How to Visit Grand Canyon in Winter: What to Know

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GRAND CANYON WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Escape to Another World

Are you looking for a winter escape to another world?  Julie and I visited Grand Canyon National Park in early December, 2021.  This was the headliner of our Arizona trip and the place we were most excited to see. 

We were mesmerized by her surreal size and beauty.   We are still floating on clouds of bliss from our journey to this unearthly world.  We want to share our experiences with you and help you plan your Grand Canyon adventure.

It’s a Small World

I can still picture my first trip to the beach as a child.  Finding the ocean was visible for as far as I could see, left my face frozen in awe. 

The same holds true for Grand Canyon.  Her massive size dominates the horizon, blocking your view to the real world.  In her presence, I felt small but peaceful.

Grand, Indeed

When I hear the word “grand,” I think of big and wonderful things like grand piano, grand ballroom and grand finale.  These are just a few examples. 

If you conduct a Google search for the word “grand,” you will obtain the following definition:  magnificent and imposing in appearance, size or style.  Nailed it!  The canyon truly is grand, indeed.

Julie on a ledge at Grand Canyon
Julie on a ledge at Grand Canyon

Daredevil and Scare Devil

Are you a daredevil or a scare devil?  Julie is a daredevil.  She is ready to jump out of a plane today. 

I, on the other hand, can’t climb a ladder beyond the second rung.  I have a terrifying fear of heights. 

The canyon can really test this at times.  I came across a few others that share my phobia. 

The good news is that you can still enjoy the canyon and have breathtaking views.  Maybe you won’t go as far out on ledges as others, but that is ok.  Your experience will not be lessened. 

There are plenty of handrails and protective barriers at key viewpoints.  Please do not let your fear of heights prevent you from visiting Grand Canyon.  

Fees and Passes

The park entrance fee is $35 per vehicle.  This covers you for 7 days. 

You may want to consider an America the Beautiful park pass for $80.  This annual pass is good for one year, starting at date of purchase.  It is valid at all our national parks.

Grand Canyon Rims (Rim Worlds)

When it comes to Grand Canyon, you will hear talk about rims. 

My mind quickly wanders to the outer rim worlds in the Star Wars galaxy.  Fortunately, you do not need to travel to another galaxy to see this vast, surreal world.  You merely have to go to Arizona. 

Grand Canyon has a South Rim and a North Rim.  By all accounts, they are different worlds. 

The North Rim has higher altitudes, colder temperatures and different plant and animal life.  Note that the North Rim is closed for winter

Do not worry.  There is plenty to see and do in the South Rim.

Christmas in the Canyon

Should you consider visiting Grand Canyon in winter?  Absolutely! 

  • South Rim is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
  • Crowds are lighter
  • Temperatures are milder
  • You may see snow

I can’t say we had the park to ourselves, but we had a few lookout points to ourselves.

It was wonderfully peaceful and quiet.  We still can’t believe it.  To experience the silence and solitude of this boundless world is quite exhilarating. 

In December, the Christmas spirit is bountiful.  The nearest town, Tusayan, had bright, shiny holiday lights on every store and hotel.  You will be humming Christmas carols in the car as you drive with a wide smile on your face.

Grand Canyon Rock Layers (Layer Cake)

Grand Canyon proudly displays layers of many colors including red, yellow and chocolate.  She is a layer cake for the eyes. 

If you visit Grand Canyon in the winter, stick with this theme.  Pack plenty of layers. 

The temperatures can vary with large swings from sunrise to sunset.  You need the ability to add or shed layers throughout the day to stay comfortable.  You can find more information about the weather here. 

Put on Your Mask, Spider-Man

As of December, 2021, COVID-19 is still stubbornly hanging around and impacting our lives.  While outdoors, a mask is not required. 

Plan to wear a mask should you venture into a gift shop, museum, or visitor center.  A mask is required for all indoor areas at the park.

Kaibab (It’s Not a Kabob)

Kaibab is a national forest, bursting with coniferous trees, that borders both the north and south rims of Grand Canyon.  This is a nice change of pace from southern Arizona where trees are few and far between.

Camping within Grand Canyon is available, but reservations are needed months in advance as campsites fill up quickly.  With a little planning, perhaps you can enjoy a kabob in Kaibab.

Grand Canyon Trees (Rise Like a Phoenix)

In the forested areas of Grand Canyon, you can see charred tree trunks, blackened branches and the remains of felled trees due to fire damage.  It is a sad sight to be sure.  We can only hope that new life will rise from the ashes like a phoenix.

On Your Left

While walking the rim trail, Julie and I had only been looking to our right, out over the canyon.  Had we not looked the other way, we would have missed two large elk feeding on trees on the forest side of the trail. 

Unlike Captain America, the elk are not going to announce that they are on your left.  Be sure to look away from the canyon as well.  Otherwise you may miss something else grand.

