The Grand Canyon Backcountry Guide
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South Rim Weather (Grand Canyon, AZ):
North Rim Weather (Fredonia, AZ/Kanab, UT):
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Grand Canyon Weather
Knowing what weather conditions to expect is critical when planning your Grand Canyon backcountry travel. Seasonal as well as the varying conditions between the Rim and the Colorado River gorge are factors that must be taken into account.
There are essentially three Grand Canyon weather zones to keep in mind:
The typical temperature difference between the Rim and the River is between 15° and 30°F. It’s hard to imagine while you’re standing at the Rim in a very pleasant 70°F., that the temperature at the River might be above 100°F. Believe it. Weather is a key contributor to search and rescue incidents in the Grand Canyon every year. The primary culprit is heat. The threats of dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke are very real. Hypothermia can rear its head as well during ascents from the inner gorge to the Rim during the colder months.
Each season highlights a different facet of the Grand Canyon and each should be experienced to truly understand the nature of the place. Backcountry travelers are presented with unique challenges in each season as well.
Seasons in the Canyon
What’s the best season to travel the backcountry? Well… It depends, of course. For a first trip, the spring and fall are probably the best times of year to be in the Canyon backcountry. Best bets would be the months of March, April, October or November. Mother Nature’s fickleness aside, you are most likely to avoid the excessive heat that the Canyon can inflict during these times. Your gear load will also be at its lightest given the likelihood of relatively mild conditions. Sometimes you can get lucky and get a very pleasant first couple weeks of May or last couple weeks of September, but you can also be unlucky and experience the wrath of the Canyon's heat. Unfortunately, I’m not the only one who thinks these are the best times to hit the Canyon. So, advance planning is required to ensure that you obtain the permit for the route you want to take.
I enjoy winter trips into the Canyon too. For the South Rim that’s potentially as early as late November and as late as early March. Add a month on both ends for the North Rim, which is about 1,000 feet higher in elevation (~8,000 feet). There’s something very satisfying about having the right gear and skills to be comfortable outdoors when it’s cold. On a winter trip from the South Rim, an icy trail can be expected during the first mile or two of descent from the Rim, but nothing that a pair of instep crampons or Kahtoola MICROspikes® won’t generally take care of.
The North Rim in winter is a bit of a different story. That extra elevation makes a big difference in weather conditions. The North Rim Park Entrance is closed from mid-October through mid-May. By “closed” it means that the road to the North Entrance (Highway 67) is barricaded and locked, not too far from the Jacob Lake Inn. All is not lost however. Despite the closure of Highway 67 until mid-May, some trailheads may still be accessible via Forest Roads. Generally the access is limited to the shoulder months of late fall and early spring, but this is very much dependent on snowfall. Trips to the North Rim at these times should be considered only by more seasoned backcountry travelers. Planning must include alternate routes out of the Canyon, a willingness to have a trailhead vehicle stranded for a time, extra supplies and the packing of shovels, saws, pry-bars and a come-along in your vehicle should drifting snow or a manageable blow-down be encountered. Reasonably current National Park Service information on road conditions to the trailheads can be found by clicking Here. If you're interested in info on trail conditions, closures or restrictions, Click Here.
Summer in the Canyon is… Well… Also, very interesting. The Canyon definition of summer includes May through September, with Mother Nature caveats applying on both ends. This is a time when the incredible adaptations of the Canyon’s flora and fauna become all the more apparent. The Canyon is no less alive during the summer. Its inhabitants merely shift their behaviors to take advantage of the shade, dusk, dawn, the night and any moisture that might become available. Summer in the Canyon also gives one a healthy respect for those human cultures that inhabit the world’s desert regions. I would not recommend this as a time for a first trip. One must work hard to stay ahead of the toll that excessive heat can take on the body. If you fail to keep pace with the loss of fluids and electrolytes that the dry heat will be sucking out of you, you'll be involved in the dangerous game of playing catch-up. At this point, it becomes harder to hydrate to appropriate levels, as your body is limited in the rate that it can absorb fluids . Appetite loss under these conditions makes it difficult to ensure your body is getting the energy it needs. When traveling in the Canyon in high temperatures the advice to “act like a lizard” applies. Avoid traveling between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Pull up a piece of shade, minimize activity, hydrate and eat. These cautions extend to casual day hikes as well. A short hike creates less incentive to plan. While it’s not too hard to believe that what goes down must also come up, the allure of the Canyon and the ease of that downhill stroll can and will come back to bite you when heat is coupled with a strenuous return ascent.
