A frosty winter tour of natural wonders, from Arizona’s Grand Canyon to Utah’s Bryce Canyon, with a few memorable side trips mixed in
Summer is the most popular season for traveling to America’s most famous national parks, but a winter visit not only beats the crowds, it offers a completely different kind of experience, one of intimacy and adventure amid majestic landscapes of frosty beauty. After seeing Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon national parks in their summer glory many times, we had a hankering to explore them when they were blanketed in snow. Last winter we waited patiently in our fifth-wheel in the warmth of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert and watched the weather forecasts until a blizzard was predicted that would cross both canyons. That was our cue to hit the highway.
We arrived in northern Arizona as a light snow was falling, the last remnants of the blizzard. Snow piled high on the sides of the road. We were surprised to find a lot of activity at Tusayan, a cluster of hotels, restaurants and an RV park on the outskirts of Grand Canyon National Park. The same thing proved true within the park at Grand Canyon Village, close to the South Rim. Shuttle buses rolled along on their winter routes, picking up and dropping off tourists wearing down jackets, scarves, mittens and hats. The partially plowed parking lots held a surprising number of cars. Apparently, we were not the only ones who wanted to see the canyon’s cliffs covered in snow.
Only a few viewpoints were open, and we hustled out to the first one we came to. Following the short path to the edge of the canyon, we were thrilled to find ourselves in a world of swirling mist and snow. We could barely make out the rocky cliff jutting out into the canyon 100 yards away, and the people standing there, looking over the railing, were mere specks against the fog behind them. Surely, all they could see was a world of white. But the sun was working hard to clear away the mist, and as we walked along the Rim Trail in the snowy footprints laid down by other eager tourists, the sky soon cleared, and we could see the colorful layers of the cliffs in the distance.
Then, in a truly spectacular light show, the sun and clouds began to play hide-and-seek over the canyon, alternately casting light and shadow across its depths. The sky changed rapidly, and with every passing moment the scenery in front of us transformed as some peaks glowed in the radiant light while others went dark. Along the trail, the snow was deep, and the tree branches hung low under the weight. The canyon walls near the top were white, while the interior landscapes showed the familiar crimson and rich brown shades we were accustomed to seeing in summer.
At one viewpoint, tourists tromped out through the snow to get a better look and pose for photos with the wintry backdrop of the Grand Canyon behind them. Even though it was the off-season, we had lots of company. With some of the roads and trails closed until the snow could be cleared, we all gathered around the few open viewpoints near Grand Canyon Village.
The Grand Canyon has a different aura in winter than in the summertime, with the snow bringing out the playfulness in all of us. We were sharing a special moment in a winter wonderland that also happened to be one of the most stunning places on the planet. Languages from every corner of the world filled the air, and we flashed delighted grins at each other, even though we exchanged few words. We knew we were all a little crazy to be there right then, and that made it especially fun.
Glen and Red Canyons
Weather forecasts told us the blizzard was still pounding Bryce Canyon, so we took our time and savored a few special spots along the way in the snow-free areas of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The Colorado River winds through the desert in this part of northern Arizona, cutting through the sandstone like a knife. One of the turns the river takes is so sharp that it looks like a horseshoe from the plateau 1,000 feet above the water. We couldn’t pass by without doing the quick hike to gaze in awe at this exquisite landmark known as Horseshoe Bend.
A little farther on, we stopped at the Glen Canyon Dam overlook. Sheer canyon walls like those flanking Horseshoe Bend line both sides of the river here as well, and in the distance the massive concrete blockade of the dam holds back the mighty Colorado River. Once an enormous gorge carved by a thin ribbon of river, Glen Canyon metamorphosed into sprawling Lake Powell when the dam was completed in 1966.
Crossing into Utah, the road climbed higher, and we soon saw snow on the farm fields lining both sides of the road. As we approached Bryce Canyon on State Route 12, the warm-up show of Red Canyon sent our hearts soaring. The pink stone cliffs, towering hoodoos and two magnificent red-rock arches that span the highway were all trimmed in white.
