Winter at the Grand Canyon is an ideal time for a vacation. You may be surprised by a dusting of snow as you walk to the rim to watch the pink sunrise; you can have an overlook to yourself as the clouds part and the Colorado River is visible far below; and, you can celebrate the holidays in grand style at historic El Tovar.
Visiting the South Rim
Roads to the Grand Canyon's North Rim are closed from the middle of October through mid-May so for your winter holiday, you will be staying at the South Rim, also part of the Grand Canyon National Park.
With the online reservation service, you can immediately find out which lodges have openings and, with a credit card, make your reservation before someone else takes that room—expect to be billed for the first night's stay. You can also reach the reservation service by calling 888-297-2757.
There are a variety of facilities ranging from "historic cabin" to "classic lodge." Prices range from $85 to $381 per night (El Tovar view rooms). There is no youth hostel in Grand Canyon National Park but you can get a room at the historic Bright Angel Lodge for $85 per night and share it. For the 2019-2020 season, the lodges are offering a Winter Escape Vacation Package which includes lodging, breakfast, a tour, and a 20 percent gift shop discount. Make reservations as far ahead as possible.
Most lodges have a rich history that dates back to the 1930s but there are also motel-type accommodations with parking in front. The lodges have been undergoing renovations and upgrades and the dates of closures, if any, are indicated on the Grand Canyon Lodges website.
Bright Angel Lodge & Cabins: The Bright Angel complex consists of tightly clustered buildings along the rim. In the 1930s, the Fred Harvey Company needed to develop affordable lodging for the many visitors who had begun driving to the canyon.
Noted architect, Mary E. Jane Colter, designed both the lodge and the cabins which were built around several historic buildings. There are clean, simple rooms in two long buildings adjacent to Bright Angel Lodge which are the least expensive in the park.
Moving on up, others are appointed like standard motel rooms, with showers instead of tubs. The historic cabins are cozy and romantic and for about $30 more than the most expensive lodge rooms, you can get a feel of what it was like to stay at the Grand Canyon in the 30s. Another plus is the dining room where you can order a meal from a menu before you hike down the Bright Angel Trail.
El Tovar Hotel: It's not easy to get reservations at El Tovar. Although redecorated and modernized, the rooms still have that old-world hunting lodge atmosphere. The style is a little Swiss, somewhat Scandinavian, and definitely rustic European.
El Tovar opened in 1905 and the popularity of El Tovar had some bearing on the area's recognition as a National Monument in 1908, and as a National Park in 1919. El Tovar is the most expensive of the lodges. If you are pinching pennies, stay at one of the other lodges and walk through the lobby at El Tovar and perhaps stop for a cocktail in the bar or a meal in their dining room.
Kachina Lodge: Kachina is a two-story Lodge with modern comforts, phone, and bath, and is ideal for families. It's also located in the middle of the historic area of the rim. If you look at a facility map, you will notice which facilities are on the rim and which are within a short drive of the Canyon's rim.
Maswik Lodge: Maswik Lodge is a two-story lodge and rustic cabins located 1/4 mile from the South Rim. There is a restaurant on site. Although the lodge remains open, there is a renovation taking place. The existing 90 rooms, constructed in 1971, will be replaced with 120 new lodging units. The new lodging will open in the Summer of 2020—you can make pre-reservations now.
Thunderbird Lodge: Thunderbird is a family-oriented lodge situated at the South Rim with half of its rooms offering a canyon view.
Yavapai Lodge: Yavapai is a modern motor lodge in wooded setting between Yavapai Point and the Grand Canyon Village, 3/4 mile from the Canyon's edge. It has an adjacent cafeteria-style restaurant. The rooms are comfortable and the setting is tranquil. You may see elk and deer wandering past your window.
What to Pack
Winter weather at the Grand Canyon is unpredictable so dressing in layers, with a warm, waterproof outer layer, and long underwear underneath is ideal for hiking and outdoor sightseeing. From about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. when the sun is shining at the Grand Canyon, you may even feel warm while hiking the rim.
