Ask any outdoor enthusiast for their hiking trail bucket list, the odds are good that backpacking the Grand Canyon is on it. What better way to see one of the world’s natural wonders than to plan the ultimate backpacking trip? Five million people visit the Grand Canyon each year; only 10% of that 5 million sees the beauty that lies below the rim. Trails are busiest in the spring, summertime and early fall. Why not tackle some of the world’s most renowned trails in the backcountry of Grand Canyon when you’re able to enjoy that solitude most backpackers are always in search of? Read on for tips on planning your own winter backpacking trip in Grand Canyon, or if you’d rather not do the planning yourself just give us a call to join REI’s professional guides on a guided backpacking trip this winter!
Winter backpacking in the Grand Canyon sounds a little daunting, if you are unprepared, you’re right to be intimidated but if you’ve done your homework then it can be one of the most gratifying experiences of your life. The Grand Canyon is stunning year-round but to see it covered in a dusting of snow is…well the only word for it is, Magical!
One of the most important things to know is which Grand Canyon trails are best for hiking in winter. The North Rim access roads are closed during the winter so you’ll want to look into trails that start at the South Rim. Hiking one of the Corridor trails is safest; these trails are constantly maintained in order to keep them functional. That narrows it down to a short list to start from – South Kaibab and/or Bright Angel trails.
Look at the pros and cons of each trail to decide which of the corridor trails is better during the winter. South Kaibab is steeper but gets more sun exposure than Bright Angel making the trail comparatively ice and snow free. When hiking the Bright Angel trail there is a campground (Indian Gardens) 4.8 miles from the rim, whereas you won’t reach a campground on South Kaibab until mile 7 (Bright Angel Campgrounds). Both trails come with pros and cons, in the end it comes down to a matter of preference since both are well-maintained.
If you are a seasoned Grand Canyon or rugged backcountry hiker, you may consider looking into Grand Canyon’s other trails starting from the South Rim, these are unmaintained and difficult for winter hiking. In any case, looking at the stats and conditions of each trail will help you decide which is best for you.
Once you’ve decided which trail(s) you want to hike, you’ll need to get your backcountry hiking permits. To do this, contact the Grand Canyon backcountry office. Fewer people are planning trips during the winter, so it is often easier to get the backpacking permits that you want. You should still plan to call as soon as permits are made available, 5 months prior to the month of your trip.
Make sure you’re properly outfitted. From the rim of the canyon to the Colorado River there can be up to a 30 degree difference in temperature. Lightweight, waterproof clothes are best and as always, the layering effect will be useful. A merino baselayer with a lightweight down sweater and a windbreaking waterproof outer layer is the best way to ensure that you are warm at every elevation in the canyon. Extra socks and underwear are also a great idea; you will never hear a hiker say “Man, I really regret bringing that extra pair of dry socks and underwear!”
In addition to proper clothing, there’s a good chance you’ll be walking on ice at some point. Don’t get too scared! Think less Jon Krakauer on Everest circa 1996 and think more icy drive way in Utah after a rough winter storm. Crampons aren’t necessary, traction devices that slip over shoes with spikes and metal coils will do just fine, you can find an inexpensive pair at your local gear shop or REI. Hiking poles are also recommended in these conditions for extra stability.
Backpacking the Grand Canyon in the winter is the best way for adventurers to see this incredible place without enduring the challenging heat of summer. If you’re not used to the heat, backpacking the Grand Canyon in winter will most likely offer the perfect hiking weather for you. Unfortunately, weather in the canyon is irregular due to elevation changes as discussed above, as well as the vast size of the canyon, which tends to create its own weather systems. It’s not uncommon to be sweating in the afternoon and freezing as soon as dark sets in. During the winter, it’s likely you will experience beautiful sunshine one day and snow and cold the next. Keep updated on the weather forecast and check the backcountry information office for trail conditions.
Sound like a lot of work and you’d rather just enjoy the backcountry and have someone do the dirty work for you? We offer a few different options year-round including Grand Canyon guided backpacking trips and a more mild winter overnight hiking trip to Phantom Ranch!