Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona is so heavily visited, the National Park Service even has a web page about crowding at the South Rim and how to avoid it. There are tips on how to make the most of your visit and avoid crowds. My family and I visited during late winter, and found this is one way to at least lessen the crowds; however, visiting the Grand Canyon during the winter is not all rosy. There are some advantages and disadvantages to coming to the park in the winter.
First, a few statistics about the Grand Canyon NP. The gorge is 1 mile deep and 277 miles long, with the Colorado River running through it. The North Rim is separated from the South Rim by the 10 mile wide canyon in between. The entire park is 1,217,403.32 acres but surprisingly this is only the 11th biggest US national park by size. There are six national parks in Alaska alone that are bigger than Grand Canyon National Park.
In 2016 almost 6 million people visited the park, with the vast majority of visitors during the summer months and the least visitors during December, January, and February. We chose to visit in early March and found it was definitely not as crowded as during the summer. It also wasn’t as busy during the week as it was on the weekend, not surprisingly.
What are some advantages of visiting Grand Canyon National Park during the late winter? (The Good)
Obviously, the main advantage is crowds are less. However, there was a big surge of visitors on Saturday that we didn’t see on the days before that. So, even during the winter, it’s still best to come during the week if at all possible.
Along with the trails and roads not being as crowded, restaurants also aren’t as crowded during the winter months.
It’s also nice to see the Grand Canyon when it’s snow-covered, and see the park in a way many people don’t get to experience.
Because it’s cooler during the winter, it’s more conducive to hiking if you plan on going on some long hikes down into the canyon. The temperature rises 5.5 degrees for every 1000 feet you lose in elevation, so the floor of the Grand Canyon is often as hot as 106 degrees Fahrenheit in July. If you plan on going to the Grand Canyon Skywalk on the West Rim, the average daily high in July is 116 degrees. July and August are also when monsoon rains occur here. In contrast, high temperatures during the winter are usually in the 30’s and 40’s.
What are some disadvantages of visiting Grand Canyon National Park during the late winter? (The Bad)
If you have your heart set on going the North Rim, it is closed during the winter months, so your only option is the South Rim.
It can get quite windy during the winter months and a cold wind on top of a high around 35 degrees can make for a chilly hike.
During the winter, most of the trails often have at least some areas where they are slick with ice and/or snow. Even on the popular Rim Trail, the majority of the trail had slick spots and we had to watch our footing.
Any other disadvantages? (The Ugly)
Mules are on Kaibab Trail during the winter and in fact year-round. During the winter the top of the trail is snowy and icy, and further down the trail where it is warmer, there are areas where it can be extremely muddy. This combined with piles and piles of mule poop leads to one smelly, messy trail. I’m not sure which was worse, the ice and trying to not fall at the top of the trail, or the mud and mule poop later on the trail. My daughter was actually cheering when we came upon ice again after going through the thick, heavy mud for a while. At least the ice wasn’t trying to pull her shoes off her feet like the mud was! We did, thankfully, reach parts of the trail further down that were neither ice- nor mud-covered, and that was awesome!
Trails at the South Rim
There are five day hikes at the South Rim, with four being steep or very steep and only the Rim Trail is flat and easy. We spent most of our time on the Rim Trail and South Kaibab Trail but I’ll discuss them all briefly here.
The Rim Trail runs along the South Rim of the canyon, as you might guess by the name and is undoubtedly one of the more popular trails because of its accessibility. You can hop on a shuttle and take it to the next stop and hike as little or much as you want, before getting on the next shuttle. The Rim Trail runs from the village area to Hermit’s Rest for 13 miles and is mostly paved and flat. There are 13 shuttle stops from South Kaibab Trailhead to Hermit’s Rest Trailhead. Shuttles run March 1 to November 30.
Bright Angel Trail is a steep but maintained dirt trail that begins near Bright Angel Lodge and is 12 miles long roundtrip. Park rangers recommend you turn around after going 3 miles at 3 Mile Resthouse and during the summer not going past 4.5 miles one-way at Indian Garden. There are mules on this trail.
