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Enjoying A Snowy Natural Wonder; Winter Camping at the Grand Canyon

Updated: Jun 18, 2023

This winter had provided many things, and predictably unexpected conditions had been at the top of the list. Record lows, continuous storms and blizzard-like conditions across the West Coast continued to delay camping and similar outdoor adventures for us. Pushing our explorations further into the year than usual, by mid-March we were long overdue for an overnight trip to nature.

With two camping trips to the Grand Canyon already under our belt, the last weekend in March, we decided to close out the long winter season with another visit; this time for a chance to enjoy the bike trails and maybe even some distant snowy views.

A snowy view of the Grand Canyon

For this trip we decided to book a spot at Mather Campground, a popular and often sold out campground on the South Rim. A significantly larger campground than our usual camping location, we were excited to explore the various Greenway bike trails that wind through the forest and join up with the Grand Canyon Visitor Center and Grand Canyon Village.

As much of the winter had already proven, storms can be continuous, and just when you think there’s a break for Spring, another snowfall appears in the forecast. After booking our trip, as we watched the weather forecasts roll out, we realized that what was expected to be a mid-40s camping trip was quickly going to end up being a trip set in 20 to 30-degree weather.

Determined to enjoy our chance at seeing the Grand Canyon in the snow, we logged onto the iKamper website and ordered the double-layered RTT insulation add-on for our tent in the hopes that it would be enough added insulation to keep us warm in this new level of cold weather.

Arriving within a week of ordering it, we received our tent’s insulation kit in plenty of time for our trip. That, in addition to a trip to REI for some extra base layers and an Ignik firecan, we were ready to brave the cold. While we hoped our gear would be adequate enough for the weekend. Soon we would gamble with our purchases and learn if the iKamper’s claims that the insulation kit was for cold weather meant that we would be comfortable in the cold, or merely survive in the cold. Ready to find out, and with the worst case scenario plan being that we would head to a nearby lodge for a last minute booking, we headed out on our trip.

With the exception of colder temperatures at various pitstops for gas, much of the drive didn’t differ from our previous trips. It wasn’t until we reached the outskirts of the Kaibab National Forest that we quickly realized the snow we were expecting was not only not in the distance, it was also significantly more than a dusting. With nearly a foot of snow along the roadways as we entered the park, we were relieve to find the streets cleared but were still uncertain of the conditions we’d be faced with once we arrived at the campground.

The status upon arrival; more snow.

Playing around with parking angles to avoid an icy exit to the tent, we sent up camp all the while laughing at how crazy we were for going camping with this much snow on the ground. Once our camping setup was complete, lunch was consumed and our bikes were prepped, we added some more layers of clothes to our attire and set out to explore the trails we had been anticipating.

With each stride of the pedals and deep breath of cold air hitting in my lungs, I took in all the joy of the moment. Such a simple experience: cold fresh air, a snowy landscape surrounding us, and clear tree-lined trails. Between each breath I can’t help but smile, overcome with happiness and gratitude; it’s nice to experience that it is an unremitting feeling each time we visit the Grand Canyon.

While I anticipated the bike ride through the surrounding forest would be beautiful and pure joy, the 42-degree weather and snowy landscape added a level of magic that only winter visitors are blessed to revel in. For the next hour and a half we wound our way through snow-lined pathways leading from the campground, across to the visitor’s center, down to the village, and with a missed turn on the way back, found ourselves at the edge of the trail and at the canyon’s rim.

There is more than one reason to tolerate winter, and the silence and frost bitten scenery are definitely at the top of the list.

Standing in complete stillness at the edge of the canyon, this time topped with gleaming crystals of snow, smooth as glass over the canyon’s rim I exhale deeply in the realization that we did it again. We’ve had the pleasure to once again see something so significantly breathtaking and experience it in a new way. The sheer joy of the moment is intoxicating.

Anticipating the need for an early dinner and clean up before the sun sets and the cold takes its hold on the night, we headed back to camp. Once back and stretched out from the ride, we took a seat by our new firebox to enjoy our traditional campsite happy hour, and by far the coldest happy hour we have shared, before packing down the snow at our feet and scraping the ice from the end of the picnic table to cook dinner.

There’s no doubt, a hot fire was absolutely needed to maintain feeling in our hands and be able to enjoy a dinner outdoors in the cold. That paired with a warm meal and hot tea were just the ticket for enjoying the last bits of daylight in this winter wonderland.

As the night approached and the temperatures began to dip lower and lower the chill set in and we piled into the tent, which we were pleasantly surprised to find a bit warmer than the outside air. Still taking the chill off with an electric blanket and multiple layers of blankets, the insulation seemed to be adequate for maintaining a relatively comfortable atmosphere to enjoy a couple episodes of Loki in.

I was getting a bit of a draft below the window on my side of the tent, which was making my side quite cold, but by the time we settled in to go to bed, I had tucked extra sweatshirts and jackets down the side of the tent which made all the difference.

Through the night, the temperature dipped into the low 20s, the combination of our base layers, the iKamper’s insulation layer and our addition gear; two Sea to Summit Thermolite Reactor Sleeping Bag Liners, two Big Agnes Insulated Air Core Ultra Sleeping Pads, The North Face duo sleeping bag, and two Rumpl blankets, we each slept comfortably and without much notice to the cold, at least when we were fully tucked in that is. Once an arm, shoulder or part our neck broken free from the covers the cold quickly made its presence known and we’d quickly rebury ourself into our layers.

Morning was rough. With a necessary bathroom trip requiring the need to break free from the covers and expose ourself to the outdoor air, at 26-degrees, our new breakfast plan, which we had contemplated the night before, was immediately confirmed. We’d skip the morning camp cooking and instead pack up and head straight for the visitor’s center where we’d partake of a warm breakfast sandwich and hot drinks.

While the cold weather made its presence known, the evidence of the cold night’s air became apparent once we began breaking down our tent. Though some condensation we present inside the tent’s exterior shell, the real entertainment was in the ice crystals that formed on the inside of the roof skylight window and the small icicles that had formed along the metal bars inside the tent and just outside the insulation layer.

There’s no doubt, this camping trip had earned us the “crazy” title that some of our friends and family had used for us when referring to our camping experiences.

Closing up the last of the truck’s gear and taking in the final sights of our campsite, we discussed whether we’d do it all again or not. The verdict; low 20s is a bit much, but if we’d had stronger base layers, a few hand warmers and had our snow boots, a snowy camping trip wouldn’t be off the table for a future option.

Soon, we were basking in the light of the sun on an outdoor picnic table, warm drinks in hand and savoring the impromptu breakfast at the Bright Angel Bikes & Cafe. Entertained by the size and fearlessness of a handful of Ravens and reflecting on the past 24 hours of winter and exploring.

Breakfast consumed, we wrapped up our morning with a 2.5-mile walk along the rim trail. Taking in all the visible slivers of snow and ice that lined the landscape around us and staring in awe of the enormity and depths of the canyon below us.

Unweighted yet grounded, connected but free; that's what it feels like to stand on the edge looking out over the endless canyons below.

There’s no doubt the cold was a new challenge this trip. One we were able to endure, but definitely one that pushed some of our gear to the limits. We could have easily canceled our trip at first snowy forecast, choosen to try again at a later date and in better conditions, but what an incredible experience we would have missed.

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