Visiting the Grand Canyon in winter can be an amazing experience. In the winter, you’ll find much smaller crowds and much cooler temperatures. That said, your days will be shorter, the North Rim is closed and snow could limit your activities at the South Rim. Still, we loved our December visit to the Grand Canyon and are not upset that we have to return to fully experience the park!
We only had one day for our winter visit to the Grand Canyon. And, sadly, that day was the Winter Solstice. That meant that our one day was the shortest day of the year, in terms of daylight. For some folks, one day at the Grand Canyon will be more than enough time. We would have preferred at least two days for the South Rim but we figured even a short visit was better than no visit.
Only the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park is open year-round. That is also where you will find the majority of the visitor services. In fact, you might be surprised at just how many services are available at the Grand Canyon, including several lodges, two campgrounds, several dining options and a large grocery store.
Even in the winter, you’ll find full services and can have a wonderful visit to the Grand Canyon.
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Grand Canyon Winter Weather
When visiting national parks in the winter, one of the big considerations is the weather. The Grand Canyon is no different. In fact, the abundance of snow is one reason the North Rim is closed in the winter. The South Rim, however, is about 1,000 feet lower in elevation and doesn’t get quite as much snow. Still, it’s something to consider.
Our one day at the Grand Canyon was on December 21. At that point, there was essentially no snow on the ground. The high was in the upper-50s/low-60s. Low temperature was just below freezing. Basically, it was cold at night and mild during the day, especially in direct sunlight.
Without snow, our visit was much like a summer visit, just without the crowds and oppressive heat. For us, that was just about perfect!
Snow rolled through about a week after our visit. During winter storms, roads can close temporarily. Trails can also be icy or snow-covered. When this happens, you may want to skip steep trails into the canyon. If you do venture into the canyon, be sure to wear traction devices, such as Yaktrax. We definitely recommend talking to a ranger before hiking steep, snow- and ice-covered trails!
Basically, be ready for any weather during the winter. If it snows, your entire visit should not be derailed but it might be altered. Anytime you are traveling in the winter in an area that gets snow, you should be prepared for changing conditions.
Check out our tips on Preparing for a Winter Road Trip.
South Rim vs. North Rim
The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and about one mile deep. The only way to travel from one rim to the other is to hike down and back up or drive all the way around. Only the most experienced hikers should attempt this hike and most will take at least two full days. You’ll need about five hours for the drive.
We do have aspirations to hike the Grand Canyon, Rim-to-Rim one day. But, we need to do a lot more training and planning before we are able to make that happen!
Normally, we would have included enough time in our itinerary to drive around to the North Rim. But, we only had one day for our visit to the Grand Canyon. Additionally, the North Rim is closed from mid-October until mid-May. So, a winter visit to the North Rim just isn’t something you can do.
We do hope to make it to the North Rim one day. I hear that it is less crowded than the South Rim, which is was we generally prefer!
What to Expect at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon offers visitors more than just the opportunity to see the biggest canyon in the world. Yes, there are some fantastic viewing areas that are easily accessible. You’ll also find the mostly level Rim Trail along with a few trails that take you down into the canyon. There are even a couple of scenic drives.
At Canyon Village, the main area of the park, you’ll find plenty of scenic viewing areas, the visitor center, several lodges, campgrounds and stores. Seriously, Canyon Village is bigger and offers more services than some of the towns you’ll drive through to get to the Grand Canyon.
You can see everything that is available within Canyon Village on the South Rim Pocket Map and Services Guide.
Getting Around the South Rim
With summer crowds, you pretty much have to rely on the park’s shuttle system when visiting the Grand Canyon in the summer. The Hermit Road scenic drive is even closed to private vehicles from March – November. While there are several large parking lots near the visitor center, many of the other parking areas are small and would fill quickly. I certainly understand the need for the shuttle system in the summer.
One of the things we love most about visiting the Grand Canyon in winter is that you did not have to use the shuttle at all. That did mean a bit of a walk to the South Kaibab Trailhead but it was still a better option for us, especially with limited bus seating during COVID-19.
