Negative Ten in Arizona (Or, Winter in the Grand Canyon)

Grand Canyon in winter


When I woke up at 6am, I noticed something that made me think I was still dreaming: ice on the radiator, inside my hotel room. I poked at an ice-covered window and heater before checking the temperature.

It was -10.

Well then.

From the window, I could see the car was covered in snow and ice. I borrowed a shovel from the front desk and got to digging, ignoring the fact that the car wouldn’t start until the third time the key turned.

I don’t know if you know what -10 degrees feels like, but it’s somewhere between death’s door and on top of the world. It’s so cold that your nervous system goes into denial. You pass that miserable numb stage and you suddenly feel completely invigorated. I think it’s some kind of self-preservation pity party where your brain puts you in a state of euphoria because it recognizes that you’re about to die.

I was suddenly wide awake and loving life. In contrast, there have been winter days at home in the single (positive!) digits where I was genuinely convinced I was going to die in a snow pile while walking the dog, only to be discovered during the first spring thaw.

Grand Canyon winter

The good news is, it eventually warmed up to -6. My phone finally turned itself back on so I could document this momentous occasion.

The only thing open at that time of the morning was the McDonald’s, so out of desperate need of caffeine (and because I was afraid to turn the car off), I hit up the drive through for coffee. Remember how I said everything in Tusayan is marked up because of its remote location? I haven’t been to a McDonald’s in literally twenty years, but I’m pretty sure $8 isn’t their normal price for a latte.

A few skids down the road later, I was officially inside the snow-covered Grand Canyon National Park.

The Grand Canyon operates under the assumption that everyone within its boundaries is fully prepared for anything they’ll encounter, and that if they aren’t, it’s their own fault. In other words, if you’re not the outdoorsy type, stay on the shuttle. Completely fair, but a little daunting in the dead of winter. At the advice of our park ranger friends from the Mexican restaurant, I headed straight to the visitor’s center. The weather changes at the drop of a hat in these parts – especially in winter – so they told me to stop in for a full meteorological breakdown.

Grand Canyon visitor center winter
A woman at a desk showed me a map of all the trails and warned me that I wasn’t allowed to camp at the bottom of the caldera because of the sub-zero temperature. Absolutely no problem. I had to bargain her down a little from there because she didn’t want to be too discouraging.

“What else is off limits?” I asked.

“Don’t feed the bears. Or any of the creatures. And don’t try to pet them,” she offered.

I asked her what trail I should try that afternoon, dropping in a lot of keywords like “leisurely” and “safe” and “somewhere rangers patrol occasionally if I die.”

She looked me up and down, accessing my age and size.

“You’re fine with anything,” she shrugged, but I pressed on.

“What’s your fitness level?” she asked. I’ve learned the hard way that this is a trick question. In New York, I’m considered “really outdoorsy” and “super active.” But in a place like Colorado, where children start ice climbing and skiing at two years old, people start making off-handed comments about Darwinism and what happens to the weakest of the herd.

(I went with “average.”)

“Do you have ice grips for your shoes?” I did. In a bizarre twist of fate, I spotted ice spikes while Christmas shopping — in a New Jersey Macy’s of all places. It was an impulse buy that I figured might come in handy eventually. I didn’t realize I’d need them less than a month later.

Ice grips

The ranger pointed out some trails on a map and sent me on my way, past signs that warned me that I was on our own, and that avalanches and frostbite were very real threats, and that in the canyon no one can hear you scream.

Grand Canyon fatalities chart

First things first: I wanted to see the sights, and the best way to do that was on a scenic drive. The North Rim is totally closed in winter due to snow. However – the Hermit Road along the South Rim is open only to private cars only three months a year, and January is one of them. (It’s too crowded the rest of the year.) Off we went to explore the Grand Canyon’s lookouts at our own speed.

Video coming tomorrow.