It doesn’t matter how many photos you have seen of Grand Canyon National Park. They simply can’t capture the epic views, gargantuan size and jaw-dropping beauty of the canyon. Drape the views in white during the winter and it becomes even more magical. Even better, the park draws fewer visitors in the winter, so it’s quieter and more peaceful. Here’s why you should consider a visit to the Grand Canyon any time of the year, even in the heart of winter.
The Wonder of Grand Canyon National Park
After a handful of visits to Grand Canyon National Park, I still find myself standing on the rim and gazing off into the distance. Mesmerized by its size and a color palette that I can only find in a sunset, it’s more than a national park. The Grand Canyon exemplifies the freedom of the West. An intermingling of epic vistas and seemingly unsurmountable hardships that had to be conquered to create a destination worthy of the title American Icon.
Through the seasons and over the years, Grand Canyon has become a family favorite. It was the first national park that I visited years ago before I became a Mom. It sparked my lifelong quest to find more parks.
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On this visit we wanted to experience the Grand Canyon like visitors did in the early days, by spending the night in a historic cabin along the rim. To our delight, the canyon transformed into a winter wonderland overnight. The winter months are a great time to visit the Grand Canyon with fewer visitors, plenty of sunshine and sometimes a snow-kissed canyon.
History of Grand Canyon National Park
The first human artifacts found in Grand Canyon National Park date back 12,000 years. Though the Colorado River started carving the Grand Canyon long before that. To date, it measures 18 miles wide, one-mile deep and 277 river miles long.
The Grand Canyon has been protected since 1893 and proclaimed a national park in 1919. The Fred Harvey Company, a NPS concessionaire, defined the historic look of this national park.
One of the most notable buildings is the El Tovar Hotel (1905). Built with local limestone and Oregon timber, the hotel has a rustic elegance. Walking through the doorway, my eyes are drawn to the rough-hewn logs that surround me in the lobby. I can only imagine the relief of a well-heeled, dusty traveler would have felt a century ago upon finding this oasis of luxury in a land of harsh extremes.
Mary Colter, the head architect at the Fred Harvey Co., designed buildings that blended seamlessly into the environment by using local materials and motifs of the Southwest. She designed the Bright Angel Lodge, the Phantom Ranch, the Hopi House, Hermits Rest and Desert View Watchtower, all registered National Historic Landmarks.
The Civilian Conservation Corps worked in the Grand Canyon during the 1930s to make it more hospitable to visitors. They worked on improving the Rim Trail and the trails to the bottom of the canyon.
Winter Lodging in Grand Canyon National Park
For our adventure at the Grand Canyon, I choose the Bright Angel Lodge (1935) located steps from the El Tovar on the south rim. A historic property that is the perfect backdrop for my kids to conjure up a western adventure.
From the brightly painted, hand-carved doors of the lodge to the log and stone cabins sprinkled along the rim, the kids love rambling through this property. In the Bright Angel History Room, I find the Geologic Fireplace to show the kids the rock layers of the Grand Canyon as they are found on the canyon wall.
The cabins feature modern bathrooms and furnishing; it’s a tight fit for most families. Most Bright Angel cabins have one queen bed with room for a pack-n-pack or rollaway. At the Bright Angel Lodge, we enjoyed a great breakfast with Southwest-inspired items along with traditional options and kids’ menu.
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El Tovar Hotel is the premier historic property on the South Rim. Each room or suite is individually decorated, a great choice for adults.
One day I hope to take the famous mule train to the Phantom Ranch (1922) on the Grand Canyon floor. For this once-in-a-lifetime adventure, the trip takes about five hours each way. Lodging and meals are provided and reservations are required.
There are four other modern lodges built in the 1960s. The Kachina Lodge and the Thunderbird Lodge are on the rim; the Maswik Lodge and the Yavapai Lodge are not. All are a good option for families who need more space.
Getting to the Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon National Park is located 59 miles north of Williams, Arizona, on Highway 64. The South Entrance is the most popular gateway taking visitors through Tusayan, a tourist town full of food and lodging. A great alternative to the South Entrance is the East Entrance; north out of Flagstaff on U.S. Route 89 to Highway 64. The East Entrance provides a scenic drive along the rim from Desert View Watchtower to the Grand Canyon Village.
Williams (WMA) is an Amtrak destination and a stop for a regional bus service. The closest airport with commercial flights is Flagstaff, Arizona (FLG), 80 miles away.
On my next trip, I would love to take the Grand Canyon Railroad. The GCRR has daily departures from Williams, with several excursions and lodging options. You arrive at the historic Grand Canyon Train Depot, located across from the El Tovar Hotel. The Grand Canyon Train Depot is a log building train station, the only one in the U.S. still in operation.
Getting Around Grand Canyon National Park
The park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Admission is $30 per vehicle for a 7-day pass or you can use an America the Beautiful annual pass ($80.)
The Grand Canyon Visitors Center has the most parking. There are several free shuttle buses that run along the south rim depending on the season. Please check with the Grand Canyon website for all current routes and times.
Your First Visit to Grand Canyon
If you are exploring for a few hours, start your visit at the Grand Canyon Visitors Center (open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), grab a Junior Ranger booklet for the kids and watch the Grand Canyon movie. Outside walk the Rim Trail to Mather Point, both must-dos on your first visit. If you have time, attend a ranger program or tour the Historic GC Village.
If you are spending the night, check in at Verkamp’s Visitor Center (open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.). Walk along the Rim Trail to tour the historic El Tovar Hotel, the Hopi House, Kolb Studio and Lookout Studio.
If you are in the park near sunrise or sunset, the best spot is Yaki or Mather Point, I have seen visitors moved to tears at the beauty of this experience. If you have time, visit Hermits Rest or Desert View.
Kids at Grand Canyon
The Junior Ranger Program is a great way for kids to learn more about this UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is free and takes about two hours to complete.
The Grand Canyon Junior Ranger Program is divided by age. For the Junior Ranger badge, you will be required to attend a ranger program. A list can be found at the Visitors Center.
There is a special Junior Ranger Program for kids 4 to 14 awarded at Phantom Ranch, the Phantom Rattler Junior Ranger badge.
Tips from a Traveling Mom:
- Make reservations for lodging and tours as soon as possible. Lodging reservations can be made 13 months in advance.
- The cabins are cozy in the winter though they don’t have air conditioning for summer guests.
- The North Rim of the Grand Canyon is closed from October 15 to May 15 due to seasonal road closures.
- Be prepared for winter weather including several inches of snow. The Rim Trail is plowed.
- The roads in the park are not plowed as frequently as the highway leading into the park.
- The Market Plaza features a general store, ATM, post office, amphitheater, laundry and pay showers.
- There are year-round campgrounds and a full-service RV park.
- There are restaurants at El Tovar Hotel and Bright Angel Lodge. There are snack bars at Maswik Lodge, Desert View and Hermits Rest.
- For the Phantom Ranch Mule ride, riders must be 4’7” and weigh less than 200 pounds.