The Grand Canyon is an awesome place any season of the year. The majesty of the canyon, the depth, the incredible beauty, and the see-forever views are always there. But visit in winter, like my husband, Mike, and I did over New Year’s, and you’ll feel as though you are experiencing something brand-new.
Winter is a time of peace and quiet in the park. We’ve been to Grand Canyon on many occasions, but only in winter did we see a herd of elk foraging on the rim. Even on winter holidays, the park remains uncrowded except for one of the more popular viewpoints at Mather Point, and even there we never saw the masses you would find in the summer months.
Visit the mighty chasm in winter and you’ll stand—most likely bundled up in layers of fleece and a windproof jacket—as you gaze in awe at one of earth’s most powerful and inspiring landscapes. You can easily see across the canyon and glimpse the North Rim, only 10 miles away as the raven flies, but 215 miles by road. (The road to the North Rim is closed in winter.) If you want a closer view, however, look down upon Plateau Point and other points of interest within the canyon, or you can hike down for an even better look. But if you hike, be prepared for icy trails.
We strapped on crampons when we descended part way into the canyon. We also used hiking poles to better maintain our balance. In addition, our packs carried the clothes we weren’t wearing (we were wearing almost all of our layers as it was cold and windy), as well as food for energy and water to remain hydrated. The weather can change quickly in winter, so visitors need to be prepared. What starts out as a bright sunny day can quickly turn into a bone-chilling snowstorm, so make sure you check the weather forecast before setting out.
If you aren’t into winter hiking, you can always just bundle up and sit some place in the sun—but out of the wind—to watch the play of light and shadows as they dance over the canyon. Sometimes you just have to sit and stare in wonder, as the canyon can simply be overwhelming. The South Rim has elevations from 6,700 to 7,400 feet. It is 277 river-miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and a mile deep. It’s old and always changing.
The canyon is composed of geologic layers, the oldest of which are the Vishnu Basement Rocks, which are up to 1,840 million years old and are found deep in the canyon. The various layers of rock are evident from both the rim and below in the canyon and any place in between. Stand on the rim in winter and you’ll see more than just layers. You’ll no doubt see ravens soaring on high. No matter how cold or windy it is, you’ll want to witness at least one sunrise or sunset from the rim.
In from the Cold
There are also views of the canyon from indoors, a nice place to be when the weather is downright cold! Kolb Studio is one such place. Restored now, it was once the home and business of the Kolb brothers, men who were pioneering photographers at the canyon. The studio, located in the Village Historic District at the Bright Angel Trailhead, is open daily and offers a free art exhibit and bookstore.
The Yavapai Observation Station is another great place in which to view the canyon. Exhibits at the station offer insight into the geology of the canyon. How old is the canyon? How did it form? Find the answers to these and other questions there. And if you have more questions, you’ll find a bookstore with a variety of materials about the area.
When I visit a place, I like to think of those who were there before me. What was it like for the first people who discovered the canyon? Were they as in awe as I?
People have had ties with the Grand Canyon for thousands of years, dating back to prehistoric times. Ancestral Puebloans grew crops in the canyon and lived off the land, and Hopi Indians led Spanish explorers to the South Rim in 540. The railroad arrived at the South Rim in 1901, and in 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed this awesome place Grand Canyon National Monument. Congress gave it national park status in 1919.
Diverse habitats exist in the park because of the range in elevation. In the low elevations, three of the four North American deserts come together. Look and you will see mesquite trees from the Sonoran Desert, blackbrush from the Great Basin Desert, and Joshua Trees from the Mojave Desert.
Higher up a forest of pinyon pine and juniper covers much of the mid-elevation and provides homes for pinyon jays and mountain lions. Ponderosa pine forests harbor tassel-eared squirrels that depend on the ponderosa for food and shelter.
The North Rim is at least 1,000 feet higher than the South Rim so it harbors one more ecosystem, the Montane Forest. More precipitation means a diverse forest of fir, spruce, and Douglas fir, along with aspen trees.
One nice thing about the Grand Canyon is that it is easy to get around. Park your rig at the campground or Trailer Village, and you can put your keys in your pocket or purse and leave the driving to the National Park Service’s contractor, Paul Revere Transportation.
For more than 30 years the South Rim has been served by a free shuttle bus system. The shuttles will make your visit more enjoyable, as well as reducing pollution and decreasing traffic congestion. Shuttles run every 15 to 30 minutes. You don’t need a ticket, just get on and off at any stop. The routes are set up so you can ride to a stop, enjoy the view, hike, shop at a gift store, grab some information, or walk along the rim. When you’re ready to go, just hop on another shuttle.
From December through February, the shuttle service is limited and you won’t find a shuttle along scenic Hermit Road. Only in winter are private vehicles allowed on the road; the rest of the year you must ride the shuttle. The views along the seven-mile drive are incredible, as you can view the Colorado River from various points. If you don’t want to drive, you can take a commercial bus. The concessionaire, Xanterra Parks and Resorts, offers all sorts of tours. Even in summer you won’t find a shuttle along Desert View Drive, which is 25 miles one way. Desert View Drive follows the rim from the East Entrance, offering views of the river from different points.
Explore the Grand Canyon in winter and you’ll find a magical world of snow and ice and extreme beauty. You will have to add extra layers during your exploration, but I think you’ll find it’s worth it.
Donna Ikenberry is a writer and photographer who lives in South Fork, Colorado.
IF YOU GO:
There are two choices for RVers visiting the South Rim. You can stay at the Mather Campground, though hookups are not available and maximum vehicle length is 30 feet. The fee in winter is $15 per night; $7.50 per night for Golden Age or Golden Access passport holders. Information is available at nps.gov/grca. Trailer Village, operated by Xanterra Parks and Resorts, is located next to Mather Campground. It offers full hookups for RVs up to 50 feet in length. For information, look under “lodging” at grandcanyonlodges.com.
There are other accommodations at the park ranging from rustic cabins to rooms at the historic El Tovar Hotel. There’s a bank and ATM on the South Rim, as well as a post office, kennel and community library.
For additional information contact Grand Canyon National Park at (928) 638-7888 or check out nps.gov/grca.