Last year over five and one half million people made their way into Grand Canyon National Park’s gates (source). While rangers will tell you that only around 1% wander down beyond the rim and into the canyon, that’s still over 50,000 pairs of feet in a year competing for just a few wilderness permits or bunk spots each night and certainly crowding up every viewpoint along the way down and back up. But there’s a trick to be had, a way to enjoy the vast wonders, to hike with few other footsteps behind you, to practically have the place to yourself — that secret the winter off season. You see, while August alone racked up nearly 800,000 park attendees, January had less than 200,000. That’s still a big number in total but one which quickly narrows down to just a few thousand overnight guests, a few hundred campers, and perhaps just a few dozen hikers on any given day.
Far away from the crowds and intense heat of summer, an off-season visit is truly remarkable experience and something I unconditionally recommend having just returned from a February visit myself.
Braving the possibility of cold and snow is not for everyone I realize, for many guests, the themepark like conditions of a peak weekend visit is part of the experience I guess, but for those willing to gamble, the reward can be huge. From my visits to the park in winter, it seems as likely to arrive to blue skies and sun as storms and even when those do show up, they leave behind a view that no summer conditions can begin to compete with. More than anything, the threat of the unknown makes it a place you can actually stop and enjoy.
With all the uncertainty of winter and spring, you’ll find something something summer never has — last minute options. When I decided to make my visit to the park it was January 27th. Hotels outside the park are already jammed now for summer and those inside the park, forget about it. Want a reservation for the famous Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon or even just a camping spot? Better call a year ahead, seriously. Except not now. Not in winter that is. With a little flexibility, a credit card in hand and my packing list on the table, off season got me a 4 night stay, 2 up top, 2 down in the canyon just 5 nights in advance.
As a final point to sell you on, with more than enough tourists still pouring in at any time of year, the Grand Canyon does not suffer the winter-effect of other nearby parks like Bryce which loses almost all its summer facilities as soon as fall hits. Instead, almost everything remains open; a few less amusements in the outlying towns, a couple closed up restaurants and perhaps some shorter hours around the park but from the visitor’s center to the bowling alley in town, everything you could need is up and running whenever you may come on by to visit.
Whether for the crowds, the actually hospitable temperatures, the snowy views or just to get a great deal, the off season offers a truly unique way to experience all the Grand Canyon has to offer far away from the madness that is summer.
Continue on and for my trail guide to hiking the Grand Canyon’s Phantom Ranch in winter.