The South Rim of the Grand Canyon National Park is open to visitors pretty much year-around. And winter is an ideal time to visit. During a Grand Canyon winter, sometimes there’s snow on the ground, and sometimes an icy nip in the morning air, but the crowds of summer are absent and the grandeur of the canyon can be all yours.
Grand Canyon Winter Views
In winter, you don’t have to fight the crowds at viewpoints. There will be times that you’ll be alone—just you and the famous canyon that's on most people’s bucket list. Winter can be amazing.
Sometimes you’ll be standing on the edge of the canyon hoping the mist that covers the layered stone canyon walls will part and if you are patient, it does. We drove up to a viewpoint one morning and were disappointed to see clouds obscuring the view. No canyon, no condors—just white clouds.
But they were moving with the wind. As we stood there, the clouds became thinner, the sun peeked through, and we could see the walls of the canyon become gradually clearer. Within a few moments, the canyon was in full sun and we could get glimpses of the Colorado River below. As we photographed the spectacular moment, the clouds once again moved in and covered the view.
With reduced numbers of people around and some food sources frozen or difficult to access, the Grand Canyon wildlife will become a bit bolder and come closer to people and buildings. One morning as I got up to check how icy the walkways were, I heard another member of my group trying to quietly beckon me to the back of the building. She had encountered a heard of beautiful elk having their breakfast of evergreen shoots from the trees at the lodge. From a distance, we watched them eat and then they quietly moved on, clearly unbothered by our presence.
You are likely to see crows and ravens, mule deer, elk, squirrels and—soaring in the air just off the rim—condors and an occasional eagle.
Grand Canyon Winter Sightseeing
In the winter you can drive your car to most of the sights along the rim. While in the summer, the crowds of tourists must take a shuttle bus. Many of the sights include stops at some of the canyon’s iconic buildings where you can warm up a bit before heading out for a hike or stops at viewpoints.
El Tovar Lodge
At El Tovar Lodge, you can enjoy the cozy lobby with the fireplace blazing, impressive landscape oil paintings, and vintage lodge furniture that will entice you to relax for a while. When the weather is mild, rock your cares away on the front porch.
At some time during your stay, you’ll want to have a meal in the El Tovar dining room. The lodge is known for excellent food and in winter a meal like their signature Beef Stroganoff will hit the spot. Desserts, on display as you enter the dining room, are festive and delicious. Save room!
Right across from El Tovar, you will find Hopi House. Designed by famous southwest architect Mary E. J. Colter and built in 1905, Hopi House is a large, multi-story building of stone masonry, shaped and constructed like a Hopi pueblo building. Hopi House is a great place to learn more about Arizona native cultures and do a little shopping as they have both souvenirs and authentic Native American jewelry and art there.
If the weather is good, you will be able to drive out to Hermit's Rest. The site is located at the far western end of the West Rim Drive approximately 9 miles from Grand Canyon Village. There is a gift shop and snack bar there. But what we enjoyed most is the architecture and immense stone fireplace. This is yet another of Colter's handy work. Sit for a minute in front of the fireplace and be transported back in time.
Bright Angel Lodge
Designed in 1935 by Mary E.J. Colter, Bright Angel Lodge is a Registered National Historic Landmark. This is another of the buildings that have the iconic lodge architecture. Have a look at the ”geologic” fireplace in the History Room featuring all of the rock layers of Grand Canyon, from the river to the top layer on the rim.
You can stay in one of the little cabins that surround the lodge. Be sure and visit the Bright Angel History Room where you will find information on the Harvey Girls, the Harvey Indian Detour Couriers, historic postcards, a 100-year-old El Tovar menu, and much more. This lodge is walkable from El Tovar.
The weather is so unpredictable and the trails sporadically icy, that for winter hiking, we recommend sticking to the Rim Trail. It is safe and scenic. The Park cautions against hiking into the canyon and reminds us that, for other than a short hike along the rim, preparation and a high degree of hiking skill is necessary. To play it extra safe, hike in either direction from El Tovar. Carry water, a trail snack, dress in layers and, of course, take your camera. Watch your time and know that you can turn around, backtrack, and return to warmth without much effort.
Packing for a Grand Canyon Winter Getaway
From about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. when the sun is shining at the Grand Canyon, you may even feel warm while hiking the rim. But the weather is unpredictable. Winter conditions at the South Rim can run from mild to extreme. It’s best to plan for the most extreme—snow, icy roads and trails, and possible road closures. On the South Rim, you will be at 6,950 feet elevation.
Layering is in order. The longer you plan to be out hiking or sightseeing, the warmer you will want to dress. Make sure to have a warm, waterproof jacket, warm pants or jeans, and long underwear. Gloves and warm hats are imperative.
The weather may turn very pleasant and you will need to shed a layer or two. Bring sturdy walking shoes with tread or hiking boots. Trails in the winter will have ice or snow, especially in the shady spots. If the trails are very icy and it doesn't melt during the day, you will need crampons—cleats that attach to your shoes for walking traction.
You may want to enjoy a special meal at El Tovar so bring something to change into for their dining room. While a dress or coat and tie are not necessary, this might be the time to don a clean pair of jeans or slacks and a nice sweater.
When You Go to the Grand Canyon in Winter
Weather is the deciding factor in choosing a day to visit. Watch for road closures and check road conditions on the Grand Canyon website or their Facebook page during winter storms. Reservations for accommodations can be made online for Yavapai Lodge here and at this website for other South Rim accommodations, including El Tovar, Bright Angel, and Kachina Lodge.
The Grand Canyon Railway has day trips and overnight packages. It might be an enjoyable way to approach the Canyon in winter weather. You can save 30 percent off train tickets from January through March. The Railway offers Polar Express theme trips during winter. Trips originate in Williams, Arizona, a Route 66 town that is worth a visit.
For more information on traveling in The Grand Circle, which includes the Grand Canyon, request or download a free Grand Circle Travel Planner. You can also read more articles by Wander With Wonder writers and get ideas for your trip to the Grand Canyon and Arizona.
Note: The author toured as a guest of the Grand Circle Association. As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary accommodations, meals, and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.