In the winter, there are still several shuttle routes in service for those that don’t want to drive everywhere. The Village Route connects the main facilities within Canyon Village (Visitor Center, lodges, grocery store, viewpoints, etc.). The Kaibab Rim Route takes you to the east side of Canyon Village, including Yaki Point and South Kaibab Trailhead. Since these stops are otherwise only accessible by walking, this is a popular route in the winter. An early-morning Hikers’ Express provides shuttle service for those wanting to get an early start hiking into the canyon.
As I mentioned earlier, there are two scenic drives on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. I highly encourage you to make time for one or both of these drives.
Perhaps the best part of visiting the Grand Canyon in the winter is the ability to drive Hermit Road and easily stop at all the overlooks. This scenic drive extends for 7 miles to the west side of Canyon Village. The road is only open to private vehicles in December, January and February. It’s an easy drive with tons of great overlooks. Seriously, this drive was one of the highlights of our visit!
My only suggestion for Hermit Road is to give yourself several hours for all of the fantastic overlooks! After getting settled into our room, we only had about two hours before sunset. I figured that would be plenty of time to drive Hermit Road and find a good place for sunset. After taking our time at the first few stops, we quickly realized that our time would run out before dark if we kept up that slow pace.
The good part, though, is that there are great places for sunset just about everywhere! Don’t feel like you have to be at the most popular spot for sunset. We fully enjoyed parking at a random pullout and walking the Rim Trail to find a view we liked.
Desert View Drive
On the east side of Canyon Village, Desert View Drive is another scenic road that is generally open year-round. Unfortunately, with only one day at the Grand Canyon, we did not have time for this drive. Enjoying this scenic drive is definitely high on our list when we return to the Grand Canyon.
Desert View Drive extends east from Canyon Village to the East Entrance of the park. By using the East Entrance station to enter or exit the park, you could do this as a one-way drive at the beginning or end of your visit.
*The East Entrance to Grand Canyon National Park is currently closed due to COVID-19 restrictions on the Navajo Reservation. As such, only a portion of the Desert Rim Drive is currently accessible. Check the park website for up-to-date conditions.
Hiking at the South Rim
If you’re looking for an easy hike with great views, the Rim Trail is your answer. The Rim Trail runs for about 13 miles and has very little elevation change. In fact, some of the trail is paved and wheelchair accessible. Canyon Village is at about the halfway point along the Rim Trail. To the west, it extends to Hermits Rest, at the end of Hermit Road. To the east, it extends to the South Kaibab trailhead.
We only walked a small portion of this trail, along Hermit Road, looking for a good place to enjoy sunset. Still, we could see the trail paralleling the road for the entire drive.
On our next visit, we definitely plan to devote one day to walking the full length of this trail. You could easily have the shuttle drop you off at one end and spend the day hiking to the other end. Canyon Village would even make a good halfway point to grab lunch. You’ll have fantastic views of the Grand Canyon from the entire trail with only about 200 feet of elevation change!
Hiking into the Grand Canyon
If you want to hike into the Grand Canyon, PLEASE make sure you are up for the task! Even a short hike will include a significant elevation change. Remember, going down is the easy part. Expect the return trip up to take at least twice the amount of time and be about a hundred times more difficult!
On the South Rim, there are two trails that will take you all the way to the bottom of the canyon: South Kaibab Trail or Bright Angel Trail (which meets up with South Kaibab for the final descent). The Hermit Trail (at the end of Hermit Road) and Grandview Trail (along Desert View Road) also descend into the canyon but do not go all the way to the bottom.
For a peek at what a hike into the canyon is like, stop at the Trailview overlook along Hermit Road. Here, you’ll get a great view of the Bright Angel Trail as it winds down into the Grand Canyon (photo above).
South Kaibab Trail
We chose to hike a small portion of the South Kaibab Trail. The trailhead is accessible by the shuttle bus. Or, you can park on the shoulder of Desert View Drive and walk to the trailhead, which is what we did. Obviously, the length of your walk will depend on where you are able to park. For us, the easy walk added about 3/4 mile to our hike.
