A Winter Visit to the Grand Canyon
Snow Adds an Extra Dimension to the Canyon
Grand Canyon National Monument is a spectacular natural wonder. Visitors are always awed by its rugged rugged natural beauty regardless of the season.
However, visiting the Grand Canyon in winter is different and the reason is the presence of snow on the ground. The pure white snow blanketing the area seems to enhance the reddish hues of the canyon, the green of the numerous evergreens and the browns and greys of the other seasonally leafless trees.
Colors of Grand Canyon Enhanced by an Encircling Blanket of Snow
Northerners Seeking Sun Migrate to Arizona During Winter
Arizona is located in America's sunbelt. The state is known for its year round sun and heat.
Each winter the population of the southern part of the state surges as thousands of retirees, seeking sunshine and warm weather, flee the cold and snow in Canada and northern U.S. states by migrating to Arizona for the winter.
Joining these snowbirds (retirees who flee the cold north and migrate to Arizona during the winter months) are joined by business people who prefer the sun and warmth of Arizona to the cold and slush of Chicago, New York or Montreal for their trade shows and other business gatherings.
Snow along Rocky Ledge of Grand Canyon
Cold and Snow in Northern Arizona
A number of years ago my employer sent me from Tucson to Phoenix to attend a week long banking conference.
While the weather was warm and beautiful for me on my hour or so drive from Tucson to Phoenix, the trip was more challenging for the majority of attendees who were flying in from all over the nation. Freezing cold and snow across the northern half of the U.S. resulted in numerous flight delays causing many to arrive mid-morning on Monday rather than Sunday night as originally scheduled.
The bankers from the north loved the sunshine and warm weather in Phoenix. When the day’s meetings ended in early afternoon many flocked to the hotel’s pool while others donned bermuda shorts and headed for the nearby golf course.
Snow Covered Entrance Gate to Grand Canyon
I Warn a Conference Attendee About Winter at the Grand Canyon
During the course of the week I got to know a few of the fellows who attended the same sessions that I attended and we frequently had lunch and dinner together.
The conference ended at noon on Friday. I went to lunch with some of the same fellows I had been with all week. A couple of them had flights home that evening while some others weren't leaving until the next morning and were planning to enjoy one more round of golf that afternoon before heading back home to the frozen north the next morning.
One of the fellows, who had already changed into Bermuda shorts and golf shirt before lunch announced that he had signed up for a bus tour to the Grand Canyon. His employer was saving on his plane ticket by having him remain in Phoenix until Sunday.
Looking at his summer outfit I casually mentioned that he should consider warmer clothing for the trip to the Grand Canyon. He was surprised at my comment and I had to explain to him that the Grand Canyon was in the northern part of Arizona as was located at an altitude a little over 7,000 feet.
He was surprise to learn that the Grand Canyon, located a little over 200 miles north of sunny Phoenix, had the same winter weather as back home.
Later, as I was putting my suitcase in the car and preparing to drive home, he came across the parking lot and thanked me for informing him about the cold weather. He said he had checked with the tour company and was told that the current temperature in the Grand Canyon was in the 30s with snow on the ground.
Had he gone dressed in his Bermuda shorts and sandals he would have had to stay on the bus while everyone else got out to view the scenery.
Winter Scene in the Grand Canyon
Traveling to the Grand Canyon in Winter
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon is what most people are familiar with. The vast majority of visitors tour the South Rim and this is where we visited on this trip.
The South Rim of the Grand Canyon can be reached any time of the year by air, by train or car.
Winter in the Grand Canyon
Traveling to The Grand Canyon by Train
Amtrack serves Flagstaff and Williams Arizona as well as other area cities like Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona and Las Vegas in Nevada. Once in these cities there are tour companies that offer package bus tours to the Grand Canyon. Since all of these cities are popular tour destinations year round, this is a way to include a side trip to the Grand Canyon.
The Grand Canyon Railway, which was started in 1901 a a branch spur for tourists by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad still runs from Williams, Arizona to the Grand Canyon Village.
Grand Canyon Village is an area within the park and overlooks the Grand Canyon. In addition to railway station, there are hotels (dating back to the beginning of the last century) restaurants, gift shops and other tourist facilities all within view of the Canyon. The Grand Canyon Railway offers a number of differed tour options and packages. However, this is a very popular tour and reservations, even in winter should be made a month or more in advance.
Frolicking in the Snow at the Grand Canyon
Travel by Airplane
Those seeking a faster mode of transportation can fly. Simply fly to one of the major cities such as Phoenix, Tucson, Flagstaff, Las Vegas, and then either rent a car and drive to the Grand Canyon or sign up for one of the many bus tour packages available in these cities.
Finally, the Village of Tusayan, AZ, which is located immediately south of the main entrance to Grand Canyon National Park has an airport served by major airlines with regular flights from cities in the Southwest. Tusayan, AZ not only serves as a place where those who work in the area's flourishing Grand Canyon tourist industry live and shop, but also has major hotels and restaurants as well as numerous tourist services.
Helicopter, jeep and other guided tours of the canyon are available in Tusauan which eliminates the need for renting a car.
Climbing a Snow Bank at the Grand Canyon
Driving to the Grand Canyon
The most common way to get to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon is by car. For winter travel it is probably best to head first to Flagstaff, Arizona via either Interstate 40 or Interstate 17. Interstate 40 runs east-west across the southern part of the United States from Wilmington, North Carolina to Barstow, California. Interstate 17 runs north-south from Phoenix, Arizona to Flagstaff, Arizona.
