The best times to visit the Grand Canyon
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There are so many different vantage points and ways to experience the vast Grand Canyon National Park that you can easily visit a dozen times before you really begin to absorb its beauty and scope. But, not everyone has the luxury of multiple visits, so we’re here to help you choose the best time of year for your trip.
Just remember, the Grand Canyon is still in a phased reopening, so be sure to check the National Park Service’s website for the latest information if you’re planning to travel soon. Desert View facilities remain closed, for example, and the North Rim visitor center will remain closed for the season.
The best weather in the Grand Canyon
There are trade-offs to choosing the right season for your Grand Canyon adventure. At the South Rim (6,800-foot elevation, an hour and 45 minutes north of Flagstaff), spring runs from March to May while fall runs from September to November. Both offer relatively moderate temperatures. Nighttime lows during these seasons are often in the 30s while daytime temperatures will rise into the 60s: pleasant for hiking, but it can get a little wet. Inside the canyon, temperatures range from 55 to a high of 82 degrees during the shoulder seasons.
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The North Rim, (8,000-foot elevation, four hours from Flagstaff or the South Rim) is only open from mid-May through mid-October due to the potential for snowy conditions. When this part of the park opens for visitors, temperatures range from the low 30s to highs in the 60s and then warm up through the summer.
At the West Rim (about three hours from Las Vegas), where you’ll find the famous Grand Canyon Skywalk, spring is warmer, with lows in the 50s and highs mostly in the 80s. Temperatures at the West Rim are quite hot in September (high 60s to high 90s), while October (averaging 58 to 84 degrees) and November (46 to 68 degrees) are more moderate.
Not surprisingly, summer brings dry conditions and hot temperatures, as the South Rim temperatures rise to the 80s and above — up to 100 at the bottom of the canyon. At the North Rim, temperatures are less extreme, ranging from the mid-40s to the upper 70s in June through August. The West Rim can be uncomfortable in summer, with average temperatures ranging from the upper 70s to above 100 degrees.
The South Rim area remains open during winter, with temperatures at the rim generally ranging from the 20s to the low 40s, and, on the floor of the canyon, high 30s to high 50s.
Many visitors consider winter a special time to visit, as the dramatic snow-dusted red rocks receive only 10% of the tourists that flock to the national park during the summer heat. If you want to beat the crowds, then, winter may be the best time to visit.
The best time to explore the interior
Many visitors will not feel satisfied by a visit to the Grand Canyon without descending into the canyon, at least part of the way. The view from inside is quite different from the broad vistas at the rim. This special experience can be had in a variety of ways, including independent or guided treks on a mule or by foot.
First, no matter what time of year you go, the only time to hike in or out of the Grand Canyon is daytime. At the South Rim, you’ll see numerous signs cautioning not to hike to the bottom and back in one day. The trip down to the canyon floor is about 7 or 9 miles, depending on which trail you choose; hiking back up is strenuous, and takes twice as long as the way down, even for experienced hikers. If you are still on the trail after dark, those pleasant, well-groomed paths become treacherous. Visit the National Park Service website and read its FAQ for hikers.
A variety of providers offer guided hikes to the canyon floor as well as mule rides into the canyon from the South Rim.
The best time to venture to the canyon floor by any method depends on your tolerance for heat or cold and what activities excite you. If you dream of splashing in the Colorado River, choose summer or early fall when the water is a little warmer. (Rafting trips began resuming in mid-June.) A wintertime trip is great for travelers who want smaller crowds and evenings by the fire.
The best time to avoid crowds
You probably didn’t need me to tell you this, but the Grand Canyon gets busier when school is out of session. Summer, spring break and any other holiday is going to mean a spike attendance.
With more than 6 million annual visitors, there can be long lines to get in, crowds at the most popular viewpoints and waits for virtually everything else. The National Park Service even has tips for surviving crowding at the South Rim.
If you can avoid going when school is on a traditional break, you’ll be rewarded with lighter crowds. If you must go during a school break because your life revolves around a school schedule, then check out the NPS crowd survival guide linked above and be sure to enter the park as early as you can in the morning.
Related: Tips for visiting national parks with kids
The best time for special events
During a normal year, Grand Canyon National Park typically hosts annual events such as an Independence Day parade in July, stargazing nights in June and a two-day Native American Heritage Celebration in November to honor National Native American Heritage Month.
The best times to see wildlife
Grand Canyon National Park is home to 447 bird species, 91 species of mammals, 48 species of reptiles, 10 species of amphibians and a world of bugs and insects.
