Top Tips for a Shoulder Season Visit to Grand Canyon National Park
Updated: Dec 4, 2022
Have you ever seen the Grand Canyon covered in snow?
Since the South Rim of the Grand Canyon receives just a handful of snowstorms each year, the odds of visiting during one of them are low. Grand Canyon National Park receives over 5 million visitors each year! If you want to experience all the park has to offer without the huge crowds or blistering heat of summer, consider scheduling your trip to the South Rim for March, April, October, or November. In this post, we'll cover advice on what to pack, where to stay, what to do, and what to eat on your shoulder-season Grand Canyon visit.
Before we begin - This was a dog-free trip for us. We brought along #TeenyTinyErnieBernie (more on that here), but Bert and Ernie stayed at home in Minnesota. Leashed dogs are welcome at Grand Canyon National Park, but they are not permitted below the Rim. Yavapai Lodge inside the park has some pet-friendly rooms (up to 2 dogs, no weight limit) if you bring your pup along, and the campgrounds welcome dogs. There's also a kennel on site where you could board your dog while you explore below the Rim. Be aware that dogs can get altitude sickness just like people, so take precautions and keep an eye out!
Tusayan, the small town just outside of Grand Canyon National Park, is home to GCN, the Grand Canyon airport. Flights to GCN and relatively nearby Flagstaff are infrequent and expensive, so consider flying in to either Las Vegas or Phoenix and renting a car.
Both LAS and PHX are a 4-5 hour drive from the park. Just keep in mind that Arizona does not observe Daylight Savings Time, so depending on the time of year, Las Vegas (Pacific Time) and Grand Canyon may be in different time zones. Be sure you have accounted for any time difference in your driving schedule to make sure you don't miss dinner reservations, car rental return windows, or worst of all - your flight!
We flew in and out of Las Vegas and enjoyed listening to HearHere audio stories about the places we were driving through along the way; we learned all about the construction of the Hoover Dam and Route 66 along with some natural history of the Grand Canyon itself. We also listened to a bunch of episodes of Behind the Scenery, the National Park Service's podcast about Grand Canyon. Some of these were helpful to have listened to before our trip to help us prepare and understand how to pack, but others (like the natural history episodes or profiles of park employees) were interesting and exciting to listen to as we headed to the park.
Be sure you have remembered to pack your National Parks pass, or you'll need to be prepared to pay $35 per vehicle at the front gate or ahead of time at recreation.gov. Admission is good for 7 days. You can get a National Parks pass online or at your local REI Co-Op. Not only do these passes grant access to America's 63 national parks, but they also get you in to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites (full list here - search by state).
During our early March 2022 visit, we quickly learned that the saying “if you don’t like the weather, just wait 20 minutes” is as true for Grand Canyon as it is for Hawaii! On our hikes, we encountered sun, snow, clouds, rain, hail, and just about everything in between.
You can prepare for an off-season Grand Canyon visit by bringing lots of layers and a backpack to carry them. We had long underwear, hiking pants/tops, sweatshirts, puffer coats, and rain jackets on our hike and wore all sorts of different combinations! It was helpful to have warm winter hats, gloves, and rain flies for our backpacks, too.
If you're unsure about how to handle the weather or the challenges of the canyon in general, talk to a park ranger. They are trained in PSAR (preventative search and rescue) and can help you think through what you are prepared for, capable of, and how you might consider planning your time at the park to make sure you have a good, safe experience.
What to Wear
Having proper footwear - rugged hiking boots with ankle support - and comfortable socks will make your hiking trip to Grand Canyon much more enjoyable. Break in your boots before your trip - don’t let this be the first time you take a new pair for a spin! Blisters or rubbing heels are no joke and no fun for a vacation. We get tons of use out of our micro spikes (affiliate link) on snowy and icy walks in Minnesota, and we were so glad to have them for the slippery, snowy first mile and a half of Bright Angel Trail. Bring a plastic bag in your backpack to corral your spikes - there will come a point when you reach less slippery ground, and there's no sense in needlessly wearing them down. This will also help minimize muddy mess on your travels home.
This was our first trip using our new hiking poles. I’d guess that 80% of the hikers we saw on the trail had poles - we were really glad for the stability they provided and the extra power we could get by engaging our arms! Look for poles that allow your arms to be at about a 90 degree angle. You want the tips of the poles to be behind your feet most of the time so you can use the power of your arms to push back and down, propelling you forward. Although it’s tempting to use them like a cane or a walking stick out in front of you, this isn’t the most efficient way to go. Our hiking poles (affiliate link) fold up really small so they could fit in a backpack.
What to Do
If you've come all the way to the Grand Canyon, chances are you'd like to take a hike or two! You can certainly admire the sweeping vistas and magical colors of the canyon from the rim, but the experience is totally different when you are down in the canyon itself. An iconic hike at Grand Canyon National Park takes you all the way to Phantom Ranch on the canyon floor. Phantom Ranch is about 7.5 miles down from the South Kaibab trailhead or about 10 miles down from the Bright Angel Trailhead and can only be reached by foot, mule, or whitewater raft. If you'd like to stay overnight at Phantom Ranch, you must have a reservation via lottery ahead of time. Once you're refreshed and rested, hike back up to the rim the next day.
We didn't bite off Phantom Ranch on our first visit to Grand Canyon. Instead, we enjoyed the Rim Trail, a flat, accessible trail with interpretive markers on our first evening's visit. The focal hike of our trip was down to the Three Mile Resthouse and back on the Bright Angel Trail. For most hikes, up is optional, but at Grand Canyon, it's going down that is optional. Up is mandatory! Once you are in the canyon, you'll need to make your way back out.
