Lean into winter at the Grand Canyon, both the spectacular National Park and the fascinating Grand Canyon West. Winter is our family’s favorite season but winter travel is often unpredictable. Yet an expedition to the one of the deepest canyons in the world at one of the coldest times of year was near the top of our Bucket List.
Grand Canyon or Grand Canyon West?
We flew into Las Vegas, rented a car and drove east into one of the worst blizzards we’d ever encountered. Our goal was Grand Canyon West, a Native American reservation. The Hualapai Nation have developed their reservation very smartly for tourism and the million-acre Grand Canyon West (GCW) is like a private park along 108 miles of the Colorado River.
GCW is often considered an alternative to “the” Grand Canyon. Our family found it a perfect introduction to the national park. We found them to be complementary, not exclusive, destinations. (Note that the region’s topography makes the adjacent Grand Canyon West and national park a 4-hour drive apart.)
Native American Tribes Were First at the Grand Canyon
The Grand Canyon region was historically home to 11 different Native American tribes, all of whom suffered during the Westward Expansion. Forced or voluntary relocation from the Grand Canyon cost indigenous people thousands of lives. Today, the National Park Service is trying to right many of those wrongs. At Grand Canyon National Park, for example, the Inter-tribal Cultural Heritage Center is under development at the Desert View Welcome Center on the South Rim. Check the NPS.gov website for a schedule of cultural demonstrations and North Rim Heritage Day performances, which move indoors to the Grand Canyon Visitors Center in winter.
Members of the Navajo Nation inhabit much of the East Rim and manage the Little Colorado River Gorge and Marble Canyon tribal parks. To see them, book a helicopter tour at Grand Canyon Village. Flightseeing tours fly over these equally spectacular geological wonders because the National Park Service forbids helicopters over the Grand Canyon itself.
Havasupai and Hualapai Indigenous Tribes
For generations, the Havasupai tribes were a migratory band that roamed over 1.6 million acres of the canyon. In 1882, the U.S. government confined them to a 518-acre reservation in today’s town of Supai. Hardship and famine split them into two bands –- the Havasupai and Hualapai.
The Hualapai were forcibly marched away from the Canyon in 1874, hiking for two weeks along the infamous Trail of Tears to a federal reservation. In 1883, the U.S. government awarded them their own million-acre reservation whose boundaries are still in dispute.
Why Grand Canyon West is So Special
Winter, spring, summer or fall, support the region’s Indigenous people at Grand Canyon West with your tourism dollars.
Within the Hualapai reservation lands, GCW visitors join helicopter tours and pontoon boats. Families hike from Eagle Point on designated trails lined with educational signage about Hualapai history and traditions. Take the free shuttle to Guano Point and hike up to the remnants of a cross-Canyon tram that once transported miners harvesting bat guano from a cave deep in the Canyon walls. Hualapai guards are on duty to protect visitors overcome by selfie-itis from getting too near the edge.
The GCW experience is unique because the Hualapai tribes allow access to the Canyon edges and fly directly over the river -– neither allowed in the National Park. The altitude at GCW ranges from the Canyon floor to about 4,000 feet. That height is much more comfortable for visitors than the 6,900-feet-plus attractions in the national park. The commitment of the Hualapai employees to sharing their traditions and culture also makes the experience more impactful.
Hualapai Tribal Lodging and Activities
We learned that the GCW staff commute 112 miles from their reservation’s capital, Peach Springs, Arizona, where schools preserve Native culture and language for their children.
Peach Springs is also the base for whitewater rafting with Hualapai River Runners. Unlike the rafting trips run by OARS and other outfitters from the national park, there’s easy access for all fitness levels to the Colorado River. During the mid-March to late October season, families check into Hualapai Lodge to join guided and self-guided hikes, ride their ATVs, fish and hunt on the land.
