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 begin to absorb its beauty and scope. But, not everyone has the luxury of multiple visits, so we’re here help you choose the best time of year for your family to visit. (Then visit our essential guide for families visiting the Grand Canyon.)
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 and 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.
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 58–84) and November (46–68) 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 June–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.
Best Time to Explore the Interior
Many visitors will not feel satisfied by a visit to the Grand Canyon without descending down 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 foot or on mule-back.
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 family’s 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. A wintertime trip is great for those who want smaller crowds and evenings by the fire.
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 break, spring break and any other holiday is going to spike attendance. With more than 6 million annual visitors, there can be long lines to get in, a wait for some good viewpoints and waits for virtually everything else. In fact, 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 on 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.
Best Time for Special Events
Grand Canyon National Park is celebrating its centennial year in 2019, and the park has dozens of events planned, making it a special time to visit the park. Highlights include a summer festival celebrating the native tribes of Arizona in late June, a lecture series on Art and the Grand Canyon in July, a fee-free day in August and many more cultural and educational events.
The park also hosts annual events such as an Independence Day parade in July, stargazing nights in June and a two-day Native American Heritage Celebration each November to honor National Native American Heritage Month. Visit the NPS website for a complete list of events, times and locations.
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. If you’re excited about wildlife viewing and/or photography in the park, the NPS website provides essential regulations and safety tips.
For example, the majestic elk that inhabit the Grand Canyon are considered the most dangerous animals 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 remaining at a distance of 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, mountain lions and more — 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.
Cheapest Times to Visit the Grand Canyon
Searching the Skyscanner website 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 departure city. If you’re flying from New York to Phoenix, for example, November is an affordable time to travel, though prices spike for the Thanksgiving holiday. Flights from Los Angeles are lowest in June, Boston flights go down in August and Atlanta-based flights are cheapest in October.
Use Skyscanner to find an affordable time of year to travel from your town. However, if 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 choice are pretty simple. Staying inside the park gives a more immersive experience and more time to enjoy the natural surroundings of the canyon. Staying outside, you’ll have access to more varied services and the opportunity to book your lodging with rewards points.
Inside the Park
To stay inside the canyon at the Phantom Ranch, enter the NPS’s lottery 15 months before your travel dates. For this option, 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.
Outside the Park
Here’s a fun, low-stress way for families 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 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 adults/$153 kids to ride in a special “dome car,” as well as an option to have your own parlor car for $225 per person. Alas, no children are allowed in the parlor car. (Here’s a review of the Grand Canyon Railway from Grandpa Points.)
The Holiday Inn Express Williams, a half-mile from the train depot, has two queen beds per rooms with 42-inch TV, microwave and fridge from 25,000 IHG Rewards Club points/night, with breakfast included.
Wyndham offers several properties in Williams for 15,000 points/night, including Travelodge by Wyndham Williams Grand Canyon, which has rooms with two queen beds with free continental breakfast; adjoining rooms are also available.
There’s also a Best Western Plus in Williams, with free full breakfast from 12,000 points/night.
Tusayan is the closest town to the park entrance. It also has a Best Western — the Premier Grand Canyon Squire Inn — with rooms from 20,000 points/night (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. However, some times are better than others. I’d avoid July and August, if possible and target 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 (i.e., 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.
Continue your Grand Canyon vacation planning with these tips:
- Camping in the Grand Canyon With a Family
- Tips for Visiting National Parks With Kids
- Visit America’s National Parks for Less
- 11 Tips for Celebrating the Grand Canyon’s 100th Birthday
- Taking a Great American Family Road Trip
Featured image by Shahriar Erfanian, 41 Stories Photography / Getty Images.
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