Opportunities abound at wintry Grand Canyon — with preparation
GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — A winter hike in the Grand Canyon can feel like you’re walking among clouds, especially when fog is all that meets the eye for the first several hundred feet of elevation.
But the quietness of a normally busy park can be breathtaking – no lines of people marching up and down the trails, no sounds of hikers calling to each other from above and below, no ground squirrels skittering around, hoping a few careless — or deliberate — hikers will lose some trail mix along the way.
But along with the beauty of the season and the exhilaration of taking on the elements comes dangers inherent in all cold-weather pursuits: slipping and falling, getting lost and hypothermia all loom large for those willing to brave the weather.
It’s common for trails to remain snow-packed and potentially icy for several days to weeks after a storm dumps significant amounts of precipitation. Crampons – traction devices that slip on over footwear – are a necessity for safely maneuvering both up and down trail. Rangers also recommend trekking poles to help distribute weight more evenly and give extra traction; you can remove the rubber tips to provide a solid grip on snow-packed terrain.
While the North Rim is closed to vehicle traffic from December through mid-May every year, the park is still open for those who would like to ski, snowshoe or hike in from Jacob Lake, about 40 miles north of the rim.
With its isolated location and dearth of vehicles, the solitude of a snowy winter on the Kaibab Plateau may be a one-of-a-kind experience. In fact, it’s likely that a hiker could hike the 45 miles from Jacob Lake, enter the park and hike as far as Phantom Ranch without seeing another human being. Winter photography, especially night-sky photography, is excellent with few distractions to mar the results. There are also ample opportunities with viewing wildlife including elk, bison, bald eagles and California condors.
At more than 8,000 feet, the North Rim receives significantly more snow that the South Rim, and trekking through such conditions is only recommended for experienced winter hikers or campers. It is possible to hike from rim to rim during the winter, but being prepared with proper gear is crucial for preventing accidents and even death.
Those hiking in the harsh conditions of the North Rim should have warm, layered clothing – no cotton or denim – including a base layer, wool or synthetic socks, waterproof hiking boots rated for 0 degrees or lower, gloves, hat and a waterproof outer layer. A camp stove with fuel and a waterproof fire kit are essential not only for warming food but for warming hikers with symptoms of hypothermia. The North Rim is isolated with very little staff during the winter months. Anyone attempting to hike in should be prepared to self-rescue.
Because of the prevailing sunshine in Arizona, even during the long winter months, temperatures can be deceiving in the daytime, and hypothermia can sneak in with few warning signs. It’s not a common occurrence in Grand Canyon National Park – heat-related illnesses are far more likely – but it can happen. No one has succumbed to hypothermia in at least 20 years at the park, but a woman recently died of exposure in Zion National Park while hiking a popular trail with very little snow.
Rangers remind hikers to keep an eye out for symptoms such as uncontrolled shivering, stumbling or poor muscle control, confusion, exhaustion or even trying to remove layers of clothing.
Once hikers descend the first few hundred feet, the snow clears, sometimes leaving a still-hazardous slick of mud along the trails. The temperature also warms significantly, and visitors can experience an increase of 15 degrees or more. According to the National Weather Service, Phantom Ranch receives less than one inch of snow per year. The last time Phantom Ranch saw significant snowfall – about four inches – was in 1971.
If camping at Phantom Ranch is part of your plans, keep in mind that pleasant daytime temperatures give way to frigid nights. January is statistically the coldest month at Phantom Ranch, with an average nighttime low of 37.1 degrees. For those with camping reservations at inner-canyon campgrounds, park officials recommend tents and sleeping bags rated for at least 32 degrees, along with twice the normal amount of food, electrolyte replacement packets to go along with water.
Backcountry hiking is possible in the winter, and hikers may find that permits are easier to come by during the less-visited months. Preparations for cold temperatures are necessary, but those who experience trekking and camping in Grand Canyon’s backcountry may feel like they’re alone in nature in one of the country’s most-visited national parks.
Winter activities at Grand Canyon National Park are a great option for those who want a less-crowded experience, whether camping, hiking, or simply enjoying the scenic overlooks without many other people in their photographs. Museums and visitor centers are open, at visitors can now experience Native American artisans Thursday through Sunday at the main visitor center located near Mather Point.
Weather conditions at the park are available any time by visiting https://go.nps.gov/06 or calling (928) 638-7888.