One day it was there. The next day it was gone. The Grand Canyon had vanished as completely as if it were part of a David Copperfield magic trick. "I don't think there's anything...
GRAND CANYON, Ariz. — One day it was there. The next day it was gone.
The Grand Canyon had vanished as completely as if it were part of a David Copperfield magic trick.
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“I don’t think there’s anything out there,” said a man in a ski cap, gazing out a window at Yavapai Point Observation Station into a bank of clouds.
Outside, Santash Abraham and his wife, Ambley, stood at a stone fence overlooking the void.
“We were hoping to see the sunrise,” said Abraham, of San Jose, Calif. He kicked the white stuff piling up around his sneakers. Ambley, who had never seen snow before, made a snowball and threw it off the edge into the emptiness below.
It’ll hit bottom any day now.
But that’s the Grand Canyon in winter.
After six years of drought and winters with clear vistas almost every day, this year the Arizona landmark had three big snowstorms before Thanksgiving. The National Weather Service is predicting above-average precipitation between now and April. That means snow. Lots of snow.
Yet winter can be a grand time to visit the canyon. January and February are the least busy months. When the sun is shining, the views are spectacularly clear. The rim can be snowy, while down in the canyon it’s in the 50s or 60s, so hiking is more comfortable. Traffic is light. Last-minute waiting lists for attractions are short.
The trick to visiting the canyon in winter? Be flexible with your dates, so you can stay a little longer if the weather spoils a day. Most storms tend to clear out after a day or so, says forecaster Mark Stubblefield of the National Weather Service Flagstaff office. The other trick? Bring hats, gloves and snow boots.
I’m speaking from experience here.
My first day at the canyon rim, the sun was shining. Crowds of tourists stood open-mouthed at the sight of the world’s biggest diorama. Nobody can describe the Grand Canyon, so I will just say it is big — very, very big — and if you strung every superlative in the world together, you still wouldn’t do it justice.
But my second day at the canyon it snowed. Nine inches had fallen by dawn, and more was on the way. I followed a snowplow down the street to Bright Angel Lodge, where the tourist desk was already hopping. Helicopter and plane rides, grounded. Shuttles to park sites, halted. Bus tours for sunset and sunrise, canceled.
“Do you have a weather report?” a man asked hopefully.
“Twelve to 24 inches more by tomorrow,” Park Service employee Jessie Malone replied.
Later, Malone said that winter visitors have one big misconception about the Grand Canyon.
“Everyone thinks, OK, this is Arizona, and it’s hot, and desert, and it doesn’t snow,” she said. “People are without coats or gloves, or they’re looking for boots or umbrellas or crampons.” (Crampons are pointed metal teeth hikers strap onto their boots to help navigate ice or snow.)
Yet even in bad weather the park bustles. Although rafting trips stop in winter, the mule rides keep going. Rangers still give talks about geology and nature. Hotels operate. So do camping sites, gift shops, the post office, grocery and visitors center. Restaurants are open. So are the narrow, steep trails that lead to the canyon floor. Just beyond the park entrance, the IMAX theater always runs, featuring a show about (what else?) the Grand Canyon.
The staff can always get to work because they live at the park, which is 60 miles from the nearest interstate. Snowstorms don’t bother them. But don’t tell that to the visitors. If you have exactly one day to see the canyon and instead get to look at a giant cotton ball, you’re not going to be too happy.
Just before 8 a.m., when a weak light illuminated the sky like a flashlight low on batteries, I walked Bright Angel Trail in my sneakers, trying not to tumble off the edge. I crept to the mule corral. Mules blinked as snow gathered on the blankets on their backs. A guide sternly lectured 11 yellow-slickered tourists who were determined to ride to the bottom of the canyon, snow or no snow, about six hours down.
How can the mules stay on the trail without slipping?
A mule handler in a red kerchief and chaps lifted the left front hoof of one of the animals. Glinting silver points stuck out of its shoe. Mule crampons.
“Got shoes for ice,” he said. “Couldn’t go without ’em.”
Are there ever conditions when they don’t go?
Actually, there are. Mudslides sometimes close trails. Or too much ice. Or rocks in the path. Portions of Kaibab and Bright Angel trails were both shut briefly this fall for those reasons.
But this morning, the mules moved ’em on out. The last I saw of the group, it was slogging through thick snow down the hairpin-steep Bright Angel Trail, not to be seen again — until the next day, that is.
Contrary to all expectations, visits to the Grand Canyon are soaring. The National Park Service had predicted only 3.8 million recreational visitors in 2004. Instead, park revenue researcher Jim O’Stickley says, the number will be more like 4.3 million. Still, in a snowstorm, no tourist buses come to the park and Las Vegas gamblers can’t fly here to buzz the canyon. So the crowds are down. Way down. That is a gift.
In the lodges during the storm, cold campers and hearty hotel guests huddle around fireplaces with drinks of cider and brandy. Outside, children make lopsided snowmen and bug their parents. This afternoon, suddenly there was a break in the weather. A patch of blue shone through and the sun illuminated a sliver of the Grand Canyon all the way down to the Colorado River. Distant peaks glittered. Murmurs passed like wildfire among visitors in the lodges (“You can see! You can see!”), and suddenly everyone rushed out to look. Look! Look!
Then more snow clouds drifted in. Show over.
Park ranger Stewart Fritts, who has worked at the Grand Canyon 25 years, loves the peek-a-boo days when the canyon plays coy.
“It’s more interesting for being covered,” he says. “Winter is the best time.”
Of course, Fritts has seen the canyon clear about 12 zillion times, so he would say that.
Even in a snowstorm, even when there are only two people to listen, Fritts gives his talk about the geology of the canyon. He describes it: 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, one mile deep. Every step you go down into the canyon takes you to a layer 20,000 years older than the last step. The beginning of modern human existence is about 10 steps down.
There are other canyons in the world, he says, “and some are deeper, but none is grander.”
He quotes British writer J.B. Priestley, who upon seeing the canyon pronounced that anyone disappointed in the Grand Canyon would be disappointed at Judgment Day. Of course, Priestley wasn’t counting the tourists who come in a snowstorm.
But not to worry. Two days later, I heard tell, the sun came out. The canyon reappeared. It was just like a magic trick.