The visitors' center looked like a ghost town. Bus shelters which, in the summer months, teem with thousands of tourists a day, were starkly empty. But the sun beat down and if the handful of travelers poring over maps and guidebooks were wearing a few more layers of clothing than usual, it was a small price to pay to have the Grand Canyon almost to ourselves.
Last month, I was a winter camping skeptic as I arrived for my first visit to Grand Canyon National Park. Shivering in my sleeping bag the first night there, I wasn't sold on the idea. But after three days of backpacking with Kris, a college friend well-versed in the off-season outdoors, I came home a true fan of winter expeditions especially after my feet thawed out.
Neither Kris nor I had ever seen the canyon before, so we started out where everybody does: with the gorgeous view at the rim. We oohed and aahed as you're supposed to, but the view from the top was hard to believe. So we headed in.
Although 5 million people descend on the Grand Canyon National Park every year, fewer than 5 percent ever venture below the overlooks at the top. Even fewer choose to make their forays into the canyon between December and March.
Those who do, get a quieter view of the place than tourists can in the raucous summer season. America's national parks attract a quarter as many visitors between November and April as they do between May and October. That small percentage who throw late-night parties in the tent next to yours and leave trash on hiking trails, must also hibernate. They were nowhere in evidence as we set off into the canyon, down the Bright Angel trail.
Summer visitors to the Grand Canyon can access hiking trails and campgrounds from both its north and south rims. Reservations are required to camp, and even distant back-country sites fill up months in advance.
Crowding is compounded by blazing sun: Temperatures inside the canyon regularly top 110 degrees. Mike Buchheit, director of the Grand Canyon Field Institute, calls summer a terrible time to backpack there. "There's probably many a July hiker who thinks to himself, 'I should be here in December,' " he says.
Mr. Buchheit believes that December brings a different type of visitor to the canyon. From November through March, snow and rainfall at the rim often mean icy trails for the first couple of miles. The ice "scares away the half-hearted," he says. This leaves the canyon primarily to contemplative types drawn less by home-video opportunities than by the promise of solitude.
Kris and I strapped crampons over our boots, layered on all the clothes we'd brought, and headed down the trail. Some of those we passed heading the opposite way used walking sticks for balance, some had managed the trail in sneakers, and one intrepid older man was even crunching over the ice in shorts.
By the time we reached the Indian Gardens campground, four miles down the trail, it was warm enough that we wished we'd brought shorts of our own. At a nearby overlook, the Colorado River wound greenly below us. The canyon seemed to fold in on itself like cloth as the sun set. It was just as stunning as everybody says.
Suddenly, neither of us was coveting shorts: We spooned up our dinner of vegetable curry numb-fingered and quickly retreated to our tent with bottles full of boiling water, encased in wool socks, to keep us warm.
Kris works for a year-round camp in Utah and sleeps outdoors every other night, so she's full of winter-camping advice. We were employing two prime bits: Spicy food makes you feel warmer, and a hot water bottle in your sleeping bag will stay warm until morning, even if the outdoor temperature drops below freezing.
It did. Our breath condensed on the tent's rain fly, froze, and snowed back down on us in the morning. So, it wasn't the Hilton. But the next day dawned bright, and we started on the Tonto trail, which would carry us along the edge of several ravines. By mid-morning, we had traded our hats and scarves for tank tops and shades. A jogger in abbreviated attire passed by, cultivating a sunburn.
By noon, we'd met up with the South Kaibab trail. Compared to the quiet of our first two hikes, this was a busy trail: Several hiking parties passed us on their way to the bottom of the canyon. We had only two days, and we'd decided to make a trail loop through the canyon, rather than running down to the river and back.
So at the South Kaibab trail we turned upward, and started to climb out.
Pretty soon, we overtook another pair of hikers: a Polish father and daughter. We exchanged greetings and passed them; then, at our next snack break, they passed us. We spent the rest of the afternoon leapfrogging up the trail, making tentative conversation, and offering each other fruit.
Though many visitors to the canyon in winter are seeking solitude, folks on the trails this time of year form a loose community. A person has to be a little crazy to sleep outdoors in weather cold enough to freeze standing water. Often another such crazy person proves a kindred soul under all that Polarfleece.
After the father and daughter passed us for the last time, the final miles seemed to drag. We sang to pass the time: Kris, in camp-counselor mode, chose a cheery song about proving something to herself. I chose an old gospel song about lying down to die.
But we did reach the canyon rim in the end, just before dusk. We had planned to camp that night, too but once we got on the road toward town, showers, and warm beds, there was no turning back.
In addition to a tent, sleeping bag, long underwear, and other standard gear and supplies, consider adding these items to your pack for a winter hiking and camping expedition.
Single-burner stove ($25 to $150) and fuel canister ($3 to $6). Many state and national parks in desert areas don't allow campfires in the winter because of the high danger of forest fires.
Basic crampons ($10 to $35). These are simple metal grips that cinch to the bottom of a hiking boot with a single strap. Don't risk
an icy trail without a pair, particularly if you're carrying a heavy pack.
Aluminum fuel bottle ($10). Fill it with water and bring it to a boil on your stove or fire. Then put the bottle in a wool sock (so it won't melt your sleeping bag) and take it to bed with you to keep you warm.
Old leather gardening gloves. Handy as potholders and for tending a fire.
Head lamp ($10 to $80). Leaves your hands free to wrestle with icy tent zippers, sticky pocket knives, and more.
Comfortable nylon or fleece hat ($10 to $30). Sleep in it and retain that precious body heat.
Neck gaiter ($10). Slip it over your head and it'll prove the warmest $10 you've ever spent. It's less bulky and stays put better than a scarf.
Fleece sleeping bag liner ($20 to $60). Raises the temperature-rating on a sleeping bag by about 15 degrees F.