What is it like to hike into the Grand Canyon in winter? Determined to find out, I took a small but intrepid group of Early Rise Hikers to test our mettle under February wintry conditions on the Bright Angel Trail. But while we felt courageous and adventuresome, our preparation was so on point as to make the whole thing, quite literally, a glorious but uneventful walk in the park. And that’s the key – with proper preparation, February turns out to be a wonderful time to hike the Grand Canyon!
Permits and other General Information
Our hike was a day trip, not involving any stay within the Canyon itself, and so did not require a permit. The National Park Service website provides a lot of information about the Grand Canyon and various activities, and can be used to tailor your own trip. For a February visit the Winter Hiking page is a good one to consult, as is this Introduction to Backcountry Hiking.
I’ll cover traction gear for ice and winter clothing in this article. For more on what to take in your backpack, have a look at Grand Canyon Day Trip: What’s in My Backpack?.
MicroSpikes and Hiking Poles
We knew that there was ice on the Bright Angel trail for at least a mile down the track from the trail head at the South Rim, and so at the suggestion of fellow hikers we purchased Kahtoola MicroSpikes. Crampons, I understand, are for more technical ice hiking – and by that I mean that the grade is such that other equipment such as picks, axes, and leashes are also required. The Bright Angel Trail is a gentle grade and is also reasonably well-manicured .
The microspikes were very effective, biting into the ice in such a way that we were able to walk along the icy trail with no qualms. Hiking poles added stability, and I would say that they were probably even more useful for stability on an icy trail than they generally are on an ice-free trail.
The ice was thick, and stayed put throughout the day. We saw hikers attempting to descend the trail in the morning, and ascend in the afternoon without traction gear, and these hikers were not only expending a lot of energy slipping around, but were also putting themselves frequently into precarious positions near the edge of the trail. We did see – and speak to – hikers using Yaktrax Walkers, which are similar to the microspikes but use steel coils instead of spikes for traction. Opinions were unanimously against the coils, and supportive of the microspikes. The coils did not seem to provide quite enough traction for the ice on Bright Angel.
It is important to be prepared for the varying temperatures, wind, and precipitation that might occur on any day in the Grand Canyon, and possibly even more so in winter. We have experienced sunshine in February and sleet in April. It’s always wise to watch the the weather forecasts for five days prior to your trip, and then to plan for a range, and emergencies. Layers are your friend!
Temperatures when we were there in February started at around 34F at the Rim at 6 am, and reached a high of 62F at the Rim. The temperatures are higher further into the canyon, and we had a sunny day. We wore, from inside out: a thermal short sleeved shirt, a moisture wicking long sleeved hoodie, a fleece jacket, and a North Face Thermo Ball jacket that was unbelievably warm, water resistant, and crushed into nothing in the backpack when we had to take it off after a short period of hiking.
On the bottom half we wore shorts, jeans, or yoga pants, depending on individual tolerance for the initial cold. Zip off hiking pants would have been perfect.
Bright Angel Below 1.5 miles
We experienced no ice on the trail below 1.5 miles from the trail head, and the ambient temperature in the sunshine was nothing short of fabulous.
Our plan was initially to hike to Indian Garden and back, but by the time we arrived at Indian Garden we were in the mood for more. So we took an additional jaunt out to Plateau Point, where we had a view of the Colorado River.
The trek from Indian Garden to Plateau Point is a gentle decline of 1.5 miles. The return reminds you that you did, in fact, go down a bit, but the views from the point are well worth the extra hustle.
It was so warm at the Point on that particular day, that for some of us, short sleeves were sufficient!