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With a dusting of fresh snow frosting its rust-tinted sandstone walls, Grand Canyon National Park is a simply magical sight.
With fewer crowds and cooler temperatures, many would say that winter is perhaps the best time to visit this bucket list-worthy ravine.
Though the stunning North Rim is shuttered during winter months, Grand Canyon’s South Rim is open year-round, meaning that hikers and road trippers can escape the summer throngs (and scorching weather) and enjoy a quieter park experience.
It’s a great season for spotting wildlife (against a backdrop of fluffy white powder, they’re easier to see), stargazing, backpacking, and photography–if you don’t mind the occasional cold fingers and toes. Read on for some of our favorite things to do and places to stay while visiting the Grand Canyon in wintertime.
Things to Consider
- Grand Canyon’s North Rim is closed to vehicles during winter months, typically from December 1st to May 14th. Only experienced winter campers should even attempt snowshoeing or skiing to the North Rim, due to its heavy snow and high elevation.
- From October 15th to November 30th, the North Rim undergoes a transitionary phase, where its services and lodging close, but the roads and trails are still open for day use visitors (see the North Rim’s best hikes).
- Though temperatures by the Colorado River remain temperate throughout the winter, weather on the high-elevation South Rim is downright frigid, especially at night and in the morning. Check multiple weather forecasts before heading out and plan for the rim to be about 20 degrees cooler than the bottom of the canyon.
- If you’re planning on doing some hiking during the winter (all South Rim trails stay open and park shuttles run regularly), always pack an extra layer and a set of microspikes or traction devices for your feet. Expect trails to carry snow and ice near the South Rim.
Grand Canyon Wintertime Activities
The good news about visiting Grand Canyon in wintertime is that many of the same, Instagram-worthy activities are still accessible, you might just have to brave an inch or two of snow on the ground.
From easy South Rim vista hikes to mule trips down to the mighty Colorado River, there’s sure to be an adventure for everyone in your crew.
South Rim Hiking
Grand Canyon’s Rim Trail is easily one of the best accessible (and family friendly) trails in the whole of the National Park System. Stretching from the South Kaibab trailhead all the way to the stone structures at Hermits Rest, this flat and unbelievably scenic trek can be done as a long, 13-mile (one way) trip utilizing the park’s shuttle system.
Or, travelers can simply pick the section they want to explore and create a choose your own adventure-style day. No matter what, the views are sure to be awe-inspiring. Highlights include Mather Point, Trailview Overlook, and Hopi Point.
If you’re looking for a more strenuous day out, you could venture onto one of the park’s infamous downhill trails, gleaning epic views of hanging gardens, vermillion rock escarpments, and the Colorado River along the way. Some of the best day trips along the Bright Angel Trail are the six-mile out-and-back to Three Mile Resthouse and the twelve-mile journey to Plateau Point.
Itching to check out South Kaibab and the eastern edge of the park? A short 1.8-mile out-and-back to the perfectly named Ooh-Aah Point will not disappoint.
Related read: 8 Best Grand Canyon Hiking Tour Companies
One of the best things about a winter visit to the Grand Canyon (apart from the lack of crowded walkways) is the fact that private vehicles are allowed on Hermit Road from December through February. This means that road trip-loving travelers can enjoy the west rim of the canyon at their own pace, stopping at jaw-dropping sights like The Abyss, a harrowing 3,000-foot drop down to the Tonto Platform.
Another excellent option for those who prefer to cruise the canyon, rather than stomp along trails, is 23-mile Desert View Drive, on the park’s eastern side. Nab some striking views of layered Paleozoic rocks at Moran Point, then continue onward to the Mary Colter-designed Desert View Watchtower, a National Historic Landmark.
Related read: Best Stops on a Las Vegas to Grand Canyon Road Trip
If you don’t mind tossing a set of microspikes or Yaktrax into your pack, winter is a phenomenal time to backpack to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Temperatures are comfy near the river, and backcountry camping permits that are hard to come by in summer months are suddenly much more available to the average Joe.
Ignore TLC and chase some waterfalls on lesser-known canyon trails, or check the storied Bright Angel Trail off your bucket list. Pro tip: Phantom Ranch still serves its famous stew dinners all winter long.
If you’re really looking for a mega-adventure, you could even hike Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim during the winter months, just be ready for snow, ice, and no services when you reach the northern turnaround point.
Mule Riding and Trips
Though they tend to book up well in advance, there’s nothing quite like venturing into the Grand Canyon on the back of a mule, the way early tourists did when it was a mere fledgling park. Xanterra, the park’s main concessionaire, offers year-round mule rides and overnight trips on the canyon’s South Rim, provided that guests are at least 9 years old and weigh less than 225 pounds.
