Grand Canyon: 3 Perfect Winter Days
Rangers, residents, and the rare winter travelers who’ve been there affirm that the Grand Canyon’s “secret season” is one of the most visually and spiritually pleasing times to visit.
If you’ve ever wondered why you seldom see photographs of the Grand Canyon in the wintertime, the answer is simple: far fewer visitors are there to take pictures. The National Park Service notes that fewer than 10 percent of the total annual visitors arrive in December, January, and February, most likely because the days are shorter and evening temperatures can drop below freezing. Following the rush sparked by summer vacations and the steady stream of guests that filter into campgrounds, hotels, and restaurants in the spring and fall, the absence of park visitors in the winter affords the opportunity to experience the Grand Canyon as it may have been centuries ago.
Here are some great ways to spend three leisurely, if chilly, days.
Often, peak-season reservations at South Rim lodges such as Thunderbird or Bright Angel are required several months in advance — with some guests even booking the national park’s signature property, the historic El Tovar, as far as a year or more in advance. During the winter, however, the chance of a late- or same-day reservation rises considerably. Since check-in isn’t until mid-afternoon, use the morning to visit the appropriately named Visitors Center. Just a few miles east of the Historic Village (the site of the lodges as well as restaurants, art galleries, and overlooks), this is the perfect place to gather information. In winter months, rangers have more time to help plan your visit. Based on your interests, they can help you map out an itinerary as busy or as casual as you desire.Be sure to watch the 20-minute orientation film, Grand Canyon: A Journey of Wonder, which combines a wonderful script and stirring images that underscore the magic of the Grand Canyon.
In winter, a hot bowl of tortilla soup served at Fred Harvey Burger in Bright Angel Lodge is a treat. Also on the menu are sandwiches, wraps, burgers, and chili.
Now would be a wonderful time to stroll along the Rim Trail and take in your first long, lingering views of the canyon. A more peaceful and solitary experience than in peak periods, when fog can affect visibility, the winter months offer considerably clearer air, which enhances views substantially. Switch your focus from the beauty of the canyon to the heritage of the Historic Village District. Next to El Tovar is Mary Colter’s 1905 Hopi House, which sells authentic Native American arts and crafts. Farther east is Verkamp’s, a small visitor center and museum housed in one of the oldest buildings at the Grand Canyon. Walk west and you’ll find the Lookout and Kolb studios, each offering perfect vantage points as well as gift shops and exhibits.
A perfect way to end the day is with a warm pizza and local beverage at the Maswik Pizza Pub, or choose from the many different dinner choices at the Maswik Food Court. Both are family- and wallet-friendly dining options.
Morning and Lunch
Use the morning to explore beyond the Historic Village. The Grand Canyon is far larger than it appears in pictures and for several miles east you’ll find some of the park’s most spectacular sights. Shuttle buses run routes along the eastern region of the South Rim, traveling as far as Yaki Point and including a stop at the Yavapai Museum of Geology where panoramic windows provide spectacular views from inside a warm building. After Yaki Point, private vehicles are needed to reach one of the park’s most beautiful overlooks, Lipan Point, followed by the Tusayan Museum whose displays of tools, jewelry, art, and artifacts were unearthed in the ruins of homes and kivas once used for religious rituals and political meetings. Several miles away is Desert View, the site of one of the Grand Canyon’s most recognizable sights: architect Mary Colter’s stunning Watchtower. In addition to spectacular views of the canyon, the tower itself is a work of art and worth a closer look. A cafeteria here is a great place for a casual lunch before heading back to the Historic Village.
On the return trip, look for the South Kaibab Trail where you can hop off the bus and take a short hike below the rim. You’ll see views change with every step, revealing a different perspective of the canyon every minute. But before entering the canyon, consult rangers on the gear you’ll need — including crampons in the event of icy conditions. You’ll also want warm headwear, walking sticks, water or sports drinks, salty snacks, and protein bars. Be sure you’ll have the stamina for the walk back up, which, at an elevation of 7,000 feet, can pose a challenge through the thin, crisp air.
An elegant meal at the El Tovar Dining Room in the El Tovar hotel is the ideal place to wrap up the day. A superb menu is complemented by views of the South Rim that make this one of the world’s unique dining experiences. After dinner, walk outside to enjoy a few moments of stargazing at one of America’s best night skies before stepping back inside the lobby where you’ll be warmed by a roaring fire and your favorite hot beverage.
Time to board a shuttle bus or take your own vehicle to the western reach of the canyon via Hermit Road (which may close due to inclement weather). In the seven miles between the Historic Village and Hermits Rest are nine overlooks, each offering a different view of the Grand Canyon. At the end of the line, the focal point of Hermits Rest is another Mary Colter creation: a quirky domicile for a fictional hermit.
One of the most diverse selections of meals awaits you at the Food Court at Maswik Lodge. Located a short walk (or drive) from the Historic Village, four food stations cover the bases with traditional home-style meals, grilled hamburgers, hot sandwiches, deli sandwiches, pasta dishes, salads, desserts, and even pre-packaged ready-to-go lunches.
With a few hours before sunset, you have time for a short hike on the Bright Angel Trail on the western end of the Historic Village. Once again, be prepared before you enter the canyon. Inside tip: Just after you walk through the first tunnel, look up and to the left and you’ll see what most visitors miss: Native American pictographs that are over 1,000 years old.
Wrap up the day with a return visit to your favorite restaurant. And reflect on three days filled with new and unforgettable experiences.
How to Explore
Grand Canyon National Park Lodges provides the premier in-park lodging, managing six distinctly different lodges. From the El Tovar hotel, long considered the crown jewel of national park hotels, to Phantom Ranch, the only lodging on the floor of the canyon, you’ll find accommodations to help you get the most out of your visit to the Grand Canyon. You can also book rafting, railway, and motorcoach tours. For more information and reservations, visit grandcanyonlodges.com or call 888-297-2757.