Winter is a great time to visit many of America’s national parks, and the Grand Canyon is no exception. You may deal with some cold weather, and even some snow, but you’ll get to avoid big crowds. And, a dusting of snow (or a few inches) can drastically change the appearance of the canyon.
During my 2014 visit to the Grand Canyon in late February/early March, I didn’t get to do what I had hoped to do — but I still had a great time. When planning the trip, I had decided to tackle a very challenging hike: I planned to hike down the Bright Angel trail to Indian Garden, then out to Plateau Point, and back to the rim. It’s a 12-mile round-trip, and I knew it would be a very long, exhausting day. But, with the proper supplies and an early start time, I figured I was up for it.
My arrival at the Grand Canyon coincided with the arrival of a nasty storm system. On the night before my hike, it rained steadily. The forecast called for even more, over the next day or two. Sure, I could have hiked in the cold rain, but it wouldn’t have been much fun. The main reason to take such a hike is to enjoy the views, and I knew nothing would look very beautiful under drizzling, grey skies.
So, I changed my plan — or more accurately, I made-up my plan as I went along.
After spending some time sitting by the fireplace in the El Tovar Lodge, I peeked outside, and saw that the clouds had broken, just slightly. But, it was enough to encourage me to get outside.
It was March 1, which meant it was the first day of the year that the road to Hermits Rest was closed to private vehicles. One day earlier, and I could have driven my own car to all the viewpoints along this road, that runs west from the Rim Village. Instead, I’d now have to take the shuttle bus, which is a good and a bad thing. It’s bad, because you have to wait for a bus, any time you make a stop. But, it’s good because you can hike one-way, instead of having to return to your car.
So that’s exactly what I did. I took the bus out to Hopi Point, then started walking along the rim.
Just about the time I started to hike, a remarkable thing happened. It was still cloudy, directly over me, but a nice hole had formed in the clouds directly above the canyon.
The result was some remarkable patches of light and shadows…
… illuminating the already-magical canyon.
I even had a chance to see a rainbow (or maybe it was a snow-bow!) below the rim, inside the canyon. Where I was standing, it was snowing, which made a great addition to the rim hike. This view is just east of Mohave Point.
As you hike the rim, keep an eye out for glimpses of the Colorado River. Even though the river carved the canyon, it’s difficult or impossible to see from most places along the rim. You’ll find this view, just to the west of Mohave Point.
After Mohave Point, you’re headed towards the Abyss — a deep spot in the canyon with a very steep drop from the rim. The trail gets up-close to the edge of the canyon here…
… and even offers a rocky abutment…
… where you can dangle your feet over the edge.
The walls of the Abyss are unmistakable.
From the Abyss to Monument Creek Vista, the trail meets up with the road a few times. On one of those occasions, I looked across the highway and saw this guy staring back at me. It was too early in the year for this elk to have antlers, but he was more than happy to entertain me as I snapped pictures (with a zoom lens, of course).
After Monument Creek Vista, the rim trail becomes a paved greenway, suitable for bicycles and wheelchairs. It also stays farther from the rim…
… for the rest of the journey out to Hermits Rest. That didn’t bother me, because once again the weather took a turn for the worse. At first, it was snowing on me as I walked, which was nice, but then the snow turned to a cold drizzle, which was not nice at all. I tried to catch a bus at Pima Point (the last stop before Hermits Rest), but I just missed it by a minute or two, and I knew I didn’t want to sit in the rain for another 15 minutes or more, waiting for the next one. So, I finished the hike — 5.6 miles from Hopi Point to Hermits Rest.
There’s a small gift shop and cafe at Hermits Rest. As I walked in, there must have been a dozen or more people, and everyone had a cup of hot chocolate in their hand. Of course, I had to have one. It may have been the most delicious hot chocolate ever — but I suppose it’s possible my cold, rainy hike biased my assessment.
By the way, I also visited the Grand Canyon in Winter, back in 2006. A bitter-cold, clear night provided a great opportunity to see the canyon under the light of a full moon. You can read about that visit, here.
I highly recommend visiting the Grand Canyon during the winter months. Weather could cause a problem, but it could also add to the magic and grandeur of the canyon. It’s worth the gamble — and best of all, you’ll avoid the crowds.
If you’re visiting the Grand Canyon in winter, vehicle access is limited to the south rim (the north rim is at a higher elevation, and receives too much snow to be kept open). You can reach the south rim by driving north from Williams, Arizona on AZ 64, or from Flagstaff via US 180.
Check out this time-lapse, dash-cam video of the drive from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon: