For day trippers, winter is a great time to visit Grand Canyon National Park’s South rim: there’s plenty of parking, visitor services are open, Hermit Road is open to private vehicles, and there’s still great shuttle service for those wanting to hike at least part of South Kaibab Trail.
We didn’t anticipate that the just-below-freezing overnight temperature would trip the low tire pressure warning in our rental car (from Las Vegas), so by the time we found a self-serve air pump station and topped up all four tires, we headed north from Flagstaff a good half hour later than planned.
We stopped briefly at the Village to use the public restrooms and and take in our first view of the Grand Canyon before heading off along Hermit Road.
Hermit’s Rest Road
Hermit Road is open to private vehicles just three months of the year: December, January and February. Otherwise, access to the nine viewpoints along this 11 km (7 mile) winding route is via shuttle bus. We visited in late January, so we enjoyed the opportunity to stop at the various viewpoints according to our own schedule, in some spots taking turns driving the rental vehicle to the next parking area while the other one walked a stretch of the Rim Trail.
Remnants of snow from earlier in the week gave the Grand Canyon a bit of a different look compared to our previous visit more than 10 years ago.
One thing we kept noticing is how many tourists ignored the safety railings installed at the viewpoints, aiming to get a “better” photo. And we were taken aback by the number of tourists who’d packed two or three shirts/sweaters/hats/pairs of sunglasses in order to get multiple photos that – thanks to wardrobe changes – would give them their pick of images for their Instagram/Facebook/other social media feeds! Is this a thing now?
Once I remembered that safety railings are actually few and far between, I reined in my impulse to judge those who ignored them. I also never ventured as near to the edge as Mr GeoK, who has always been much more comfortable with heights than I am!!
While photos that attempt to convey the vast depth and breadth of the Grand Canyon are the most natural subject matter at this natural wonder of the world, I tried to change things up a bit by incorporating vegetation as a natural frame.
Just as we learned about borax mining at Death Valley National Park, we learned about uranium mining in the Grand Canyon thanks to signage about the short-lived Canyon Mine. Here, Mr. GeoK turns back from looking down at abandoned mine equipment.
It was late morning by the time we reached the end of the road and parked at Hermit’s Rest, where we spent a bit of time browsing in the gift shop before retracing our route back to the Village and beyond, to the Grand Canyon Visitor Center where we ate our packed lunch in the parking lot. Our vehicle windows were rolled up against the cool temperature, but that didn’t stop a habituated raven from perching on the adjacent vehicle hood and waiting for a tidbit or two. It eventually gave up and flew away!
South Kaibab Trail
Year-round, access to the South Kaibab Trail is by shuttle bus (included with park admission). We boarded at the main Visitor Centre bus depot and stepped off again about five minutes later. Since it was already early afternoon, we planned to hike down to Ooh Aah Point, enjoy the view for a bit and then hike back up.
The first several switchbacks were extremely icy, as they’re in the shade most of the day. The narrow, slippery trail, with a steep drop off on the one side, stressed me out a little; I never thought I’d be so grateful for walking on a blanket of donkey dung in my life! 🙂 It was a pretty good traction aid, but I was glad we didn’t have to move out of the way of any mules coming up or going down.
Fortunately, within 10 or 15 minutes we were past the really slippery bit and into the sunshine, steadily descending towards our objective.
The final approach to the viewpoint is via a rocky staircase. I hung back while Mr GeoK went on ahead to perch on the big rock on the right, to take in the view.
A cute sign marked our turnaround point.
We hung around for a bit, enjoying the view and taking photographs.
Then, conscious of the passing of time, our desire to stop at the Desert View Watchtower and the drive back to Flagstaff, we turned back towards the rim. Total hiking distance = 2.9 km (1.8 miles) with an elevation loss/gain of 211 meters (230 yards).
Desert View Watchtower
After catching a shuttle bus back to the main Visitor Centre and a scary minute when our rental car didn’t seem to have any steering, we drove east towards Desert View Watchtower. On our first visit to the Grand Canyon when our kids were little, this was our first stop when visiting the South Rim. Fond memories prompted a return visit, this time without kids.
Late in the afternoon, the Desert View Watchtower was a busy place. In late January 2020, COVID-19 was still something happening in China, so we joined the lines of visitors climbing up and down the single staircase connecting each floor to the next. I had to wait…and wait…and wait to get a shot of Mr GeoK and nobody else.
On the advice of staff at the Flagstaff visitor centre, we drove a long loop over the course of the day (US-180 W / AZ-64 N on the way there, returning via AZ-64 E / US-89 S), with a short out-and-back extension in Grand Canyon NP, along Hermit Road. While it’s nice not to drive the same route in both directions, we didn’t think the scenery along the morning route warranted the extra driving time and lack of passing lanes. Total driving distance = 322 km (200 miles), total trip time (including short hike) = 9 hours.
If you’ve not been to the Grand Canyon, this natural wonder of the world is definitely worth a visit. If possible, go during the winter months, when it’s less crowded. If you plan to hike at least part way down one of the main trails during the winter months, traction aids may come in handy. Any time of year, it’s a good idea to pack lots of water and use sunblock.