The elk that inhabit the Grand Canyon are considered the most dangerous animal in the park. They weigh up to 730 pounds and, according to the NPS, can become aggressive during the fall (their mating season), so the park service recommends staying at least 100 feet or more from these animals.
In general, the best times to catch glimpses of mammals — including the elk, bighorn sheep, bison, mule deer, javelinas and mountain lions — is to visit when the park is cool and quiet. Dawn and dusk are good times of the day to spot wildlife. You’ll see more animal activity for more of the day during the cooler months in late fall, winter and early spring, not only because of the weather but also because more animals appear when there are fewer humans around.
Bird-watchers may be able to spot rare species, as several threatened and endangered birds make the park their home. These include the California condor, southwestern willow flycatcher, western yellow-billed cuckoo and others. In addition to the California condor, several other birds of prey can be seen, including peregrine falcons, red-tailed and zone-tail hawks, and Mexican spotted owls. The best time of year for bird-watching in the park is autumn, but you’ll see some of these species at any time of year.
The cheapest times to visit the Grand Canyon
Searching for flights on Skyscanner, you’ll find that the least expensive time of year to fly from major cities to Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport (PHX) or Las Vegas McCarran International Airport (LAS) varies by origin.
If you’re flying from New York City to Phoenix, for example, November is typically an affordable time to travel, though prices spike for the Thanksgiving holiday. During a normal year, flights from Los Angeles are lowest in June, while flights from Boston drop in August and Atlanta-based flights are cheapest in October.
Use Skyscanner to find an affordable time of year to travel from your preferred airport. If, however, you’re planning to trek to the canyon floor, you’ll want to book that experience first (15 months ahead); that will give you plenty of time to find an affordable flight. Here are some tips for maximizing your airline miles for a domestic trip.
When you visit Grand Canyon National Park, you have a choice of staying inside the park or in a neighboring community, and the pros and cons of each are pretty simple. Staying inside the park gives you a more immersive experience and more time to enjoy the natural surroundings of the canyon.
Stay outside, and you’ll have access to more varied services and the opportunity to book your lodging with rewards points. Note that not all accommodations are open at this time due to the pandemic. Always contact the hotel directly to confirm availability.
Hotels inside the park: Reservations for lodging at the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park are handled by Delaware North and Xanterra Parks & Resorts, with rooms becoming available a year in advance. To stay inside the canyon at Phantom Ranch, enter the National Park Service’s lottery 15 months before your travel dates. Mule riders must be at least 9 years of age and up. At the North Rim, Grand Canyon Lodge offers a few types of cabins and lodge rooms; only the Western Cabins provide two queen beds.
Hotels outside the park: Here’s a fun, low-stress way for travelers to visit the Grand Canyon: Stay outside the park, in the charming small town of Williams (54 miles south of the South Rim), and take the Grand Canyon Railway into the park (two hours and 15 minutes). Two trains leave the depot each morning, returning to Williams in the late afternoon. You’ll enjoy the beautiful scenery without driving. Prices for the train ride range from Pullman Class at $67 round-trip for adults and $32 for kids, up to $189 for adults and $153 for kids to ride in the glass Observation Dome. Alas, no children are allowed in the parlor car.
The Holiday Inn Express Williams, a half-mile from the train depot, has rooms with two queen beds, 42-inch televisions, a microwave and a fridge available from 25,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night, with breakfast included.
Wyndham offers several properties in Williams for 15,000 points per night, including Travelodge by Wyndham Williams Grand Canyon, which has rooms with two queen beds and free continental breakfast; adjoining rooms are also available.
There’s also the Best Western Plus Inn of Williams, with free breakfast available from 16,000 points per night.
Tusayan is the closest town to the park entrance. It also has a Best Western Premier Grand Canyon Squire Inn — with rooms available from 24,000 points per night with two queen beds.
Unless you are targeting the North Rim, which is closed for the colder half of the year, there’s no bad time to visit the Grand Canyon. It’s magical 365 days per year. Some times, however, are certainly better than others.
We’d avoid July and August, if possible and target travel dates between March to May (before Memorial Day) or September to October (but after Labor Day). If you must go during a peak time of the year (read: summer), consider the more secluded North Rim. Maybe even add on a trip to Zion National Park, just a couple of hours away. That way, you can check off several of the country’s best national parks in one trip.
Featured image by Shahriar Erfanian, 41 Stories Photography/Getty Images.
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