What exactly does “peak season” in one of the most visited parks in the USA even mean? When a spot is this incredible year-round, is there really any bad time to visit!? Generally speaking, the Grand canyon is enjoyed by the greatest concentration of visitors in the spring and fall months, when the temps are neither cold nor scorching hot. “Wait wait, slow down!”, you’re thinking “why on earth are you trying to convince me to go in winter when it seems like the time to visit is now?” Well my friends, that’s because everyone else is also planning on going this spring too. While warms temps and sunshine in the “peak seasons” may be good for camping or hiking at the rim and working on your tan, the most magical time IN the canyon, in my opinion, is smack dab in the middle of winter. This is when everyone else has retreated to avoid the magical white stuff and chilly temps at the rim. This is when the canyon can finally breathe and take break from the heat and really come alive. For the more adventurous, a journey beyond the rim is best undertaken in the winter. Don’t forget that beyond the rim viewing platforms in the depths of the canyon, we will see drastic changes in climate as we descend. A cold and snowy winter day on the rim could be a mild and pleasant day at the river; perfect for backpacking. Let me convince you why the winter will meet all your backpacking expectations and have you saving those spring or fall Grand Canyon hiking plans for the COOLER (pun intended) months.
1. Winter magic: If you thought the grand canyon was already spectacular, wait until you see it dusted in a layer of sparking snow. There is a magnificence and daunting demeanor that the canyon takes on when the winter clouds hang tight to the mesas, and temples. The white of the snow contrasts dramatically with the reds and oranges of the canyon walls. It’s truly enough to take your breath away. You haven’t experienced the canyon in her full glory until you capture it after a winter storm.
2. Less Crowds: For me, this is one of the biggest selling points. The peak season may have the “best” weather, long days and sunshine, but it also is going to mean packed campgrounds, higher prices, no parking spots and insane lines; line to get photos, lines to get into the park, trails and campgrounds that are obnoxiously overcrowded and hoards of tourons (if you don’t know what this means, you will after you visit in the peak season). I’ve been to the canyon during every season, and my best and most relaxing experiences were had in the off-season. The inner-canyon backcountry campgrounds in February were half filled, leaving a free pick of the sites we wanted as well as some privacy. One day on our hike saw less than 5 other hikers over the course of 12 miles. It is a special feeling to know that the canyon is YOUR private park to enjoy!
3. Permits: Obtaining a backcountry permit for peak season in the canyon is a backpackers version of winning the lottery. If you are planning on a backcountry trip in peak season, you had better plan far ahead and make sure your permit applications are in the drawing pot on time. Even still, there a slim chance for you to get picked first and win your desired itinerary. For February reservations, I was able to apply less than 2 months ahead of time and get my pick of campgrounds and itinerary. There were still loads of open spots even on the day of our arrival.
When to apply? Try your hand at this backcountry permit riddle:
” The earliest backcountry permit requests are considered is the first of the month, four months prior to the proposed start month. We begin accepting these earliest consideration requests starting 10 days before the first of the month that is four months prior to the proposed start month. All earliest consideration requests received by 5pm MST on the first of the month are randomly ordered for processing. Once this is completed all later requests are considered in the order received.”
4. Water features are flowing: Snowmelt and lack of scorching heat means that water stands a chance here in the winter months. Streams and creeks are overflowing. If you are lucky enough to choose a trail with some of the canyon’s epic waterfalls, this means that it could be the best time of year to see them in their full glory. One of my personal favorites is Ribbon Falls on the North Kaibab trail, which was roaring and spectacular, even on a rainy February day.
5. The canyon is alive and verdant: This goes hand in hand with the abundance of water in the cooler months. The canyons dry landscape can take a break from fighting the heat. The cold-hearty plants and trees will be alive, casting a green blanket over a normally brown landscape. The new growth lures the mule deers out of hiding for a winter snack. Bonus: The snakes and are still in hiding.
6. Cooler, more enjoyable temps: One of the most dangerous aspects of hiking in the canyon can be the searing temperatures, which can reach upwards of 120 degrees at the river in the summer months. This combined with the high elevation (approx 7000 ft) and grueling climbs out of a unshaded canyon, can be life threatening for those who are over exerted, or under protected. While cold temps and snow do arrive in the winter months at the rim (30-40 degrees), the temps will climb as you descend to the river, which is great news because this is where you will be doing the bulk of your hiking and camping if you are backpacking. Temps can be 20+ degrees warmer at the river. A 60 degree day is my idea of a perfect hiking temperature.
7. The Perfect time for a Rim to Rim to Rim (say that 5 times fast): This grueling trek is a one for the bucket list; a 46 mile journey from the South rim to North Rim and back to the South Rim, crossing the Colorado twice on your trek with over 20 000 ft of elevation change. You are going to want cooler temps to complete this beast. This is a perfect option for winter because you will have the North Rim entirely to yourself. Sitting at a much higher elevation (at 8000 ft) vs. the south rim, the North rim gets considerably more snow, isolating it from public access from about Oct to May. There is even a Yurt that you can rent at the North rim if you are adventurous! You will literally have the entire Rim to yourself. This may require some deeper snow travel at the higher elevations. Which brings me to my last point…
8. Because it’s badass: If there is anything already cooler than backpacking the grand canyon, hiking down the canyon in your crampons with that snowy backdrop will take the cake. Most people don’t even realize that it actually even snows in the grand canyon so the story to tell will be that much cooler. Once you’ve hike a couple of miles down, the snow (if there is some) will likely be melted and the hiking will be easy, but the photos will be sure to impress and awe your friends.
A winter trek in the canyon requires a bit more planning and forethought, but it is well worth it to enjoy one of the worlds coolest places at such a unique time of year. You don’t have to be a hard-core backpacker with winter gear to be able to enjoy a winter hiking trip here (as you can see below!). It’s a perfect excuse to get away, hit some trails and keep your adventure momentum going during the winter months. This gem is no imaginary pot of gold, I literally hit the jackpot on this trip. It certainly went down in history as one of the coolest backpacking trips to date !
Check out some other Grand Canyon hiking adventures on Hiker at Heart