Close Encounters with Elk at Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon Moose (You Are Moosetaken)

Grand Canyon has extensive wildlife within the park.  There are ravens, squirrels, deer, elk and bighorn sheep to name a few. 

We were blessed to spot elk during our visit.  A lot of folks mistakenly think these large creatures are moose. 

You will not find a moose at Grand Canyon.  Moose prefer colder climates and live further north. 

If you observe an elk, enjoy the view but keep a respectful distance.  They are a lot like us.  They merely want to go about their day in peace. 

Julie and I had hoped to spot a bighorn sheep.  Unfortunately, we did not.  If you have seen bighorn sheep at Grand Canyon, I would love to hear about your experience. 

Colorado River (A River Runs Thru It)

From many of the rim viewpoints, you would never know there is a river at the bottom of the canyon.  The canyon is so deep and has so many bends and turns, the Colorado River is obscured from view. 

There are some lookouts where you can see the river winding its way through the canyon.  If you listen carefully, you can faintly hear the rushing water. 

Do yourself a favor and take a minute to listen.  After all, it has taken the Colorado River five to six million years to carve out this enormous channel.  She deserves to be heard.

Sunset at Grand Canyon

Sunset at Grand Canyon (Cotton Candy, Fire and Purple Haze)

The sun impacts your view of the canyon.  Her rays reveal depth and details as she lights up all the nooks and crannies, adding a burst of color.  Depending on cloud cover, she can cast long shadows upon the canyon. 

If your schedule allows, stay for sunset.  It is spectacular. 

We were fortunate to see pink, cotton candy clouds, fiery clouds of orange and yellow and a wispy purple haze all in the same sky.  Gorgeous! 

You can find more information about sunrise and sunset view times and locations here.

Grand Canyon Stargazing (Milk at Night)

As the sun gives way to the black night sky, you will be blessed with yet another masterpiece.  There is less light and air pollution here.  The world feels wide open. 

Give your eyes time to adjust and the sky will eventually reveal her bright, bountiful Milky Way.  Billions of stars light up the sky in spectacular fashion.  Hello, heaven! 

You can find more information about Grand Canyon stargazing here. 

Greased Pig

No matter how hard you try, your pictures and videos will not do justice to the size and beauty of Grand Canyon.  Many have tried.  All have failed. 

Your pictures and videos will be fabulous.  But, the real thing is better and cannot be fully captured.  Her beauty is like a greased pig slipping through her captors slimy fingers.  Nice try!

GRAND CANYON SOUTH RIM ITINERARY

Mather Point (Get to the Point)

Upon entering the park, be sure to stop at Grand Canyon Visitor Center.  You will find parking spaces, restrooms, a park store, bike rentals and a cafe. 

The closest overlook to the visitor center is a short, level walk and is called Mather Point.  There are splendid views and this is a great way to begin your journey. 

You can walk further east along the rim trail toward the South Kaibab Trail and Yaki Point or venture west along the rim trail toward Yavapai Point and Grand Canyon Village.

Trail of Time (Rock of Ages)

Grand Canyon has been fading away by erosion for five to six million years.  You can learn more about this history by walking the Trail of Time

It is nearly 3 miles long but is paved and mostly flat.  There are bronze markers on the path and occasional exhibits on the side of the trail explaining the geological formations through time. 

The Trail of Time begins at the Yavapai Geological Museum and runs beyond Grand Canyon Village.  Be sure to stop at the museum for educational exhibits and a picturesque view of the canyon. 

After the museum visit and Trail of Time walk, you will have a much better sense of how the canyon was formed.

Grand Canyon Village (It Takes a Village)

Grand Canyon Village is near the end of the Trail of Time.  In this area, you will find Verkamp’s Visitor Center, Kolb Studio, lodging, food, a train depot and a mule barn. 

Kolb Studio contains Grand Canyon art and photographs.  It was actually the home of the Kolb Brothers who created a legacy through photography for their love of Grand Canyon. 

Outside the studio is a fantastic view of Bright Angel Trail descending into the canyon. 

Bright Angel Trail (Angels Among Us)

If you would like to experience Grand Canyon beyond the beautiful rim views, there are opportunities to hike or ride a mule down into the canyon itself. 

One of the more popular trails is Bright Angel Trail.  This dirt trail is 6 miles to the furtherest point and is well-maintained.  Note that it is not recommended to attempt the rim to river hike and back in one day.  It is too strenuous. 

We hiked to the first rest house and back.  This means we descended a mile and a half down into the canyon, making for a 3 mile round trip hike. 

I must tell you that the trail is steep with tons of switchbacks.  The trek back up is a workout. 

As stated before, I have a paralyzing fear of heights.   The first couple switchbacks are blind turns that practically sent me into panic mode.  I was slowly inching along the mountain face for quite some time.  Julie had to do a lot of coaxing to get me to continue. 

After the first couple bends, it gets easier.  The views are fantastic and you feel such a sense of accomplishment tackling this hike.  

