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Visiting the Grand Canyon in Winter

Kristen Howe visited the Grand Canyon in the winter with her family. It was an experience she will never forget.

Explore the Grand Canyon

Explore the Grand Canyon

So Much to Do

When you visit the Grand Canyon, there is a wide variety of things to do. From ample hiking, mule rides, and souvenir shopping to exploring the canyon by various tours, enjoying dining and lodging nearby, or visiting a history room, there is something for everyone. Make sure to bring your camera as you can expect to see plenty of animals and plants, and the amazing canyon shots will be definite keepers for the photo album.

If you're looking for spectacular photo shots, helicopter tours offer a unique vantage of the splendor of the canyon. Additionally, in one of the aircrafts, you can travel to the bottom of the canyon in less than a half-hour.

A more old-fashioned journey down can be taken on the back of a donkey or mule. It takes 3-4 hours to meet up with the park rangers at the bottom. The well-worn trail down the rim to the bottom remains open in winter.

Land, river, or train, the guided tours in and around the Grand Canyon require a fee. Travelers can hike trails for free, but only experienced and properly equipped hikers should spend time on the trails on their own.

View the Grand Canyon with the Skywalk

View the Grand Canyon with the Skywalk

A Wondrous Beauty

"Breathtaking" was my first thought as daylight dawned over the Grand Canyon, and the colors of this natural landmark awakened.

It was the first day of our family visit as we watched the fog of early morning lift above the canyon revealing a naturally landscaped portrait. Along with the hues of browns, reds, grays, and purples in the stone layered in the walls, there were pinks and greens revealed in the lower layers of the strata, and at the base there were greens and browns in the vegetation. The colors climbed toward the very edge of the cliffs, and the high walls shielded the Colorado River, a ribbon of blue below. I was left breathless. In January, the South Rim glistened with winter sunlight.

The Grand Canyon is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. When we got down into the natural crevasse, I was amazed at the beauty, which began at the rim and shimmered deep into its depths. The Colorado River ran through it. As I examined the layers of the walls covered in plants and patchy moss, I felt alive and appreciative of life.

A view of Arizona's winter wonderland

A view of Arizona's winter wonderland

Picture Perfect View

We observed a group that decided to hike down the path into the canyon. They looked like they came from a cross-country or track-and-field college team. Hiking down was an exciting option as it allows an exploration of the canyon from a unique perspective. In winter particularly though, be aware that walking can be treacherous due to snow and ice building up on the steps and trail. Lower temperatures and the movement of daylight across the canyon leaves some areas without direct sunlight to melt the slick spots.

If you're not feeling like risking the slippery trip down into the canyon, lookout points on the North and South Rim offer spectacular views of the canyon walls, including the wide variety of trees, bushes, moss, and other greenery below. Do take note though that the North Rim is closed in winter.

Capture memories that last forever

Capture memories that last forever

Precious Kodak Moments: Plants and Animals

Whether journeying via a guided bus tour or traveling by car, the South Rim's scenic points all along the road offer views from various angles. The natural stone formations offered dramatic and unexpected surprises, including caves and ledges that appear to reach out of the walls. I was surprised to even see a cave in the middle of the canyon’s formations—it was definitely worth a picture.

As far as vegetation goes, plants needing the most abundant water are found on the floor of the canyon, which bakes at 120 degrees Fahrenheit during summer. In winter, the temperatures are much milder and rain is more common. Drought-resistant vegetation is found further from the river. Visitors will see tamarack, yucca, agave, and numerous species of cacti along the walls and slopes of the canyon. In the winter, with the frost on the plants and snow on the ground, the scene looked quite amazing.

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While our visit happened on a slow day for the park animals, visitors can find numerous opportunities to witness the wildlife that flourishes in the canyon environment.

Visitors can see a wide variety of animals, including birds of prey such as peregrine falcons, hawks, and eagles. It's advisable to keep some distance and simply leave them alone for the safety of both the birds and the public.

Watching in amusement, I encountered an elk while traveling to the South Rim. It came out of the woods and greeted visitors as we waited for it to step off the road. Standing comfortably in full view of other tourists and us, the elk appeared to be in good shape and in fine color. Despite seeing one tourist who flaunted the park rules and exited his car to snap a picture, we stayed in our vehicle and obtained good photos.

The Grand Canyon National Park Is Located in Northern Arizona in Grand Canyon, Arizona

Winter Desert Hiking Tips

When exploring the Grand Canyon, especially in winter, there are safety tips and advice to keep in mind. It's important to have a checklist for items you want to carry and to know locations where you might take a break to eat and get warm.

Before you leave the hotel, make sure that you and each member of your party has a list of emergency numbers and information in case you get separated or have any problems. If you're traveling with a buddy, you can be assured that one of you can get help if there is any need.

Here are some additional suggestions:

  • To beat the crowds, it helps to arrive by 7:00 a.m., even during the winter season. The canyon can be chilly in the morning hours; it may warm up to subtropical temperatures with a high humidity by noon. Avoid hiking in the heat from 10 to 4 p.m.
  • Eat before, during, and after a hike. Also, eat before you're hungry to prevent fatigue and altitude sickness. Eat breakfast, and eat twice as much, when snacking and eating dinner. High-energy snacks throughout your excursion can give you the boost you'll need. Salty snacks will make you thirsty sooner but can also provide nourishment. Along with hard candy, some healthy ideas would be trail mix, or other on-the-go snacks, especially dried fruit and nuts and seeds. Bring extra snacks along on the trip.
  • Stay hydrated. Bottled water, sports and power drinks with electrolytes, and other refreshments can be purchased at souvenir shops and lookout points on your way to the canyon, or you can pack them up before you go. Bring more than you think you'll need. You should also drink before you're thirsty.
  • Pack light; remember that you'll have to carry gear with you. Be sure to pack enough additional supplies.
  • Bring suntan oil to protect you from the Arizona sun. Although it may be winter, the sun is still out there. Bring lipgloss or medicated lip balm for protection as well as sunglasses and a hat.
  • Be kind to yourself. People who have back or knee problems, asthma, heart problems, diabetes, and other health/medical problems should limit the exertion and exposure to heat. Those who have such concerns should attempt the trail only after consulting their physician.
  • Bring a map, compass, moleskin, and water purification tablets for backup. While most will make the trip without incident, it's wise to realize that accidents happen. Plan ahead. Bring a backpack with a first aid kit and extra supplies, and you'll be prepared for anything. You might also bring along an extra day's supply of food, a cellphone if you have one, or a portable CB radio, a whistle, a flare, and a light thermal blanket. Band-Aids and a topical ointment for any cuts or scrapes are also a good idea. Hikers who are prepared are those more likely to cope with accidents.
  • If you should get lost, use your signal mirror and send a message with another hiker. Make sure you give the following information to them: the nature of the problem, the location, the number of people involved, and a physical description.
  • Wear comfortable hiking clothes. Dress in layers, so you can remove pieces as the day warms. Support from appropriate hiking shoes and boots that are well-fitted and properly broken-in will prevent sore and aching feet. Avoid wearing open-toed shoes or sandals. Wear comfortable hiking clothes.
  • Rangers are stationed at the park entrance, exit, and at the bottom of the canyon if you have any questions, need directions, or run into any problems.
  • Bathroom facilities aren't provided. In the canyon, you're in nature and roughing it. If you have to go to the bathroom, it should be buried under six to eight inches of mineral soil. If you have to bury it, you'll need a shovel. Remember to bring toilet paper, which should be carried in plastic or biodegradable bags, for non-liquid human waste.
  • As well as having no bathrooms, be aware that there is no food or other refreshments at the bottom of the canyon. You should bring your own.
  • Use a walking or hiking stick. Stretching before hiking is helpful to prepare your muscles for the trip. For the sake of safety and courtesy, stay on the trail, never shortcut switchbacks (zigzag trails), and give uphill hikers the right of way.
  • Taking frequent 30-minute breaks every hour to rest and refuel is a wise idea. You can also take in the beauty and wonders of the cavern, chat, and enjoy your snacks. Rest for five to seven minutes during that time. Sit down in the shade and let the gravity help drain the metabolic waste products from your legs by propping them above the heart level.
  • Pace yourself. Avoid huffing and puffing. An aerobic-paced jog (baby steps) will make you last longer on the hike and feel well at the end. The best safety tip of them all is to keep focused. If it should happen and you get lost, STOP hiking. Sit down and wait for help to arrive. Call for help.
  • Be aware of the time on the descent. Know that however long it takes you to reach the bottom, it will take twice as long to reach the top again. It takes one-third of your time to descend, and two-thirds of your time to ascend.
  • Limited daylight could limit your view of the landscape; therefore you should keep your flashlight close by and watch where you're going.
  • Don't expect to go down to the river and back in one day. It's a long hike from going down to the canyon and back up, so plan for a two-day trip. There are handrails and stairs to make the journey, but use caution and watch your footing. You can camp back-country at the nearest campgrounds in the area.

Other Items to Bring

Small flashlight, extra batteries, extra bulb


Knife or utility tool

Extra bag (to carry out trash)

Old blanket or shower liner (for sitting on wet ground)

Signal mirror

Matches and/or a lighter

Prescription medications or allergy medicine

Aspirin/pain reliever

Visiting Arizona

Places to Visit and Final Thoughts

The Blue Angel Lodge offers lodging and warm relaxing meals beside a crackling fire. You can even rent a cabin if you're so inclined. Be sure to check out their history room to brush up on the region. It was a happy surprise to learn the classic film, The Harvey Girls with Judy Garland was shot there. Memorabilia of the movie, such as the actual script and photos of the actors, are on exhibit, which also includes the history of the real Harvey Girls with the photos that inspired the movie. We made a point of stopping and even signing our names in the guest book. It was worth a visit to learn more about the history of the Grand Canyon while we warmed up before lunch and shopped for souvenirs.

Be sure to visit the Grand Restaurant in Tusayan, which features American Indian performers in full dress who entertain travelers with tribal songs and dancing. Here you can sample Western dishes and other native cuisines that offer a splendid array of tastes.

My family had an awesome, delightful evening at this restaurant. It was an experience all on its own for my palate as I chose a spicy dish that I didn't recognize. I thought my mouth had been set on fire, but water and soda helped to soothe and cool my throat. Not even the spice attack on my mouth could have cast a cloud on my time there though—it was a memory I knew I'd never forget.

Farewell Arizona

I was sad to head home to a cold, wintry day in Ohio with two thin inches of thick snow and the temperature in the 30s. After the loss of my grandfather in December 2005, I needed this particular trip to help me heal. During a rough patch, this trip helped to lift my spirits. I found myself smiling, laughing, and enjoying time spent with my family. It brought us even closer than before. It's a wonderful place to commune with nature and to reflect and witness the glory of nature all around.

Fee and Contact Information

Fee Info:

  • Entry fees: $10 for individuals for up to seven days
  • Vehicles: $20
  • Children under five: free
  • Backcountry camping: $15/night

Contact Info:

Grand Canyon National Park,

P.O. Box 129,

Grand Canyon, AZ 86023


Phone number: (918) 638-7888

Viewing Arizona's Winter Wonderland Over the Grand Canyon

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