The two-hour Canyon Vistas ride meanders along the East Rim Trail, with wranglers stopping several times throughout the journey to provide fascinating historical and geological information about the national park. Trips depart from the Yaki Barn, near Grand Canyon Village.
Of course, if you’re dying to visit Phantom Ranch without slogging down to the bottom of “The Big Ditch” on foot, Xanterra also hosts overnight trips to these historic cabins at the bottom of the canyon (steak dinner included). Plus, from November through March, travelers can opt for a two-night excursion, as lodging restrictions are looser in wintertime.
Related read: 8 of the Most Beautiful National Parks in the U.S.
Polar Express Train Ride
Every year, in November and December, the Grand Canyon Railway turns its vintage train rides into a Polar Express-themed winter wonderland for the young and young at heart.
Departing from Williams, Arizona, this evening trip takes approximately 90 minutes and ventures to “the North Pole,” where kids get to visit with Santa, drink hot cocoa, and feast on cookies. It’s one of the most unique holiday celebrations the parks have to offer.
If you’re planning a winter trip after New Year’s Day, have no fear. The Grand Canyon Railway runs all year long, shuttling train afficionados to and from the circa-1910 Grand Canyon Depot on the South Rim daily.
Related read: These Scenic Train Rides in Arizona Will Blow Your Mind
Weather and Road Closures
Though Grand Canyon’s North Rim roads are closed to visitors after December 1st, roads along the South Rim remain drivable, except in inclement weather. The South Rim receives an average of 58 inches of snow annually (due to its 7,000-foot elevation), but roads are plowed, and the snow often melts quickly.
Check park and area road conditions before heading out, especially after a storm, to be sure byways are accessible and safe. The NPS Mobile App (download before arriving, as the park has limited cell service) also offers up-to-date road and weather info.
Winter is the only time of year that private vehicles can travel along scenic Hermit Road, making it a truly special time for vista-seeking road trippers to explore the canyon.
Average temperatures on the South Rim during the wintertime vary from lows of 18 degrees to highs of 45 degrees Fahrenheit. The bottom of the canyon is much milder from December through February, with an average low of 36 degrees and a high of 62 degrees.
Related read: 9 Best National Parks to Visit in December
When winter strikes the Grand Canyon, glamping is out, but cozy cabins are in. Lodges (and, for the truly brave, Mather Campground) remain open along the South Rim and Grand Canyon Village, and Route 66 travelers will fall in love with nearby Williams, Arizona.
Whether your style is more parkitecture hotel or family-friendly log cabin, here are a few of our favorite stays.
El Tovar Hotel
First opened in 1905, the European-style El Tovar Hotel is routinely thought of as one of the crown jewels of national park lodges.
It’s one of the original hotels owned by the legendary Fred Harvey Company, boasting a comfortable lounge area with a massive stone fireplace and a fine dining room on the rim of the Grand Canyon.
Phantom Ranch-Inspired Cabin
Why hike all the way to Phantom Ranch when you can stay in a modern version of its cabins in Coconino County? Situated just 45 minutes from the national park, this adorable one bedroom, one bathroom cottage by Inn History is full of charm, from its vintage Grand Canyon photographs to its canoe coffee table and pictograph-inspired art.
Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins
Designed by legendary architect Mary Colter, Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins was originally created to be the common man’s answer to the elegant El Tovar Hotel, but these days, it’s a veritable work of art set near the park’s South Rim.
With a woodsy exterior that features locally-sourced stones and log beams, this stay oozes character. Rooms are inviting and well-appointed, too, with cozy sitting areas, modern baths, and vintage photographs.
Woodsy Log Cabin on Ten Acres
When you’re planning a wintertime trek over to Grand Canyon and planning to bring the whole family (or a group of park-addicted friends), this two bedroom log cabin should be your go-to.
Walk up to a forest-chic façade and a massive deck before opening the door to a comfortable living room and eat-in kitchen. Enjoy green, tree-filled views from the bedrooms, which are dressed in their cozy cabin finest.
Stylish Williams Studio with Fireplace
Full of fun textiles, flirty pops of color, and an elegant fireplace, this awesome studio in Williams is just an hour outside the park.
Featuring a quaint Murphy bed, a full kitchen, a living room with a Smart TV, and a shared, shaded outdoor space with a fire pit, this affordable duplex will help fulfill your Route 66 dreams.
Related read: 9 Amazingly Cozy Cabin Rentals in Williams, Arizona
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