We took about 4.5 hours total to hike ~7 miles (Three Mile Resthouse is actually more like 3.5 miles down into the canyon). The rule of thumb is that it will take you twice as long to go up as it does to come down because the incline is so steep and challenging. We were actually a bit slower going down as we navigated snow and ice that melted as the day warmed up. There are pit toilets, small shelters, and emergency phones at the 1.5 Mile Resthouse as well as the 3 Mile Resthouse. The Bright Angel Trail is shared by both hikers and mule trains heading to Phantom Ranch; if you encounter the mules, hug the inside wall and give them the right of way. And watch out for mule poop!
The park is home to a robust interpretive infrastructure if you don't feel like hiking or if you have extra time to look around. Some of the visitor center buildings are still closed with Covid protocols, but there are a number of museums and information centers. Check the NPS website to see what will be open when you visit.
What to Eat
A grocery store stop is always a staple part of our hiking trips, and I’d highly recommend stocking up on whatever food and drinks you need well before you get to Grand Canyon so you don't have to leave the park at meal times. Our shopping list usually includes a case of water, Diet Coke, sandwich makings (bread, salami, cheese - stuff that can hold up without refrigeration), and snacks like trail mix and cookies. We'll often grab a six pack of local beer too if we know we won't have time to visit a brewery and grab a growler or some crowlers. Be sure to bring a couple of Ziploc or Stasher bags and a plastic knife or two from home! If we think of it, we’ll buy a single roll of paper towels too that can serve as napkins or spill clean up along our road trip.
A note - save any plastic shopping bags you get from your grocery trip. We often bring packable, reusable shopping bags and transfer our snacks to these for easy car access. Then we'll save the plastic bags to wrap muddy boots and hiking poles in to keep the mess compartmentalized on the journey home.
Regardless of the weather, when hiking Grand Canyon, you’ll want to have *lots* of water and some good snacks to sustain you on your hike. You can’t always count on the water taps working at the various rest houses you’ll encounter (can you imagine trying to maintain those pipes?!) and they are often shut off in shoulder seasons, so plan to carry whatever water you’ll need. This meant 2-3 large Nalgene/Hydroflask bottles per person for our day hike. For snacks, keep an eye towards salt intake since you’ll be sweating - even if you don’t feel it at altitude. Salty stuff like nuts or trail mix is great! Consider tossing a few packets of Liquid IV in your backpack to help rehydrate you along the way. Between air travel, the altitude, and hiking exertion, your body will need to be replenished!
Once you’re at Grand Canyon, there are no microwaves in the hotel rooms or buildings, so you’ll be reliant on whatever food you’ve brought or whatever you can buy to eat. Be aware that restaurants can have quite long waits - even at off hours - so your snacks may come in handy in your room as well as on the trail. We were glad to have the handful of in-park restaurants within walking distance along the South Rim after our busy days.
When we visited in March 2022, a number of the restaurants listed on the NPS website were closed or had limited hours - this was likely due to a combination of it being shoulder season and continued staffing challenges related to Covid. Fred Harvey Burger had a 90 minute wait for dinner one night, but we were able to put our name on the list and relax in our room while we waited for a text message saying our table was ready. If you're wandering around Bright Angel Lodge during the daytime, take a look in the excellent gift shop and the Harvey history room.
We enjoyed a special dinner at the El Tovar Dining Room on our final night. They take reservations for hotel guests up to 30 days before your stay, or you can wait for a walk in table or a spot in the lounge. The log-lined dining room has classic supper club vibes with a pretty spectacular view. Plus they'll cork up your bottle of wine and pack dessert to go!
Where to Stay
We stayed at Kachina Lodge, one of the five Xanterra-managed hotels within the bounds of Grand Canyon National Park. The main lodge, El Tovar, is on the National Register of Historic Places and has hosted famous guests like President Theodore Roosevelt. El Tovar, Kachina, and the other Rim-side properties are definitely a splurge, but the convenience of rolling out of bed and strolling 200 yards to the trailhead can’t be beat. Plus - the canyon views are one of a kind!
The accommodations at Kachina were fairly basic but clean and comfortable. There was a refrigerator, iron, safe, blow dryer, and coffee maker in each room along with a TV and reliable wifi. Large size toiletries and a retractable clothes line in the bathroom were welcome touches. And check out these cute tiles in the shower featuring local wildlife, including the famed Grand Canyon mules, California condors, elk, squirrels, and ringtails. We loved being able to watch the canyon change with the weather and time of day right outside our window!
A Quick Side Trip
A final recommendation if you’re flying in and out of Las Vegas is to save some time to visit Hoover Dam. If you just want to see it from a distance and snag a photo like we did, the excursion takes 15-20 minutes tops - totally worth the small detour! Hoover Dam also has lots more involved tours and programs. We simply plugged the Mike O'Callaghan - Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge parking lot into Google maps, pulled off the highway following the directions, went through the quick security check, and walked across the bridge for an awesome view of the Dam.
If you are afraid of heights, this may not be the detour for you as the bridge hovers nearly 900 feet above the Colorado River! The pedestrian walkway is blocked off from the highway lanes by a tall concrete barrier and metal barriers block the long way down to the Colorado River and the Hoover Dam. Be sure to hold on to your hats - it's windy up there! Enjoy the view of Lake Mead, the terminus of the Colorado River that, over millions of years, shaped the Grand Canyon.