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The Grand Canyon in winter

Winter provides a different view of the park's dramatic vistas, with snow on the famous vermilion cliffs

GRAND CANYON VILLAGE, Ariz. — The outside temperature on my car's dashboard monitor read 5 degrees Fahrenheit as I approached the south entrance of Grand Canyon National Park at 8 a.m. on a mid-winter morning. I happened to mention the chilly number to the ranger at the drive-up window.

"Oh, I think it's warmer than that," he said — and it probably was in nearby Grand Canyon Village on the gorge's South Rim. "But we sometimes get into the minus-teens," a fact that he said surprises many visitors.

This is, after all, Arizona.

The high South Rim was enjoying blue skies after a 10-day stormy onslaught that had dumped more than 4 feet of snow at the park. Winds had howled, as well, and snow banks on cliff edges bore marks and patterns of their scouring and sculpting power.

Long, tall piles of plowed snow lined the village's still-icy roads and drastically shrunken parking lots. Many popular canyon viewpoints were not accessible, or required a bit of cross-country skiing or tramping through the snow to get to the rim-top vantages — generally by following the deep footsteps or foot-traffic trenches created by one's predecessors.

Ponderosa, pinyon and juniper tree branches sagged, laden with gobs of snow.

In open fields and meadows, white bumps hinted where smaller bushes and sagebrush lay hidden. They looked like an army of snowmen trying to emerge from the ground, just the tops of their heads beginning to show.

So: It was frigid, icy and wet, with almost no clouds to be seen — altogether a perfect time to drop by the Grand Canyon.

Rangers Marge Ullmann and Jack Howell, at the South Rim's new Mather Point information center, aren't surprised that tourists are surprised by the park's snowy conditions. For one thing, many arrive in winter via tour buses from lower-elevation desert metropolises like Las Vegas, 275 miles to the west.

"Yet it snows here every year," Howell said, "though it's not often we get three storms in one week."

A woman from Michigan had stopped by her desk, Ullmann said, and noted, "You've got more snow and it's colder here than it is back home!"

Virginia Martin, the nonprofit Grand Canyon Association's manager of the bookshop and information center in the century-old photography studio of Ellsworth and Emery Kolb, was in the village during the sequence of snowstorms. More than 2,000 people like her live in Grand Canyon Village, she said.

Martin, originally from Connecticut, came to the Grand Canyon for a six-month job. She has stayed now for 16 years, having earned, she said, the beautiful views from the Kolb studio after working in a windowless setting.

She said road and maintenance crews are kept exceptionally busy during winter storms, but life goes on, including school: Some 300 children attend classes in Grand Canyon Village.

Her associate, Sue Greer, was stuck out of town during the recent stormy streak.

"I had wandered off to Las Vegas — and couldn't get back," she said. At least, until the weather backed off a bit. Heavy snow and high winds briefly closed many major highways in northern Arizona, including Interstate 40.

According to the National Park Service, almost 4.5 million people visit the Grand Canyon from all around the world over the course of a year. But on a chilly, post-storm winter day, virtually no one is about.

Christmas and New Year's Day are busy, but then tourists pretty much vanish, Martin said.

I took the opportunity during my quiet visit to gingerly trudge portions of the snowy Rim Walk, explore Grand Canyon Village and, once that road was open, pop in and out of several East Rim Drive viewpoints.

By midday, the temperature had gone up, too — into the low-30s, which is downright warm when you're bundled up and puffing about.

I encountered people from distant parts of the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia, but not very many of them … though I ran into a few so often we had a nodding acquaintance and a few conversations.

Many, like Karl Erben of Austria and Hans Peter Naegeli of Switzerland, were dressed comfortably and completely, head to toe, for the conditions and were using poles to add balance and traction.

Naegeli and Erben, in fact, were headed down the snow-covered Bright Angel Trail, below the village, for a bit of a hike.

The major South Rim trails and some campgrounds remain open in winter, as does the Phantom Ranch, far below at an elevation of 2,400 feet on the Colorado River, Ranger Ullmann said. The ranch offers both a campground and lodging for those with reservations.

(The North Rim, by contrast, is officially closed from mid-October to mid-May, though cross-country skiing is possible via Kaibab National Forest.)

Even the famous Grand Canyon mules continue their up-and-down trail-ride and load-carrying duties in winter, equipped with carbide studs in their shoes, Ullmann said.

"They are sort of 'mule crampons,' " Howell added.

Greer, a retired geologist, glanced toward the time-layered canyon from the Kolb studio and noted, "I like to say geology began here."

The stratified rocks, cut by the Colorado River and its tributaries, expose some 1.5 billion years of the region's geologic past that is studied and admired by both professionals like her and by amateur gawkers like me.

Winter's layering, too, is emphasized by the Colorado's mile-deep gash. While snow can pile upon the canyon rims and icicles form on the historic village buildings, the white frosting diminishes and then vanishes as one descends (or peers) into the depths, echoing the rocky strata.

Judging by the recent storms, snow can stick between about 4,000 and 9,000 feet in elevation; below that, the temperatures are warmer and precipitation turns to rain, the rangers said.

Actually, visitors who drop by the South Rim during a storm might not see the canyon at all, Ullmann noted. "It can be like a white curtain" obscuring the views.

That's why she suggests several-day stays during the winter.

Rooms and cabins are available in Grand Canyon Village (at El Tovar Hotel and the Bright Angel and Maswik lodges, among others), and there are scores of motels in nearby communities like Tusayan, by the south entrance, or the more distant Williams and Flagstaff.

For when the weather clears, the scenery is truly spectacular.

"The skies can be so blue it almost hurts," Ullmann said. The air is crisp and clean, "and the color is amazing." The moisture deepens the vermilions, oranges and pinks of the Grand Canyon's layered stones.

Access roads, too, can be an iffy proposition in winter.

Arizona Highway 64 — at least the scenic 57-mile-long East Rim Drive, from U.S. 89 and the Navajo Reservation to the South Rim's east entrance — was open only to the first major viewpoint, Desert View, one day during my own visit. Road crews had not yet managed to clear all the snow between Desert View and the Mather junction near Grand Canyon Village.

By contrast, the same highway was fully open — if a bit snow-packed or slushy in places — the next day.

Upside-down L-shaped Highway 64 was, however, open from Williams, 60 miles south of the park on I-40, to the village. But U.S. 180, a diagonal cutoff between Flagstaff and Valle, was not — and probably will not be anytime soon, rangers said. And the dead-end West Rim Drive, from Grand Canyon Village to Hermit's Rest, is not cleared in winter.

So, Grand Canyon weather can be a different variety of "ideal" when compared to warmer seasons, but there are still plenty of awe-inspiring viewpoints and "things to do on cold, wintry days," Martin advised from her warm perch in the Kolb brothers' studio.

She especially recommends a simple pleasure like the hot chocolate at the El Tovar. "It's delicious."