Grand Canyon – South Kaibab Trail
A winter hiking trip to the Grand Canyon has been on my bucket list for some time. If you can hit it during mild weather, this year-round national park offers some beautiful scenery with fewer people than summer.
Last year on a return trip from visiting family back east, we carved out a couple of days to stop by here. However, temperatures around 0 deg F near Williams, Az. knocked out the hope of hiking as the water froze the RV pump.
This year we hit it at the right time. A winter storm had passed through before Christmas which we ran into while eastbound. During this visit, the temps were forecast to be in the 50’s during the day and high teens at night at our campground. Trailer village, one of the commercially run sites within the park was fairly empty and ended up being a nice place to stay.
The visitor center of Grand Canyon National Park is a busy place, but we needed to find out the trail conditions for our hike the next day. We planned for the South Kaibab, which was open and other than some ice near the top, showed good conditions.
The shuttle service along the South Rim is an awesome way to get around. We made our way to Mather Point to watch the sunset and walked along the Rim Trail. This is where most of the tourists hang out. It was a leisurely walk with amazing views. We talked about our hike the next day and noticed some lenticular clouds along the North Rim.
We’ve come to learn about cloud types and this type meant one thing – wind is coming. Oh well, as long as it wasn’t like the hurricane force winds we encountered in Anza-Borrego last spring.
As the sun went down, the temperature dropped dramatically. A stiff breeze brought the wind chill to around freezing. We made our way back to a warm RV and made a nice pot of coffee. Oh well, so much for roughing it.
By morning, the winds were gusty but overall a decent weather day. We made our way to the shuttle and missed it. While waiting for the next one, the sun made its way up, creeping over the trees and creating a sliver of sunlight. We stood in the light and amazingly it was a few degrees warmer.
Catching the shuttle to the South Kaibab is fairly easy; they don’t allow cars there in the winter. As we exited the warmth of the bus at the trailhead, it became obvious why we were the only ones that got off. The wind was gusting 35-40mph and it was chilly. We bundled up, found the trailhead and started down. It starts out at 7,200 ft. and gets a bit of snow. The dust swirled from every direction and we put our bandanas on to keep it out of our mouths and noses. Within a few minutes, the only exposed skin was the area between our sunglasses and bandanas.
There was spotty ice on the trail and we slowly made our way down. The wind was buffeting my wife as we descended. I hoped for a respite from the wind and within 5 minutes, we reached a protected area of the trail and adjusted our packs and clothing. The wind and subfreezing temps were going to make this a challenging hike. I estimated that it would warm as we went down and the winds should hopefully let up some.
The switchbacks near the top are frequent and fairly steep, but this is a well maintained and frequently traveled trail. Soon, we would be passed by a small pack mule train. While on the John Muir Trail last year, we saw over a dozen mule trains and it was usually easy to step aside and let them by. Today, we backed up against the wall and the mules passed inches away. The riders were friendly as they guided their train down a steep stair step that had been carved out of the canyon.
We made our way down to Ooh-Ah Point which was appropriately named.
The next stop was Cedar Ridge and this one had a composting toilet-nice! We started seeing more people and got back on the trail because it was still fairly cold here. The wind never really let up on this hike.
The colors are really amazing in this area. As the sun moves across the horizon, the canyon walls seem to change various hues. We also noticed how short the daylight was and determined that while we could probably handle the physical part of a hike to the river below, we would run out of light. The thought of trudging up as the temps dropped helped us to decide to stop at Skeleton Point. Some trail riders came up as we were taking a break and they looked tired. Must have been a rough night down there and the wind was taking its toll on them.
As I glanced up the return path, dust devils were sporadically dancing across the trail and off the cliffs. The hike back up was different in that it was 3 miles of uphill. This would be a tough one in the summer as the elevation change is roughly 700 ft. per mile. No water on this trail, so bring enough for an all day hike. Just because it was cool doesn’t mean you need less. We went through just over 2 liters each.
The wind never really let up on this hike. Admittedly, it was the windiest, dustiest hike we’ve been on. Still, it was awesome and is worth the visit. Next time, we may do Bright Angel and go all the way across.