For the last three years, my mother in law has tried to take me to the Grand Canyon as a Christmas gift. My in-laws retired to New Mexico 10 years ago, and we travel there for the holidays each year. When she found out I’d never been, she made hotel reservations and we began to plan the trip.
The day before we were to leave from her house; 3 Christmases in a row, Arizona would get so much snow and ice that the highway department would close down the pass. And so, we would have to cancel the trip.
This past August, Mom and Dad moved to Phoenix. This past December, I finally got to go to the Grand Canyon for the first time in my 42 years of existence. The canyon in snow and ice was incredible to say the least! It is quite different, though than visiting in the summer months.
For those who might be planning a trip to the canyon, allow me to pass on a few tips for traveling there in the winter.
1. Plan to get a hotel room prior to visiting the canyon. Many of the hotels/motels in Tuscayan/Grand Canyon, (about a mile south of the canyon) do not take reservations. They fill their rooms on a first come, first serve basis. Believe it or not, this can actually be a problem, even in the winter months. November to March, though the “Off-peak” season for many of us, is the preferred travel time for many international visitors.
We stayed at Red Feather Lodge, www.redfeatherlodge.com which was reasonably priced, very clean and spacious rooms, and offered a variety of pastries, juice and coffee for breakfast. They are kid friendly, offer high-speed wireless internet, and smoke free rooms in both their hotel, and motor lodge. The motel takes pets, the hotel does not.
There are several other options in the Tuscayan area:
Canyon Plaza Quality Inn: www.grandcanyonplaza.com/
The Grand Hotel: www.grandcanyongrandhotel.com/
Holiday Inn Express: www.ichotelsgroup.com/h/d/ex/1/en/hotel/gcnaz
Best Western Squire Inn: www.grandcanyonsquire.com/
You can also stay inside Grand Canyon National park. There are several Lodge options available. All reservations are made through Xanterra Parks and Resorts, and it is recommended that they be made in advance. You can take your chances that a room will be available, as many often are during the off season. http://www.grandcanyonlodges.com/Lodging-Overview-411.html will show the options of each lodge and what they offer their guests.
2. The free shuttle buses still run to each of the observation stations at 15 minute intervals, However, Hermit Road, whose observatories give you a whole different view of the canyon, has no shuttle service from December until March 1st. You can take your car along this route, or if you have a group, tour buses are allowed on the road. Beginning in March, the road will once again be closed to private vehicles, but the shuttle bus will once again run.
To download a copy of the Shuttle bus map you can go to www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/shuttle-buses.htm
3. The north rim is not normally open during the winter months due to the weather. But, leave yourself plenty of time to tour the canyon anyway. You need a couple of days in order to see even each stop on the south rim. If the canyon has gotten snow, it may take longer to navigate trails and steps due to icy patches.
For those who are intent on taking the best photographs, make sure to plan your day(s) when you can be there both at sunrise and sunset. It’s hard to get a good sunset picture from the South Rim, but it can be done! Sunrise is incredible on the South Rim! If you’re fortunate enough to visit during new/full moons, the park is open 24 hours a day. I’m told that the moon shining on the canyon is unbelievably beautiful.
To get sunrise/sunset times for the winter months, check out this web page. www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/sunrise_set_moon.htm
4. Wildlife is not very active in the winter months. If this is an important aspect to your Grand Canyon Vacation, perhaps you should consider putting your trip off until the weather is warmer.
5. Hiking is still a much enjoyed facet of your canyon visit, even in the winter months. Just be sure to keep one eye on the weather, have proper gear and check out the trail closures and conditions at www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/trail-closures.htm.
6. Mule Trips are available year round on the South Rim. Prices, information and restrictions are listed here: www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/mule_trips.htm. My husband jokingly commented while reading the brochure: “Look honey, we could do a mule pack trip into the canyon. You don’t weigh 200 pounds and I’m not scared of heights”. Yea, well if you switch the two around to the appropriate member, then no we don’t meet the requirements! So be sure and check those out before deciding to go! Also plan early for this amenity. The trips often fill up as much as 13 months in advance!
7. Float Trips down the Colorado are conducted in the winter, but keep in mind that these smooth and white-water raft trips are so in demand that they are often booked 2 years ahead. www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/whitewater-rafting.htm
8. Camp sites are available year round at Mather Campground and Trailer City. Reservations must be made in advance for this site. This is the only South Rim Campground that is open during the winter months. www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/cg-sr.htm
9. Be prepared to pay the fees to get into the Canyon. They are the same year round. $25 per vehicle is the normal price. There are several discounts and passes available for purchase as well. Check them all out at www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/entrance-fees.htm
My trip to the canyon was something I will never forget, even if I don’t ever get to go back! Perhaps these Winter Tips can make your trip just as memorable.