A strong GPS signal and several U-turns led us winter visitors straight to Grand Canyon West. After a snow-bound drive to Hualapai Ranch, we welcomed our cozy wooden room with strong heater, hot shower and microwave. During the mid-October to mid-April winter season, guests bring their own food and entertainment as all common facilities are closed. In return, you have the Grand Canyon’s majesty all to yourselves.
In late spring and summer, families settle into Hualapai Ranch to try the rifle range, zipline and horseback riding. This is the only nearby lodging to the Grand Canyon West entrance and Hwal-Bay Trading Post. RV owners can park at GCW lots for a maximum of three nights.
Skywalk and Other Must-Dos at Grand Canyon West in Winter
Winter activities are limited to flightseeing (weather permitting) and hiking. On the morning we were ticketed to visit Skywalk, it was closed due to ice clearing. We watched from the on-site restaurant as workers diligently broom-cleaned the 15-year-old glass bridge cantilevered 70 feet out over the Grand Canyon’s West Rim.
Because Skywalk is made of a dense glass said to withstand the weight of 70 fully loaded 747 airplanes, the Hualapai are very careful about its care. No metallic objects, cellphones, cameras — even sunglasses — are permitted on the bridge. Of course, this allows for a robust photography business. We found the $25 photography fee a bargain to have their photo team capture the whole family tiptoeing in terror above the Canyon walls. The views are, to say the least, tremendous.
Allow time for the small, intriguing museum of tribal culture, a fast casual burger restaurant and a gift shop packed with Native crafts. The Papillon flightseeing port is across the road; more on that later. Interestingly, there is a collection of traditional Native American houses to explore, even under snow.
Be respectful of the trails on the Hualapai Ranch property. In addition to markers identifying cactus and flowers, many describe the Hualapai ancestors who lost their lives in the Canyon below.
Flightseeing Over the Canyon Itself
Helicopters are a controversial attraction in most natural settings. They provide extraordinary viewing opportunities to the fortunate few. They create noise, air pollution and frighten wildlife for the many on the ground.
At Grand Canyon West, there is a Papillon Helicopter terminal adjacent to the park’s entry. Copters take off and land frequently, flying low along the Canyon following the Colorado River. Several tour options combine a pontoon boat ride on the river after your helicopter lands.
At Grand Canyon National Park, the helicopter terminal is in Tusayan, a large town near the Village. Commercial flights began there more than 50 years ago, when helicopters were used to service a Trans-Canyon water pipeline project. Flightseers veer south and east over the Navajo Nation and dip lower for bird’s-eye views of canyons and formations near the Little Colorado River.
Having seen the Canyon from above, from within, close up and distant, we found the aerial view magical. As the helicopter approaches the Canyon rim, the floor falls out from beneath you in a slow and breathtaking reveal. If you can afford a helicopter tour (starting from US$180 per person) on the energy-efficient, less polluting ECO-Star craft, it certainly adds a perspective that amps up the wonder.
“The” Grand Canyon and Grand Canyon Village
Most families heading to the national park fly into Phoenix or Flagstaff and drive north. Your destination is Grand Canyon Village, the commercial center supporting the park. (See our classic Grand Canyon to Las Vegas route to take one of America’s favorite road trips.)
Most of the park’s 6 million visitors shun the winter season, when the flat light, shorter days and snowbound roads limit sightseeing. If you love snow, ice and the way ice highlights a cactus spike or a weathered Joshua tree, a visit between November and April is for you.
Keep in mind that Grand Canyon National Park hotels are typically sold out a year in advance. In winter, however, cancellations often appear a few weeks in advance. Take advantage of them to stay as close to the South Rim as you can afford.
Lodging at Grand Canyon Village
We met friends in the lobby of the park’s most historic hotel, El Tovar, under taxidermized moose, elk and buffalo heads. Almost at the South Rim edge, it’s easy to understand why this charming, ca. 1905 lodge is the park’s the most expensive. Drive up, park and never get in your car again. When the winter sun slowly rises, roll out of your warm and comfortable bed. Breakfast in El Tovar’s famous wood-paneled dining room. The gleaming murals of Native American life were commissioned by Fred Harvey, owner of the Harvey House Hotels. Pause to study glass cases filled with Harvey House dishware, vintage postcards and the story of pioneering female architect Mary Colter. The stage is set for traveling back through eons of time at the Grand Canyon itself.
