Visiting the Grand Canyon in Winter and Summer
One Of America's Most Popular National Parks
Arizona’s Grand Canyon is one of America’s most popular national parks, with millions of people from nations all over the world visiting it every year.
With its spectacular beauty and grand size, the Grand Canyon is one of the many natural wonders found in the American West. While it is a great place to visit any time of year, a visit following a recent snowstorm is particularly remarkable.
Even Though the Grand Canyon Is in Sunny Arizona, It Still Gets Snow in Winter!
Arizona is a sunbelt state known for its warm weather, sunshine and deserts. However, in addition to its deserts, Arizona is also home to mountains and high plateaus. These parts of the state have cold weather and snow during the winter.
Some people don't realize this and are surprised when, while enjoying Southern Arizona’s warm and sunny winter weather, they are advised to pack boots and warm clothing for their planned weekend trip to the Grand Canyon, where the weather is likely close to zero and the ground covered with snow.
Visiting the Grand Canyon in Winter
My wife and I have visited the Grand Canyon a number of times, including a couple of times in winter. Our most recent trip occurred as we were returning from a vacation with our daughter and son-in-law in California and Nevada during which a heavy snowstorm hit the higher altitudes in the West (it just rained where we were). We left for home a couple of days after the storm and saw news reports stating that roads had been cleared and that Grand Canyon National Park South Rim had reopened.
Most of the roads and parking lots within the park had been plowed and the Visitor Center and many of the shops and restaurants had reopened. Arriving at the Park we spent about three hours walking around and taking pictures outside.
When it snows in Arizona many people immediately start building snowmen and there were snowmen everywhere we went. Most of the sidewalks leading from the parking lots to the Canyon Rim, restrooms and other buildings had been cleared of snow but some did have icy spots which were slippery. There were also paths which had been created due to numbers of people having trekked over them earlier in the day. The temperature was in the 30s, which required warm clothing.
Deciding to spend the night in the area, I was able to get a room for us at the Red Feather Motel in Tusayan, a small city eight miles south of the Main South Rim Entrance. The town consists mostly of motels, restaurants and other tourist facilities, along with some housing for those who work in the local tourist industry.
After dark, Tusayan was lit up with Christmas lights, which was a beautiful sight.
Visiting the Grand Canyon
The South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is open year round except when heavy snow forces the Park to close for a day or two while crews clear both the roads leading to the Park as well as roads and parking lots within the Park.
There are two parts to the Park. The South Rim is the destination for 90% of the people who visit the park each year (total visitors in 2018, the most recent year for figures, was 6.38 million). The South Rim is more accessible, with more tourist services and faster access to major airports and other transportation centers, while the North Rim is remote and has fewer accommodations for tourists.
Both the North and South Rims are located within the Park boundaries and, at their nearest point, are a mere 30 miles from each other. However, due to the mountain terrain of Northern Arizona, travel by car between the two Rims requires a three-and-a-half-hour, 277-mile drive.
The other option is to hike across the Canyon. The distance from rim to rim is about 30 miles however the long winding trail down one side of the canyon and up the other side takes hikers about 13 hours. The hike back is equally as long.
Traveling to Grand Canyon National Park
There are many options for visiting the South Rim, or both rims if traveling by car. Both Phoenix, Arizona, and Las Vegas, Nevada, have major international airports where one can rent a car and drive to the Grand Canyon. Las Vegas is a little over 4 hours away by car, and Phoenix about three-and-a-half hours by car. Flagstaff and other cities closer to the Grand Canyon are served by some domestic commercial airlines. Car rentals and bus tours can be obtained in these cities as well
Both domestic and foreign tour services offer a variety of bus tours to the Grand Canyon or longer ones to the Grand Canyon and other major tourist sites in the American West. These generally leave from large airports on the West Coast and other major cities in the West.
Places to Stay at the Grand Canyon
In addition to camping, there are six hotels within the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park as well as camping and one hotel in the North Rim. These are luxury hotels with prices to match. All recommend making reservations well in advance.
Tusayan, which is located 8 miles south of the main entrance to the South Rim has a number of motels. The Red Feather Lodge where we stayed is located in Tusayan and is a very nice place. We stayed there on the Sunday after Thanksgiving and paid $90 for the night. I suspect the price is considerably higher during peak times and probably requires advance reservations at those times.
The Cameron Trading Post in Cameron, Arizona, located 32 miles east of the East Entrance to the South Rim has a large and very nice motel on the premises. There may also be a couple of motels nearby that I am not aware of in the area. In my experience, Flagstaff, an hour-and-a-half drive to the south, offers a number of good motels with reasonable prices. The prices fluctuate depending upon the time of year and, during peak travel times, may have no vacancy unless you have advance reservations.
On the North Rim of Grand Canyon National Park, there is one hotel and camping sites in the Park, both of which are available from May 15th to October 15th. Reservations should be made well in advance. There are a number of good motels in Page, Arizona, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the North Rim Visitor Center, as well as some motels in Kanab, Utah, which is an hour-and-a-half drive from the North Rim Visitor Center.