Pro Tip:  If you hike any portion of the Bright Angel Trail, be sure to pack plenty of water and plan on twice the time for the hike back up to the rim.  

Ironically, our hike down was twice as long due to yours truly hugging the mountain face and setting such a slow pace trying to move past my fears.  For most, the hike down into the canyon is twice as fast.

Desert View Drive (Drive Into the Sand Bunker)

Desert View Drive offers a 23 mile scenic drive for private vehicles.  It starts near Grand Canyon Village and extends to the Desert View Services Area near the east entrance. 

There are six developed viewpoints with parking and five other unmarked pullouts.  Julie and I thoroughly enjoyed this scenic drive.  The views are spectacular at each and every spot.

Hermit Road (Hermit the Frog)

Hermit Road offers a scenic drive starting on the west side of Grand Canyon Village that follows the canyon rim for 7 miles to Hermits Rest.  This road is accessible by shuttle bus most of the year but allows access to private vehicles December through February. 

You can hop along this road in your car for breathtaking photos at nine different viewpoints.  Another reason to visit in winter.

Don’t Forget the Forest

Most people visit Grand Canyon, as they should, for the canyon.  Do not forget the forest.  It is beautiful in its own right. 

There are paths for walking and biking through various sections of the park.  It is peaceful and offers potential opportunities to view wildlife. 

There are a few areas with picnic tables.  Julie and I took advantage of this and had a private picnic lunch with a bunch of chirping birds.  We observed a woodpecker determinedly pecking at a tree as bark chips fell to the ground.  Nature is amazing…

TRAVEL AND ACCOMMODATIONS

Closest Airport to Grand Canyon (Landing Spot)

The nearest commercial airports for Grand Canyon are Flagstaff, Las Vegas and Phoenix. 

Being the closest to the canyon, we attempted to book flights to Flagstaff.  In theory, this sounded great.  In practice, it was not.  We found flight options to be limited and car rentals to be non-existent. 

There were many flights into and out of Phoenix.  To our pleasant surprise, there were loads of rental cars available.  We had heard many horror stories about trying to find a rental car during COVID.  With flexibility on flights and a car in hand, we chose Phoenix as our landing spot.

Home Base

We chose Flagstaff as our home base.  We loved this location due to her proximity to Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest and Sedona.  Approximate drive times are as follows:

  • Grand Canyon – 1 1/2 hours
  • Petrified Forest – 2 hours
  • Sedona – 3/4 hour

Flagstaff to Grand Canyon

A popular route from Flagstaff to Grand Canyon is to take Interstate 40 west to Williams, Arizona, then Highway 64 north to the South Rim entrance. 

Vegetation is sparse on this mostly barren land.  There are a few odd sections of rough, jagged rock right next to the road.  As you get closer to the canyon, trees are in greater abundance with the emergence of Kaibab Forest. 

Note that a lot of semi-trucks travel on Interstate 40.  That may be an understatement.  On our first evening drive back to Flagstaff, there was an endless parade of semi-trucks.  Neither Julie nor I had ever seen so many trucks in our lives.  Keep this in mind when planning your travels.

Highway 180 Arizona (Path Less Traveled)

An alternate route from Flagstaff is Highway 180 west to Valle, Arizona then Highway 64 north. 

This is mostly a two-lane highway.  You will pass through some residential areas and see a couple large, sprawling ranches and more trees along the way. 

The speed limits are lower, but the traffic is lighter.  We found this to be a more relaxing drive. 

Pro Tip:  Fuel up 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours outside Grand Canyon.  Gas is more expensive the closer you get to the national park.  Hailing from southwest Ohio, we found gas to be $0.75 to $1.00 more per gallon.

Home for the Holidays

Julie and I stayed at Hampton Inn & Suites Flagstaff.  The hotel was clean.  The staff was friendly and helpful.  A hot breakfast was offered each morning. 

Mountains loom in the not too distant horizon.  The lobby had a Christmas tree with bright, colorful lights and an inviting sofa next to a warm, cozy fire.  It almost felt like home.

PLAN YOUR GRAND CANYON TRIP

I firmly believe everyone should visit Grand Canyon at least once.  She offers breathtaking vista views of unparalleled size and beauty, unique wildlife and the opportunity to connect with nature in a surreal world. 

Both daredevils and scare devils can find adventures to meet their needs.  Consider visiting in winter when the crowds are lighter and temperatures are milder. 

Be sure to plan ahead by visiting the Grand Canyon National Park website to check for current conditions and updates.  We hope this article inspires you to plan your Grand Canyon adventure. 

It feels good to be lost in the right direction…

Check out our other national park guides:

About the author

We are Scott and Julie at Miles with McConkey. After nearly 30 years, we took a leap of faith out of the corporate world to enjoy a life of travel and adventure. We hope to inspire you to find ways to travel more and enjoy life now.