the very beginning of December and there was snow and ice on the ground. It was also very cold; the low one night was 9.

Despite being very cold, I don’t think we could have had a better visit at any time of the year. For one of the 7 natural wonders of the world, you would expect this place to be consistently littered with tourists. There were a couple tour buses that rolled through, but they left around sunset and the entire lodge area was quiet again. Even with those buses of tourists, it did not feel crowded at all.

Winter Travel to The Grand Canyon

The Good:

  • Small to no crowds
  • Less expensive
  • Snow at the Grand Canyon is beautiful
  • Almost everything is the same as the warmer months (except for the bus… I’ll get to that in a minute)
  • All the lobby areas of each lodge have enormous fire places and bars where you can get hot chocolate (or something a little stronger) after a long day of hiking in the cold

The Not-So-Good:

  • VERY cold
  • Can be very windy (we got lucky on our hiking day, there was no wind)
  • Trails can be icy
    • Hiking tip: if anyone warns you about the trails being icy, even just a little bit, opt to rent crampons for your shoes; hiking poles aren’t a bad idea either. We opted to risk it without either and it was a bad decision.
  • The bus that usually runs along the rim does not run after 11/30; so anywhere you hike along the rim, you need to make sure you can walk that distance back
  • Help is scarce if you find yourself in need on a trail; think ahead! If you start to feel ill, don’t think it will just pass. Turn back before it’s too late.

Getting there:

When going to the Grand Canyon, many people fly in to Las Vegas, rent a car, then drive to the South Rim. This is exactly what we did. Here are a few things we did to make our trip smoother as well as a few things we learned along the way.

  • If you can, try to fly in to Vegas early enough to make a stop at the Hoover Dam on your way to the Grand Canyon. It will take you about 2 – 3 hours to take a guided tour inside the Dam then have time to walk around the area.
    • If you do this, make sure to stop at the parking area on your way out of the Dam to walk across the new bridge connecting Nevada to Arizona (you’ll pass it on the way in and when you exit). You get incredible views of the Dam here.
  • Note that Arizona does not observe daylight savings time. So in the winter you will lose an hour when you cross in to Arizona. (Ex. If you land in Las Vegas at 9am, it will be 10am at the Grand Canyon).
  • There is an Inn-N-Out right off highway 40 on the way to the Grand Canyon (see map below). It’s about an hour from the Hoover Dam. You’re welcome.
  • This is really important: stop at the Safeway in Williams, AZ to pick up some snacks, possibly a few items for breakfast and/or lunch, and a case or 2 of water.
    • The Grand Canyon is very limited when it comes to food. They do have a few restaurants which are fine for a couple meals, but you won’t want to waste your money on them for each meal. The cabins we stayed in had small refrigerators that we were able to use for some yogurts and a couple pre-made salads that we bought. We planned on eating at the nice restaurant (El Tovar) one night. But we were so exhausted after all of our hiking, we couldn’t even bring ourselves to eat at one of the casual dining options. Having our snacks and alternative meal options really helped us when all we wanted was to relax. Also, water is extremely important especially if you’re hiking. You will be so glad to have an abundance of water at your disposal in your cabin.
  • Here is the route we used with all of our stops: Directions from the Las Vegas airport to The Grand Canyon
  • There is a visitor’s center before you enter the park. This is worth a stop! We arrived too late on our first night and weren’t able to see this until we left. They have a wonderful presentation about the creation of the Canyon. It takes about 10 minutes and you will learn so much!
  • Be cautious! There was lots of ice on the roads when we arrived. It was very dark and we were the only ones on the road.

Lodging

I can’t speak for the other lodging options, but our Bright Angel cabin was great! The only thing we both decided wasn’t worth the extra money was our “partial view”. You could see the Canyon from our window, but just barely. There were lots of trees in the way. The proximity to the rim was a great thing, though (we were about 60 ft from it). It was an extra $60 a night. It might be worth it to some, but not for us. That was $120 we could have spent elsewhere.

The view from our cabin

 

Our cabin

There are options for all budgets when it comes to lodging. Bright Angel is a great middle of the road option. El Tovar is the most expensive. We saw some other options which had a community bathroom. For more information lodging, click here.

Hiking

There are hikes for everyone at the Grand Canyon. We did 1.5 miles of the Bright Angel Trail, covered in ice and snow, without any winter hiking gear and boy did we learn a lot. We also did 2 miles of the rim trail (ending at Maricopa lookout, which was absolutely spectacular). The Bright Angel Trail is definitely a little more strenuous since you’re going in to the Canyon. The rim trail is much easier and you get to see so many cool lookout points. If you’re unsure which trails might be best for you with the amount of time you have, make sure to stop by your concierge for a map and some suggestions. We did both of these hikes in one day. Check out my post all about our hikes here.

Tips for hiking down in to the Canyon in the winter (Bright Angel Trail):

  • Make sure you are in good enough physical health for the hike back; the hike down is easy, the hike back is entirely uphill
  • Wear layers. We were freezing on the way down, but down to jeans and t-shirts on the way back up because it was so strenuous
  • Bring plenty of water and snacks. Eat and drink a little bit every time you take a break. You might not feel thirsty or hungry, but your body will need it.
  • There’s a rest house with bathrooms at the 1.5 mile mark. For guys, it’s fine. For women, it presents a bit of a challenge especially if you have on lots of clothes. They are essentially really old toilet seats over a deep hole. No toilet paper (it looked like there was some at one point, but it was all gone when we got there). Also, the stairs up to the toilets are steep and, for us, were covered in ice. If you absolutely need to use them, it’s nice that they are there. If you can hold it, do so.
  • Bring your camera (or smart phone)!! And a selfie stick if you can swallow your pride! Listen, I know some of you reading this have sworn up and down that you will never be one of “those people”. Well let me help you down off your high horse and explain why you need one at the Grand Canyon. There weren’t many people on the trail with us and the ones who were had been hiking since daybreak from the base of the Canyon. They had massive packs on their backs and a one track mind to reach their goal: the top of the Canyon. Could you imagine trying to stop one of these people when they are mere minutes from completing a goal that is insanely difficult to do in the winter FOR A PICTURE?! Nope. I was totally fine looking stupid with my selfie stick so I could get the pictures I wanted without having to bother anyone. You will want pictures and you will be upset if you aren’t able to get unbelievable pictures of yourself in one of the most amazing places in the world. Just buy the stick. I purchased the MPOW Selfie Stick from Amazon. It’s very compact and travels well. You can take it in your carry-on.

Grand Canyon Winter Packing List (for hiking):

  • Hiking shoes; don’t wear brand new shoes. There’s mule droppings all over the trail and at some points, you can’t avoid walking through it
  • Hat or ear muffs (or both)
  • Scarf
  • Shirts to layer
  • Insulated jacket (having a hood is nice)
  • Lots of socks; thick wool socks are best
  • Gloves; touch gloves will save you from having to remove them every time you want to take a picture
  • Sunglasses
  • Chapstick
  • Camera (or smart phone)
  • Selfie Stick
  • Small backpack
  • Water
  • Snacks
  • Map from lodge concierge

The last piece of advice I have for you is to wake up early one morning, drive to a lookout point, and watch the sunrise. It is honestly one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. We drove to Powell Point (the next stop after Maricopa lookout). Either one of those points are great spots to watch the sunrise. Powell is just a little higher than Maricopa. Check out this post to read more about our sunrise experience.

If you’re planning a trip to the Canyon in winter, I hope I helped a little bit with your planning. Most importantly, enjoy your time in one of the most beautiful places on Earth!

Bon Voyage!

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