South Kaibab Trail is a steep but maintained dirt trail that begins south of Yaki Point (a shuttle stop) on Yaki Point Road. There are great views along the trail, including one with the funny-named “Ooh-Aah Point” at 0.9 miles into the hike. By this point, you’ve lost 600 feet in elevation, from the start at 7260 feet. Cedar Ridge, at 1.5 miles one-way is where park rangers recommend people who are not used to hiking or have gotten a late start to turn around and are adamant that summer hikers not go beyond this point. You don’t get your first real view of the river until Skeleton Point, 3 miles into the hike, at an elevation of 5200 feet. This is your recommended turn-around point for a day hike, presuming you’ve gotten an early start, are used to hiking, and it’s not summer. Again, there are mules on this trail.
Hermit Trail is steep, strenuous, rocky, and unmaintained trail that begins near Hermits Rest shuttle stop and during the spring, summer, and fall is only accessible by shuttle bus (no private vehicles). This is definitely a trail for experienced hikers. You have two options on this trail for day hikes, either go to Santa Maria Spring, 2.5 miles one way or go to Dripping Springs, 3.5 miles one way. The advantage to this trail is there are no mules.
Grandview Trail is similar to Hermit Trail, in that it is also a steep, strenuous, unmaintained dirt trail with tougher conditions than either Bright Angel or South Kaibab Trail. The trailhead can be reached by vehicle (not shuttle) at Grandview Point, 12 miles east of the village on Desert View Drive. Day hikes are to Coconino Saddle (1.1 miles one way) or Horseshoe Mesa/Toilet Junction (3 miles one way). However, day hikes to Horseshoe Mesa are not recommended during the summer due to strenuous conditions of the trail beyond Coconino Saddle.
Regardless of which trail you choose, do not attempt to hike from the rim down to the river in one day during the summer months. Even during the cooler months it’s not recommended unless you start very early in the day and are an experienced desert hiker.
There are several trails at the North Rim, none of which we did since the North Rim is unaccessible during the winter months. You can read about North Rim trails plus South Rim trails here.
How to Get Here
Most people fly into Las Vegas, Nevada and drive the approximately 270 mile route to the Grand Canyon or fly into Phoenix, Arizona and drive the approximately 232 miles from there. Rental cars abound at both of these international airports. Tours can also be arranged at both places if you feel unsure or uneasy about driving that distance on your own and/or are from another country and are uneasy about driving in the States.
Where to Stay
If you want to maximize your time inside the park (which I highly recommend), there are several options for lodging in the park. At the South Rim, you can stay in the more crowded Historic District and choose from five different lodges, or you can stay in the quieter Market Plaza near the Visitor Center at Yavapai Lodge or Trailer Village RV Park. We chose to stay at Yavapai Lodge and found the motel rooms outdated but quiet. You can read more about the rooms in the park, including what’s available at the North Rim here. All of these places tend to fill several months in advance, especially during the summer months, so make sure you make reservations as far in advance as possible.
Where to Eat
Inside the park, there are several options for meals as well as groceries. Most of the lodges have a restaurant and there are some coffee shops and taverns scattered throughout the South Rim. The Canyon Village Market General Store is a pretty decent-sized grocery store that also has firewood and souvenirs. Prices didn’t seem too terrible here either. You can also get snacks at Hermit’s Rest Snack Bar at the end of Hermit Road. Although closed during the winter, you can eat at the Grand Canyon Lodge Dining Room or Deli in the Pines at the North Rim. Outside the park, you can find groceries and restaurants 7 miles south of Grand Canyon Village in the town of Tusayan.
Other Things to Do
Depending on the weather, how much time you have to spend here, and your interests, there are many options of things to do at Grand Canyon NP. As outlined by the National Park Service, you could take a mule trip and go along the canyon rim or down to the bottom and stay at Phantom Ranch, or take a bicycle tour, go whitewater rafting, or even participate in a Grand Canyon Association Field Institute Learning Adventure.
Admission to the park is valid for seven days and includes both the North and South Rim. A Grand Canyon National Park Vehicle Permit is $30 and admits a single vehicle (non-commercial) and everyone in the vehicle.
A Grand Canyon National Park Annual Pass is good for 12 months and costs $60. The America the Beautiful Annual Pass costs $80 and allows free entrance to all national parks and federal recreational lands. The Annual “Every Kid in a Park” 4th Grade Pass is free (!) for US 4th graders who have obtained the paper voucher through the Every Kid in a Park website. Active duty military are eligible for a free annual pass. The America the Beautiful Senior Pass is $10, and the America the Beautiful Access Pass and Volunteer Pass are both free.
My advice is get an America the Beautiful Annual Pass and combine a visit to the Grand Canyon with one to Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon National Park. That’s what we did, and it made for one spectacular family vacation!