Last updated 1/30/2020
I recently visited Grand Canyon National Park during the week between Christmas and New Years. I had a lot of doubts about going in the winter, and so many questions, so I’ve written my experience and research here for you!
What is the Grand Canyon and why should I visit?
This section almost feels unnecessary since the Grand Canyon is an internationally recognized natural attraction, but I don’t like to make assumptions about people’s life experiences so…Part of the US National Park Service, the Grand Canyon is a 277-mile long, 18-mile wide, 1-mile deep canyon. It’s known for being visually stunning because, in addition to viewpoints where you can see for 100+ miles, you can see the many layers of rocks that have been left exposed by the erosion from the Colorado River. It often appears on lists like the 7 Natural Wonders of the World. Great for those who love stunning views, hiking, rafting, and geology.
Is it open in winter?
Yes, the following attractions are open year-round:
- South Rim roads, visitors centers, parking lots, restaurants, and hiking trails
- The blue and orange shuttle bus routes (the park has free shuttles to help you get around and manage parking)
- Winter hiking and camping options are available
The following are closed in the winter:
- North Rim attractions close from October 15 – May 15, with roads usually closing in November depending on weather. Check site to see when they are open.
- The red and purple shuttle bus routes
- Activities such as mule rides and rafting
How do you get there?
- Fly. There’s a handful of airports in the vicinity including Flagstaff, Prescott, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. There’s even Grand Canyon National Park Airport right by the park. Most likely you will need to rent a car from the airport and drive to the park.
- Drive. If you’re local or it’s part of a larger trip, driving works too. Be aware of snow and ice in the winter. The South Rim attractions are located off Route 64 and you can drive in from the east or the south.
- Take the train. Yup, there’s a rail that will take you from Williams, AZ to the Grand Canyon. More here.
What’s the weather like?
- It’s cold. The first night I was there, there was a low of 3F (that’s-16C) and it was about 30F (-1C) during the day. With several warm layers and a sunny day, I felt quite comfortable walking around. I had bad luck because average winter temperatures are warmer than what I experienced. Be prepared and check the weather.
- It might snow. The Grand Canyon South Rim gets an average of about 50” of snow per year. It had recently snowed before my visit, so I had to contend with icy roads, unshoveled drives, and walking on packed snow…but this is part of what makes a winter visit so spectacular.
- It might be better than summer. Keep in mind that in the hottest days of summer, temperatures can reach 120F (49C). Winter doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?
What are the advantages of visiting in winter?
- Less crowded. More parking spots, shorter lines, and less people on hiking trails. But because I visited during a holiday week, it was much busier than I expected!
- Snow scenes and cooler weather
- Clearer views. Smog levels tend to be lower in the winter. I got lucky because there was not a cloud in the sky and I felt as though I could see forever…
- Hermit’s Road is open to traffic from December-February only. This road has many scenic viewpoints including my favorite of the whole trip, Hopi Point. The rest of the year, you can access Hermit Road by bus, bike, or foot only.
- Winter hiking and camping options.
What should I bring on my trip?
- Camera (obvi)
- Layers. Don’t assume averages are accurate, definitely check the weather before you go. Temps range from day to night and at different elevations, so layers are the best way to be prepared.
- Water, sunscreen, chapstick. Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean you’re not in the desert.
- Shoes that you can walk on packed snow comfortably. I wore waterproof hiking boots. Snow boots would not be inappropriate.
- Scraper for your car.
- Crampons/poles if hiking into canyon.
How much does it cost?
Park entry is $35 per vehicle and lasts for 7 days. All other costs such as transportation, lodging, and meals are based on your budget and taste. Book hotels early because the closest ones get booked and the remainder get pricey.
What’s a possible itinerary?
Arriving in late afternoon from Page, AZ, drive (1) Desert View Drive (Rt. 64) and stop at the Desert View Watchtower for the first glimpse of the canyon. Built in the style of the ancestral Puebloans and decorated with Hopi artwork, it pays tribute to Native Americans of the area and provides excellent views from the top.
The rest of the road offers stunning viewpoints. When I visited, it was icy/snowy due to a recent storm so I only stopped for this sunset pic…
(2) Spend the night in Tusayan, which is inside the park.
For day 2, start at the (3) Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Get there early to nab a parking spot! Walk west on the South Rim Trail, which borders the canyon. Covered in snow during my visit, it was still flat and easy with breathtaking viewpoints every few feet. I passed (4) Yavapai Point, then took (5) a left through the woods near the Amphitheater to arrive at (6) The Market to complete a 2-mile walk. The Market has a full service grocery store and a great deli for lunch, with fewer crowds than other areas of the park. Take the shuttle back to your car.
Drive (7) Hermit’s Road. Stop at Hopi Point, my favorite view of the trip (you can also park at Powell Point if the Hopi lot is full). End at Hermit’s Rest, where there’s a shop and rest area as well as Hermit’s Trailhead.
After 24 hours, there wasn’t much more that I wanted to do. I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough time, but I felt that it was enough. If you’re into winter hiking, you can go down into the canyon. I was not so adventurous though! I’d like to return in summer for mule rides, rafting, and the North Rim.