Despite one’s best efforts to select an optimum time for Grand Canyon backcountry travel, an understanding of the impact of heat and how to deal with it is vital. Even when the temperature does not feel that bad, the low humidity and moisture loss from physical exertion need to be kept in mind. So, what are the answers? Sip water frequently and before you feel thirsty. Thirst is a sign that you are beginning to lose the battle. It’s also extremely important to nibble food frequently to keep energy levels up, and be aware that too much water consumption without adequate intake of food can also lead to problems. Another sign that you could be getting into trouble is if you start to feel your enthusiasm or willpower fading. If this happens, find some shade, drink, eat and relax. And, take your boots off… Not because it will speed your recovery, but just because it feels good. Look at the beauty of the place you’re in. Zero in on that small plant with the amazing lavender flowers and the insects making it a central part of their world. Forget about how far it is to your destination. Forget about the time you’re making. Enjoy the moment.
Average Temperatures* (°F.) - Key Areas of Grand Canyon
** "Inner Gorge" includes Phantom Ranch/Bright Angel Campground and any areas at the Colorado River
The temperature charts displayed below are color coded to reflect the best and worst times to be in the Canyon. Keep in mind that if you are heading to the Colorado River, the temperatures there will be significantly different (i.e., much warmer) than at the Rim. The "Green" months are prime for exploration. Temperatures can be cold at night, but the daytime highs will be easily managed. Months depicted in "Yellow" are the "shoulder" months. These can be quite pleasant or downright hot depending on the luck of the draw. The summer months colored in "Red" should be avoided. Travel in the Canyon during these months is not to be taken lightly. Water and having plenty of it are critical to survival. If you are inexperienced in Grand Canyon backcountry travel, this IS NOT the time for you to be learning.
Average Temperatures* (°F.) - Other Areas of Grand Canyon
We're Hiking to the River... We Can Cool Off There - Not so Fast
Who cares about the heat? “We’re going to the River. We can swim and cool off there”. Well this is a yes and no proposition. Getting TO the River can be a challenge in the heat and requires carrying enough water to get you there fully hydrated.
So, there you are at the end of your hike to the Colorado River. You’re hot, tired and have feet looking for some relief. Resist the temptation to just dive in. Currents in the River are deceptively strong and the average temperature of the water is a bone-chilling 42°F (5.5°C). So, swimming is out. If you’re in the right location, perhaps you can wade in to the knees or so, but you’ll not stay long. Another paradox of the Canyon… From the knees up, you long to get out of the100°+ heat, and from the knees down you can’t wait to get out of that frigid cold water.
Sunrise & Sunset Times (Key Info for "Acting Like a Lizard")
If heat will be a factor during your travels in the Canyon, the following table can be used to determine sunrises and sunsets for early morning and early evening hiking to avoid the most intense heat of the day.
- Click Here for 2011 Sunrise-Sunset Times for Grand Canyon, AZ (U.S. Naval Observatory)
Precipitation (Rain, Sleet, Snow & Ice)
What about rain? It’s the desert right? Is it really something you have to worry about? Generally, the answer is no. Rain encountered during backcountry travel is typically light and when more intense it is often brief. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t command respect. It doesn’t have to be raining where you are to create potential problems for you. The dryness of the soil and volume of rock contribute to a real danger from flash-flooding. If you are fortunate enough to be in the Canyon during a heavy downpour you may be treated to the proliferation of water features that spring to life. Washes become rivulets then streams, then rivers, and waterfalls appear all over on the Canyon walls. The cautions? Be mindful that there’s a reason behind how the Canyon became Grand. It’s water. Beware of distant thunderstorms and the potential for flashfloods that can seemingly come from nowhere, and avoid camping in washes, despite those of so inviting flat beds of gravel.
Don't forget about snow and ice either. During the winter months (November through March, and sometimes a month on either side) You might be on snowshoes or crampons for the first mile and a half or so coming down the trail off the South Rim. Double the distance if you're hiking in off the North Rim.
The table below provides information on average precipitation to be expected during your travel time in the Canyon. Keep in mind that an inch of rain typically translates into between 12 and 20 inches of snow in this region of the country.
Average Precipitation* (Inches of Rain)