The Grand Canyon in Winter

(and some other US National Parks)


It is well known that a number of the tourist areas of the western USA can get hellishly hot during the summer, eg. Death Valley, yet the peak tourist season for these places is mid summer! I thought I'd go off season and visit them mid winter, expecting mild, comfortable temperatures, like for our Oman winters. Not quite. Even in Las Vegas, my first stop, temperatures dropped below 5 deg C in the evenings. But temperatures during the day were very pleasant for walking around. And boy, do you do some walking. Must be ridiculous in the heat of the summer. Those Vegas hotels are huge! Walking across from your hotel to an adjacent one is a significant commitment, and so is walking from your room to the hotel parking lot. That's me at the pedestrian entrance of the 5000 (yes, 5000!)-room "MGM Grand":

The MGM Grand is currently the world's largest hotel, but the other hotels on The Strip are not tiny either. The above street intersection has the MGM Grand, Tropicana, Excalibur and New York New York hotels. Apparently these 4 hotels have more rooms than the whole City of San Francisco, which is a major tourist attraction in its own right! And The Strip has tens of these giant hotels, each with its own theme. So throw in a bit of Venice and New York (not to mention Camelot, Paris, Star Trek, ancient Egypt, Rome, Treasure Island, whatever):

And yes, it's true. Las Vegas IS Disneyland for grown ups. Everything is just as squeaky clean. Even the water in the canals (yes, canals and gondolas!) inside the "Venetian" is swimming pool clear. Better than the real Venice. Photo below was taken from the "Stratosphere". Incredibly, there is a roller-coaster and a bungee ride in the open air ABOVE where I was standing:

But we digress. This page is about the National Parks in the vicinity of Vegas. Having just flown in from Toronto, fortunately I had brought along some proper winter clothes. Next stop was the Grand Canyon. It's often referred to as a great hole in the ground. Actually it's a great hole in the (high altitude) Colorado Plateau. Grand Canyon village and the South Rim are at an elevation of 6000 to 7000 ft above sea level. Quick lesson: the climate and weather depend critically on altitude. The North Rim, with an elevation a 1000 ft higher, was totally closed off for the season; roads being impassable. I arrived during a mild snow storm and the following day it just kept on snowing, getting heavier. The surrounding scenery was Christmas-card perfect:

Back in Las Vegas I had been issued with a brand new 4x4 SUV at no extra charge because the rental place had run out of normal sedans. Very fortuitous, since it sure came in handy with all that snow. As for the Canyon itself, you could not see a thing! Just a gray cloud. During rare moments when the fog shifted a bit because of a slight breeze you could see the edge you were standing on, but neither the bottom nor the other rim of the Canyon:



Obviously I could not leave the area until I had at least a glimpse of the Canyon. Stayed on another night, and again another night. One nice thing about the off-peak period is that deer and elk come round right up to the lodges, so you get to see some of the wild life up close, and also spend time appreciating the winter wonderland. Finally the snow abated, the cloud slowly blew away and stuff got revealed. Yes, that's me below; first time the sun came out.

And it was worth the wait, looking west:

As you go down into the abyss the temperature gets warmer, as much as 10 to 15 deg C warmer by the time you get to the bottom (Imagine the summer heat!). Consequently there is a sharp cutoff below which the snow turns into rain, clearly seen in the above photo.

Looking east towards the South Rim Lodges:

Searching down for the mighty Colorado River, the culprit that created the big hole:

There are now so many dams on the Colorado River (to irrigate the surrounding arid land) that it no longer reaches the sea, just ends up as a swampy trickle somewhere in Mexico. But the river's legacy will live on for millions of years. The National Parks employees are always waxing lyrical about the interplay of light and shade when the sky has broken clouds:

Indeed, you can spend hours watching the light patches at play, the snow being the icing on the cake, of course. One bit of advice. When you visit, do take along your heavyweight photo equipment. Laziness made me take along only a point-and-shoot little camera and I envied the guy who brought along a Linhof 4x5. The scale of the place just screams for huge prints, not these teeny weeny web bandwidth-limited sizes. To conclude: these National Parks shoot up in grandeur in winter. Avoid the summer madness and enjoy the icing on the cake at the same time. But bring along long johns. It can get very cold.

More wintry scenes from nearby National Parks are on another page: Bryce Canyon, Zion, Death Valley and Yosemite.

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