The more rustic Bright Angel Lodge is also on the South Rim at the trailhead to Bright Angel Trail. They have large guestrooms in a historic building, plus a lot of little cabins right on the rim of the Grand Canyon. Both Fred Harvey Burger and the casual bar, with its own vintage murals and very good food service, are off the lobby.
The motel style Thunderbird, further along the rim, is one value priced option. Maswick Lodge, another contemporary lodge in the park, has a food court for convenience. Yavapai Lodge is another moderately priced choice, located across from a grocery store in Grand Canyon Village.
Getting to Understand Geology at the Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon West is a sacred natural wonder revered by the Hualapai. Grand Canyon National Park, in contrast, is a scientific wonder to be studied.
The 14-mile Rim Walk, paved and bordered by a neat stone wall, has informative signage, geology timelines and photo displays. The Trail of Time is a 3D portrait of time that illuminates the region’s geology. A giant, multicolored slab showcases all the layers and ages of the Canyon’s different rock layers. Touch and analyze rock samples, while answering all the kids’ questions. Early morning and dusk walks will be brief thanks to the howling winds that come up in winter.
The top don’t-miss attraction for us is Yavapai Point Museum. This small and special geology museum hangs over the rim at the Yavapai Observation deck, a spot chosen for having the most representative views of the Grand Canyon.
Like the Rim Walk, the museum creates a picture of time, a visualization of passing eons through the erosion of rock layers of different colors. From red limestone on the top through layers of rust and green, tan, and brown, we peer into the black shadows cut into the deepest point by the Colorado River.
You soon realize from their informative displays that the Grand Canyon is actually getting wider over time. We are only 3.1 miles above Phantom Ranch, closed in winter, as the raven flies. However, the bridge that mules and hikers use to cross the Colorado River to the rugged hotel at the bottom of the Canyon is clearly visible.
Other Don’t Miss Grand Canyon Attractions
Hot chocolate and homemade cookies made Hermit’s Rest one of our favorite stops. It’s an excellent base for hikes too because there are so many trailheads nearby. The Hermit’s Rest itself is a very charming, whimsical, Mary Colter-designed stone and wood retreat. Tourists on Canyon mule rides back in 1910 needed a rest stop, so she perched it on the cliff’s edge where it remains.
The historic Mule Barn is located a couple of hundred yards from the train station (there’s sightseeing rail service from Williams, Arizona.) In winter, you won’t see as many mules as you would in summer, so kids have fun meeting a few of these beasts of burden at ‘home’. The stables date to 1907. Be sure to check in at the office to ask if there’s a wrangler available for tours. Anderson showed us around the complex, explaining what the mules were fed. Of the 60 animals there, some are ear-marked to accompany hikers to Phantom Ranch. Others are kept at Yaki Point, near the Kaibob Trailhead, where you can book two-hour-long rides.
Never Stop Exploring the Grand Canyons
If you can afford it, take advantage of a guided hike with the Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute. Book guided ½ day ($680 plus $100 gratuity), multi-day tours and rafting trips by phone or on their website. Expert guide Sherri O’Neill, a cultural anthropologist, led our hike on the Shoshone Trail to Shoshone Point. This lesser-known overlook offers views of several rock formations including Vishnu Temple. At Bright Angel Trail, she handed out walking sticks and crampons for the icy path. She led us down into the canyon to see more rocks and geological formations. And petroglyphs.
We were making connections between the spirituality of the Hualapai traditions at Grand Canyon West and the vestiges of indigenous habitation in the national park lands.
That one investment in a tour had an enormous impact on all of us. We checked the two Grand Canyons off our Bucket List.
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