Just like Grand Canyon National Park, post-blizzard Bryce Canyon was not only open but was hosting adventurous tourists. Again, not all of the viewpoints were open, and the paths to get from the parking lots to the overlooks were a bit slick. But as soon as we got out on the Rim Trail, we were mesmerized by the sea of red-rock hoodoos, each wearing horizontal stripes of snow and topped with a white cap.
The Rim Trail had been trampled by dozens of boots, but as we got away from Inspiration Point to more distant spots, we found ourselves placing our feet in the deep footprints of others who had gone before us. We chatted with another visitor who had been coming to Bryce Canyon every winter for 40 years, and he said he had never seen the snow this deep.
Although winter slows the pace at Grand Canyon and Bryce Canyon national parks, RVers prepared for snow and subfreezing temperatures will enjoy less crowded overlooks and trails. Roads to the four main viewpoints in Bryce Canyon and all roads on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon are open year-round, except when closed for snow while plows work to clear them. Winter weather in both parks is unpredictable, with snowfall often followed by clear skies and sunshine. Before setting out in either park, stop by the respective visitor center to get the latest information on roads, trails and weather conditions.
A sense of pure adventure filled the sunny and crackling air. We hadn’t been sure if hiking would be allowed and were elated when we saw people heading down the snow-covered Navajo Loop Trail that goes deep into the amphitheater of hoodoos. We quickly followed, and as we descended, we gazed in wonder at the orange pinnacles rising up around us.
This trail is spectacular in warm weather, but to hike it in winter was such a rush.
Away from the rim, many of the trails through the ponderosa pines bore the footprints of hikers, and one morning we ventured out on a paved bike path that was blanketed in snow. As we got deeper into the woods, the silence became more profound.
It was a world of frozen stillness.A mile from the national park entrance, Ruby’s Inn RV Park keeps a single campground loop open near the main lodge during winter. It was hard to imagine as we walked through the vast snow-covered campground that the whole area would be filled with hundreds of RVs in a few short months. Inside the national park, at least one loop of the North Campground is open year-round, and we were astonished to see two tents set up. It’s one thing to winter camp in a heated and insulated RV, but pitching a tent on top of deep snow is an entirely different matter.
Early one morning, we got up in the predawn hours and hit the Rim Trail at Sunset Point in moonlit darkness. As the sunrise approached, a few more tourists arrived at the overlook. We were all lugging tripods and camera gear, and looking for a special spot to photograph the magic of a Bryce Canyon sunrise.
It was 12 degrees Fahrenheit, and we were bundled up to the hilt, but the madness was well worth it. The sun soon appeared on the horizon and spread its rays across the thousands of princess turrets that fill the grand fairy-tale bowl of Bryce Canyon. Camera shutters all along the trail clicked in unison as we caught the sun in the act of unfurling its soft-pink glow across the snowy landscape.
Once the sun was a little higher in the sky, we packed up our gear and headed back to Ruby’s Inn for a cafeteria-style breakfast of every kind of dish imaginable. We had worked up quite an appetite with our early morning adventure, and the scrambled eggs, bacon, pancakes, waffles, oatmeal and fruit tasted divine. But it was our yearning souls that were most satiated that morning, as we had witnessed one of nature’s most breathtaking vistas waking up on a crisp winter’s day.
Stay and Play
Bryce Canyon National Park
Ruby’s Inn RV Park and Campground
Bryce Canyon City
Grand Canyon Camper Village
Grand Canyon Village
Trailer Village RV Park
Grand Canyon Village
Trailer Life columnist and frequent contributor Emily Fagan has traveled full time by RV and sailboat with her husband, Mark, since 2007. The couple’s photos have appeared on more than 25 magazine covers and wall calendars, and Emily’s lifestyle, travel and how-to articles have been featured in more than a dozen RV and sailing publications. Follow their adventures on their blog, Roads Less Traveled.