Winter conditions at the South Rim can be extreme and can turn cold at a moment's notice. Expect snow, icy roads and trails, and possible road closures. At the South Rim, you will be at 6,950 feet elevation. Canyon views may be temporarily obscured during winter storms—in such cases, entrance fees are not refundable.
Gloves and hats are in order and bring a day pack to carry extra clothing and water. But remember, the weather may also turn very pleasant and you will need to shed a layer or two. Bring sturdy walking shoes with tread or hiking boots. Trails in the winter will have ice or snow, especially in the shady spots. If the trails are very icy and it doesn't melt during the day, you will need crampons (strap-on studded ice shoes).
During the holidays, you may want to enjoy a special meal at El Tovar. While a dress or coat and tie is not necessary, you will feel most comfortable in the evening if you dress up a bit. This might be the time to wear your wool slacks and red sweater.
Top Sights to See
When you arrive at the park, you will be given a map and a guide. Take a look at this as it will help you orient and decide what you want to see. The Visitors Centers are always worth a stop. Suggestions for winter touring include:
- El Tovar Lodge: No matter what the weather you can enjoy the cozy lobby decorated for the holidays. At night, El Tovar is magical and warm. Look up, and you're bound to see a moose, elk, or deer head decorated with a Santa hat. With fireplaces roaring and artwork with canyon scenery to peruse, a visit to El Tovar adds to the holiday spirit.
- Hopi House: Right across from El Tovar, you will find Hopi House. Designed by Mary Colter and built in 1905, Hopi House is a large, multi-story building of stone masonry, shaped and constructed like a Hopi pueblo building. At night look for the flickering lights of the luminaria lining the roof line. Hopi House is a great way to learn more about Arizona native cultures and, if the spirit moves you, do a little shopping.
- Hermit's Rest: If the weather is good, you will be able to drive out to Hermit's Rest. The site is located at the far western end of the West Rim Drive approximately 9 miles from Grand Canyon Village. There is a gift shop and snack bar there. But what many enjoy most is the architecture and immense stone fireplace. This is yet another of architect Mary E. Jane Colter's handy work. Sit for a minute on the log in front of the fireplace, enjoy the Christmas tree, and be transported back in time.
- Rim Trail: The weather is so unpredictable and the trails sporadically icy, that for winter hiking, it's recommended that casual hikers stick to the safe and scenic Rim Trail. The Park cautions against hikes into the canyon and reminds us that, for other than a short hike along the rim, preparation is necessary. To play it extra safe, hike in either direction from El Tovar. Carry water, a trail snack, dress in layers, and, of course, take your camera. Watch your time and know that you can turn around, backtrack, and return to "civilization" without much effort.
- Dark Sky Park: The Grand Canyon National Park was recently named an official International Dark Sky Park. The park is working toward having 90 percent of the lighting "dark-sky compliant." Winter is a good time to sign up for a Ranger-led look at the winter sky without the interference of city lights.
Tips for Winter at the Grand Canyon
With winter weather to consider and holiday festivities to enjoy, these tips and suggestions will help you plan your trip.
- Reservations: Although you may find it easy to reserve a table at El Tovar on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, go early in the evening for the best choice of seating. You may find it easier to reserve a room than in the summer season, but planning ahead and reserving early is the best way to get the room you want.
- Consider the Train: The Grand Canyon Railway has day trips and overnight packages originating in Williams, Arizona. It's an enjoyable way to approach the Canyon and avoid snowy roads. For children, the Railway offers Polar Express theme trips during winter but these fun trips do not go all the way to the Grand Canyon.
- Watch the Wildlife: In winter, the deer and elk get brazen and can be seen wandering behind the lodges looking for tender tree branches. While they look friendly and pre-occupied with eating, they are large animals and can attack humans if provoked. It's best to keep your distance if you see wildlife in inhabited areas.
- Candlelight Services: You don't have to give up attending church if you spend your Christmas at the Grand Canyon. Check the announcements in the lobby at El Tovar. They usually have information on church services.