Our companion on long stretches of the South Rim Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, a typically crowded walk, was often just the whistling wind.
We stretched our legs over six and more spectacular miles during each of two days while walking the edge of the canyon, bumping into other couples or small groups only occasionally. We sometimes had to ourselves viewpoints that typically draw crowds from around the world.
Our wintertime experience was a positive one compared to my daughter’s some six months earlier, who complained of summer traffic jams worthy of Atlanta and more elbowing competitors than a Roller Derby match.
Winter travel to the Grand Canyon may scare some off with visions of snow and howling winds at its 7,000-foot elevations, but the time of year has a full range of charms unavailable in summer – sitting in front of one of the well-stoked stone fireplaces in the historic lodges with a glass of wine, hiking in cool weather without breaking into a sweat, thin enough crowds to make a dinner reservation in a park lodge the day-of, and some of the clearest air of the year for those 15-mile views.
At the Canyon, snow falls about one in five days during the coldest months, but it most often comes down in moderate to light amounts — enough to make everything pretty but slick.
Yes, there are occasional heavy snows that could make getting into the park difficult. But we missed that risk and instead ended up with near perfect outdoor weather whose temperatures edged up into the 50s in February. The snow we did get was inconsequential. We woke up our last morning to a layer of snow that was the depth of coconut cream icing on a cake. Its only effect as to throw the thousand shades of beige, gray, red, ochre and gray rock into high relief.
We and others, prepared for the delights of winter weather in a national park, laced up our boots, donned our gloves, coats and knit caps walked out into a 25-degree chill the morning of the snow and sucked up enough sparkling, gorgeous memories to keep us floating for weeks after we returned home.
With many metro Atlanta school systems now granting week-long breaks to students in the fall and again in early winter, families can do what they used to have to wait for summer or maybe spring break to do. Take a week’s vacation without the demand that you go somewhere breezy with lots of sand and water to splash in.
Now, families can travel for a week during “shoulder” seasons — before or after vacation rushes — and you ought to consider it. Prices can be cheaper. Crowds can be nonexistent. Even if your not big on hiking, you can drive from viewpoint to viewpoint in the Canyon without traffic or take the in-park shuttle bus. And there’s something about standing alone and sucking in the vastness of the Grand Canyon with not another soul in sight that compels you understand what the word “awesome” truly means.
But an off-season vacation will be awesome instead of miserable only if you are ready to enjoy it for what it is. That means digging into your closet for much of what you already own: down and fleece jackets, gloves, knit hats, rain parkas to cut the wind, warm socks and sturdy shoes or hiking boots. Jeans will do, or those special hiking pants you can pick up in outdoor stores.
Yeah, we saw some visitors walking around in running shoes and bare-headed, and they were fine. But a nice pair of boots would have been the difference between enjoying the outdoors for the day or spending most of it inside, if we had gotten more snow.
If you are really concerned about driving in snow, you can book the historic 120-mile train ride from Williams, Ariz., right off I-40 west of Flagstaff, and get dropped off in front of the lodges in the Grand Canyon’s Historic South Rim Village. The rail line was completed in 1901 and first opened up the national park to the masses. Prices start at $65 for adults, $29 for children and go up to as much luxury as you can afford, depending on the seating and type of train car you prefer.
Another bonus to visiting in winter, the famously hot bottom of the canyon (many days it’s more than 100 degrees in summer) is at its most pleasant for those brave enough to try the walk down one of several trails, or take the iconic mule ride. The number of folks taking that steep stroll in summer is also much higher.
But if a week of winter at the Canyon sounds like too much of a good thing, remember, you are in Arizona. You are an easy drive away from temperate Phoenix (I heard one ranger talk about visitors driving up from Phoenix in shorts and T-shirts and stepping out of their cars into the canyon’s winter.) More temperate climes are also two hours south in trendy, spacious Sedona and its nearby Red Rocks State Park or the little, charming town of Prescott.
If you go, prepare early. We talked about making the winter trip in October, and were still able to find a book a room, but they were getting tight. So don’t wait. And don’t be afraid. Just be prepared.
IF YOU GO
Large commercial airports near the Grand Canyon are Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (about 1:45 drive) and Phoenix Sky Harbor (3:30 drive).
If you want to add to you adventure, you can take the train from Williams, off I-40, west of Flagstaff into the park. www.thetrain.com/the-train/
Nearly all the rooms and cabins at Grand Canyon are clustered in the South Rim’s Historic Grand Canyon Village. (The colder, snowier North Rim of the canyon is closed during the winter). The rooms range from $93 to $215 a night, and some are perched 30 yards or so from the canyon rim. Book months in advance to be sure to get a room, especially one with a view. Lodging in the national parks are made online at www.usparklodging.com. Or you can call 888-297-2757, 7 a.m.-7 p.m., Mountain Standard Time.
We booked at Kachina Lodge, and here’s a little tip. Try for a second-story room on the canyon side to ensure the best views. Non-canyon-side rooms look over a parking lot. The oldest lodges with lots of charm and history are Bright Angel and El Tovar, which also have some rooms with views available.
There are many options in the park at the South Rim Village, from pizza places to white tablecloth restaurants in several of the old lodges, which also contain small bars for an adult beverage or meal. Snacks are offered in multiple shops.
Stay outside the park
Just outside of the main park entrance is the little town of Tusayan, which has chain hotels, restaurants and shops. But I recommend spending the extra money to stay inside the park. There’s nothing like being able to walk out your lodging door and be in the heart of the place you came to enjoy. Staying outside of the South Rim Village also puts you away from enjoying the Grand Canyon in its many iterations. It looks different with each passing thunderhead or different angle of the sun, like a giant kaleidoscope. Sunset and sunrise offer the most spectacular vistas. That would mean getting up before dark if you are driving in from Tusayan.
The park has numerous visitor and interpretive centers worth visiting that add interest or insight, or drive into or out of the eastern entrance along Ariz. 64 near Cameron, for a completely different view.