We have stayed in motels in both towns and they were nice. There are also a couple or so small motels along highway 89A that runs between Page and Kanab, and these are a little closer to the North Rim section of the Park.
Traveling to the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon is 277 miles wide and 18 miles wide. Most, but not all of the Grand Canyon is located within the 1,904-square-mile Grand Canyon National Park (the park itself is larger, in terms of square miles, than the State of Rhode Island). The Canyon and Park are both located in a semi-remote area of Northern Arizona with the South Rim surrounded by the Kaibab National Forest only a few very small towns nearby.
The most common way to get to the Grand Canyon South Rim is by car or private tour bus. However, travelers can also travel to the Grand Canyon from major U.S. cities by bus, train and charter air services (there is a small airport in Tusayan).
Some shuttle services offer service from certain cities to an area within the Park known as Grand Canyon Village. Grand Canyon Railway offers various tour packages on its classic train that runs between Williams, AZ (about 59 miles south of the Park) and the Park’s Grand Canyon Village and return. AmTrack offers service from various U.S. cities to Flagstaff where travelers use a shuttle service to the Grand Canyon Railway depot in nearby Williams, AZ.
Finally, some cities in Arizona have charter air services to the Grand Canyon airport near Tusayan
As to the North Rim, which is basically open from March 15th to October 15th, the best way to reach it is by car. There are some bus tours mostly from Las Vegas and helicopter (which are usually flyovers and don’t land) also mostly from Las Vegas.
Parking and Entrance Fees
The basic Grand Canyon National Park entrance fee is $35 for a private vehicle pass that enables the vehicle and its passengers to enter and exit the park (both South Rim and North Rim) for up to 7 days. With the pass you can remain in the park for 7 days either camping or staying at one of the lodges on site or you can use the pass to enter and exit as many times as you wish during the 7 days. The fee for up to 7 days for a single individual entering on foot or bicycle is $20 and $30 for those entering on a motorcycle. There are other special passes—senior, handicapped, military, etc.—at different rates and conditions for those who qualify.
Tour buses and other tour or shuttle generally include the entrance fee in their price.
Parking in the Park is free and the Park has a fleet of shuttle buses that travel around the park stopping at all the points of interest in the Park to discharge and take on new passengers at each point. There is no charge to ride the shuttles and the busses come by each point about every 15 or 20 minutes. During peak times the wait may be longer when the number of people waiting to get on a bus is more than the space available on the bus.
During the peak summer season and some other popular travel times parking space in the Park fills up fast. From March through September the Park provides a free shuttle bus service from Tusayan to the Park Visitor Center. This is a 20 minute trip with buses generally leaving every 20 minutes from 8:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. (dates and times may change from year to year, so check the schedule for current information). People using this service MUST purchase a pass prior to boarding the bus. Park entrance passes may be purchased at various sites in Tusayan (the link above lists the locations currently selling passes) or you can purchase an entrance pass online. If you do purchase online be sure to either print it out or have a digital copy ready to show at the entrance as the pass is good for 7 days and will have to be shown each day you intend to use to shuttle from Tusayan to the Park (once in the Park you do not need to show it when riding the shuttle buses inside the park).
Possible Fee Savings Available When Traveling By Car
If you are planning to visit the Grand Canyon by car (your car, a rental or joining other family or friends in their car) as well as do some additional sightseeing beyond the Grand Canyon you should check out annual pass options for access to U.S. Federal recreation lands (i.e. National Parks, National Monuments, National Forests and some other recreation areas owned and managed by the Federal Government). A large percent of the land in the American West is owned by the Federal Government and a fair amount of that land is open to public recreation use—for a fee.
As of this writing, if you are an American citizen or legal permanent resident and age 62 or older you can purchase a lifetime pass for $80 which will admit you and those traveling in a single, non-commercial car with you to almost all Federal Fee areas that charge by car or you and up to 3 other adults over 16 (children 16 and under are free) to areas that charge entrance fees by person.
There is also a $20 Senior Annual pass good for one year with the requirements and benefits the same as the lifetime pass but limited to one year. If either of these are purchased online there is an additional handling and mailing charge which doesn’t apply to in-person purchases at sites where they are sold. A driver's license or other proof of age is required to both purchase either of these and when using them to enter a fee area.
For people who are not 62 years old or older or who are not American citizens or legal permanent residents (or part of a group, like active duty military members and dependents, or members of other special category) there is the America Beautiful pass that currently sells for $80 (plus a $10 additional fee if purchased online) and is good for one year from the date of purchase. Like the Senior passes, this pass allows free admittance to the cardholder and all accompanying passengers in a single, non-commercial car or, in the case of per person fees, free admission to the cardholder and up to 3 accompanying adults 16 or older (children under 16 are admitted free at such sites).
Unless you are traveling by car just to the Grand Canyon and back, purchasing one of these passes may result in considerable savings. I can think of eight Federal fee areas my wife and I have visited that are located along the four-hour drive from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon. Per-car fees range from $5 to $20 or $30 per site and the per person site fees are around $10 per person. If you are considering side trips on a longer stay, you might save some money with one of these passes.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2020 Chuck Nugent