From Flagstaff you have a choice between three routes:
- Via AZ Hwy 64 N & US 180 W: Take Interstate 40 west from Flagstaff traveling about 30 miles to Exit 164 for the City of Williams and Arizona State Highway 64 (a sign will direct you to go straight on Hwy 64 North for the Grand Canyon). After about 50 miles U.S. Highway 180 will merge into State Highway 64 and the road will become U.S. Highway 180. You don't have to turn, just continue straight and you will be on Hwy 180 West. Stay on US 180 W through the town of Tusayan, AZ. The entrance to the Grand Canyon is located just past the northern edge of Tusayan. The trip from Flagstaff is a little over 80 miles.
- Via US Hwy 180: An alternative route is to get on US Hwy 180 West and follow it all the way to the Grand Canyon. This route is a little over 70 miles and depending upon traffic can be ten minutes or so faster than the route described above. For some reason my GPS and most maps seem to provide the Hwy 64 N & 180 W described above as the first option but I prefer taking 180 W all the way.
- Via US 89 N & AZ 64 W: This route is about the same distance at number 1 above but is about 10 to 15 minutes longer driving time. It is also the most scenic with Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument, Wupatki National Monument (Indian ruins) and Grand Canyon of the Little Colorado all available as optional short forays off the main roads (the roads to these are paved). Take US 89 N heading east and then north out of Flagstaffl. After traveling about 50 miles and just before you get to Cameron there will be a sign to turn left for AZ HWY 64 W (Desert View Dr.). Turn left onto AZ 64 W and drive, mostly up hill, about 30 miles to the east entrance gate to the Grand Canyon south rim.
Roads From Flagstaff AZ to Grand Canyon
Things to Consider When Driving to the Grand Canyon in Winter
Northern Arizona is relatively sparsely populated with much the land of being national forests and Indian Reservations. There are cities, with Flagstaff (population about 69,000) being the largest, small towns and ranches scattered about the area but these are separated by a lot of empty land.
This is also a mountainous area. The 144 mile drive on Interstate 17 from Phoenix, Arizona which is located 1,086 feet (331 meters) above sea level, to Flagstaff, which is 6,909 feet (2,106 meters) above sea level, involves crossing some mountain ranges that reach altitudes as high as 8,000 feet. This is a very good and well traveled highway but can be a challenge in bad weather and for those not used to this type of terrain.
In winter both Interstate 17 and Interstate 40 are subject to temporary shutdown during heavy snow storms. Even when not shut down, drivers are frequently required during snow storms to put tire chains on their wheels before continuing.
Chains can be purchased for less than $100 in most auto supply and other stores. Of course the price increases in smaller towns during snow storms and, on the highway where authorities make people stop and put chains on, hearty entrepreneurial types are usually on site to sell and install chains for fees running into hundreds of dollars. I have only had to use chains once and that was years ago while skiing in northern Michigan but I carry a pair in the car when traveling in northern Arizona in winter.
The three roads from Flagstaff to the Grand Canyon that I described above are also subject to closure during severe storms but are plowed and patrolled year round.
When we drove to the Grand Canyon the roads were free of ice and snow and the weather was very good. I would not set out for a trip to the Grand Canyon when it is snowing heavily or when there are reports of a major storm. If you do get surprised by a storm the best thing to do is stay put until the storm passes and the roads cleared.
If the weather turns bad while you are at the Grand Canyon the nearby village of Tusayan has numerous motels and restaurants where you can stay until the storm passes and the highways cleared. If you are in Flagstaff or Williams when a storm hits they also have plenty of hotels and restaurants.
Grand Canyon in Winter
Little Snow Between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon
While the Flagstaff area was blanketed in snow, as we headed north toward the Grand Canyon the snow disappeared and my wife became concerned that there would be no snow at the Grand Canyon.
The area between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon is mostly a high, flat plateau. The landscape was mostly dry brown grass with an occasional tree or small patch of snow. Being flat it was obvious that most of the snow had been blown away by the winds shortly after the last snowstorm had ended.
However, as we approached the area around the Grand Canyon the area became more hilly and the canyon itself is surrounded by the Kaibab National Forest. The hills and trees tend to shelter the snow on the ground from both wind and sun allowing the area to remain blanketed in snow weeks after a snow fall.
Snow along Interstate 17 Near Flagstaff, AZ
Grand Canyon in Winter is a Memorable Experience
Except during major snow storms, it is well worth taking the time to visit the Grand Canyon and enjoy its winter beauty.
On dry roads it is an hour and a half or less to drive from Flagstaff or Williams Arizona to the South Rim of the canyon. This makes it an easy side trip for those visiting Flagstaff or Williams.
For those visiting Las Vegas Nevada or Tucson Arizona it is about a 4 hour drive to the Grand Canyon and from Phoenix Arizona it is about a three hour drive. From these cities one can drive to the Grand Canyon and then spend the night in Tusayan, AZ located just outside the Main Entrance of the Grand Canyon or spend it in Flagstaff and return to Las Vegas, Phoenix or Tucson the next day.
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Grand Canyon Encircled by Snow
© 2016 Chuck Nugent
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