Dark, cold, and miserable — that’s what a lot of people expect from the Grand Canyon in the winter. Defrosting your gear with a morning fire every day. Getting into your sleeping bag as soon as you make camp every night. Too cold to stop paddling, but hands too cold to hold your paddle. A veritable sufferfest.
I’ve heard of some trips like that, but it’s worth taking the risk of atypically cold weather for the experience of the secluded, quiet canyon and the beautiful winter scenery. Not to mention the fact that it can be nearly impossible to win a spring, summer, or fall permit in the regular lottery these days. Spring and fall are great times of year to be in the Canyon, but the snow on the rim, the limited number of river users, and the ease of winning a permit make frequent winter trips a high priority for me.
Temperatures and Daylight
From December to February, average lows at Phantom Ranch are 38º, average highs 58º. The coldest time of year tends to be right around the beginning of January, but even then, the average daytime high is 56º. It can definitely be colder than this — I’ve heard of a couple self-support trips where their gear was covered in ice while on the water. Every single day. But that’s definitely not the norm, and you can always just wear more layers and light a big fire when you get to camp.
Average precipitation for winter trips is middle of the road — rainier than May, but less rainy than September. It often snows on the rim, but it’s very rare that snow reaches the bottom of the canyon, and when it does, it doesn’t stick around. I’ve never had a rainstorm last more than 12 hours in the winter months, and on the water you don’t really notice it; it can be a bit of a downer trying to pack up camp in the morning in the rain, but that’s just how it goes, sometimes.
Sunlight (or lack thereof) is the biggest drawback of a winter trip, and the main reason a February winter trip is a lot more pleasant than a mid-December one. The shortest day of the year (December 21st) has about nine hours and forty minutes of daylight at Phantom Ranch. Doesn’t sound too bad, and it’s more than enough for making miles and having plenty of time to hang out at camp and hike. The real bummer is that because the sun stays so low in the sky, it’s rare that it crests the canyon walls and actually shines on you at the bottom of the canyon. The standard waterproof guidebook (by Tom Martin) has good information about which camps have winter sun and it’s worth paying attention to that — sun can make all the difference between a nice afternoon spent lounging around with a beer and going to bed at 6pm because you’ve been cold since you got to camp.
Winning a Permit
With more and more private boaters applying in the lottery, winning a permit is getting pretty tough. Even with five points in the lottery — the standard if you’ve never been on a trip — your odds of winning a permit during the summer are worse than 1%. Applying for spring or fall (some of the best times to be in the canyon, in my opinion)? Your odds hover around 5-10%. Apply for the right dates mid-winter? Your odds approach 99.99%. No joke. Only have one point? You still have a decent chance of winning a winter date, and a completely negligible chance of winning anything else. December and January seem to be the best times to apply, but the full window of November-March is pretty reasonable.
Can’t seem to win a permit in the main lottery? Not a problem — once you enter the main lottery, the Park Service will send you emails when they have follow-up cancellation lotteries. These can contain dates anywhere from a year in advance to a week in advance. The short-term ones are your best bet — not many people think they can organize a trip with a week’s notice, so very few people apply, but for a self-support, it’s pretty manageable. I’ve done one raft trip where we got the permit with just nine days notice and even that worked out ok — Canyon REO had gear available for us to rent and we hit the road for Flagstaff so we could food shop in the couple days before the trip. Generally, though, if you’re diligent about applying for winter dates as they come up throughout the year, you’ll get a permit, even if you only have one point.
For me, this is the best part of a winter trip. There are no commercial trips and most days only see one private launch. If you’re on a 16-20 day raft trip, you’re likely to go the majority of your trip without seeing another group. On a self-support, with a shorter schedule, you’ll pass a handful of groups, but raft trips tend to cluster together and you’ll probably see most of them over one or two days. There’s no negotiating (or arguing) over camps, no sharing slot canyons with other groups, and nobody around to remind you that the canyon wilderness is really a very controlled environment. It actually feels like you’re out there, on your own, an experience that can be hard to come by on such a heavily trafficked river.