The Grand Canyon NP web site describes the trail as having the “best views for a relatively short hike.” That is what sold me on this trail. Note that there is very little shade on this trail, making it a good choice in the winter.
There is no water available on the trail, so bring plenty with you. We suggest carrying a water bladder (CamelBak or something similar). You may want trekking poles as well, especially for the uphill return.
Obviously, you can hike down as far as you want before turning around. Two popular destinations are Ooh-Aah Point (0.9 miles one way) and Cedar Ridge (1.5 miles one way). While Ooh-Aah Point has a great view, it is a fairly small area. If you are able to continue to Cedar Ridge, you’ll be rewarded with a much bigger space to sit and relax and, perhaps, enjoy a snack. You will also find a bathroom at Cedar Ridge.
As you’d imagine, the hike down is fairly easy. The hike up is very challenging! We had to stop quite a bit to rest and catch our breath. Still, it was absolutely worth it!
Finally, the South Kaibab Trail is used by mules. If you see them on the trail, follow the directions of the mule guide. And watch for droppings as you are hiking.
Where to Stay
The closest “big city” to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is Flagstaff, AZ. The drive from Flagstaff to the South Rim Visitor Center is about 1.5 hours. If you only have one day and are visiting other sites in the area, staying in Flagstaff might make sense. Personally, I’d prefer to stay closer, especially if visiting the Grand Canyon in winter when daylight hours are limited.
There are several lodges and campgrounds inside the park. We chose to stay at the Kachina Lodge, in a room with a view of the rim. Yes, this was pricey. Rooms and lodges without a view are a little cheaper. For us, it was worth the splurge, even if we weren’t in the room a lot.
Our room at the Kachina Lodge was comfortable, though nothing luxurious. We paid for the convenience (and view) and it was well worth it.
Another option would be to stay in Tusayan, which is just about 10 minutes from the Visitor Center. This small town has several hotels and restaurants. In the summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day), there is a free shuttle that will take you into the park.
Where to Eat
There are several restaurants, both sit down and grab-and-go within the park. You’ll even find a large, full-service grocery store. Most restaurants are open year-round, though many were closed during our visit in December 2020 due to COVID-19.
For dinner our first night, we ordered takeout from the El Tovar Dining Room. The El Tovar offers “gourmet dining in an atmosphere of historic and casual elegance.” Indeed, our steak dinners were delicious, even if we did have to enjoy them sitting on the bed in our room.
The Fountain at Bright Angel Lodge offers grab-and-go breakfast, lunch and snacks. We opted for the Breakfast Burritos, which we tasty. Most of all, we enjoyed a warm breakfast on a cold winter morning!
We stopped at the Canyon Village Market General Store to pick up something for lunch before hitting the trail. There is a Deli inside the store, where you can get fresh sandwiches. We opted for packaged sandwiches, which actually were pretty good. I gotta say, our view at Cedar Ridge on the South Kaibab Trail was what really made lunch fantastic, though!
Even in the winter, with COVID-19 restriction, we were impressed with the food options at the Grand Canyon. You’ll find everything from provisions to for tent or RV camping, quick and inexpensive meals and fine dining. Seriously, you won’t go hungry at the Grand Canyon.
There are also a few restaurants in Tusayan, just outside the South Entrance.
Final Thoughts on the Grand Canyon in Winter
Our one day at the Grand Canyon in winter wasn’t nearly enough time for us to fully enjoy this iconic National Park. Still, it was what we had time for and it was more than worth the drive and effort it took us to get there. We particularly enjoyed fewer crowds and cooler temperatures, both of which are typical in the winter.
At the Grand Canyon, you’ll find scenic views that never get old. You’ll also find easy hiking along the Rim Trail and strenuous hiking for those willing to head into the canyon. The scenic drives and occasional wildlife complete the package.
We definitely look forward to returning to the Grand Canyon to experience more of the South Rim and check out the North Rim.