A wintry, ice-draped Grand Canyon? Cool!

Presidents have praised the magnificence of this geological scar in the south-west US, yet most people only see it in summer. To enjoy this landmark in solitude – go with the snow, says Chris Leadbeater

Rarely can the colour white have seemed such an interloper. It has slithered and slathered itself over every available flat surface, clinging to cracks and lying on ledges. True, the darker hues usually associated with this scene – hazy pink, warm red, solid brown, sunset orange – are all visible. But their ruddy demeanour is partially hidden by this pale shroud.

Popular imagination says that the Grand Canyon should not look like this – its cragginess softened by snow. The classic image is rather harder: a geological scar – 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, 6,000ft deep – where two billion years of Earth's history are flaunted in natural erosion; a place indelibly linked to heat and dryness, all harsh sun and rattlesnake hiss; the great divide that marks the most indisputable of all American state lines as it dissects Nevada and Arizona. Alone, the Colorado River soothes the area's parched tongue below.

And yet, I am not exactly surprised. The idea of glimpsing one of the world's most iconic landmarks in its winter disguise seems a possibility by the time I reach Flagstaff, heavy frost garnishing the fringes of Interstate 17, hail punching angrily at the windscreen. The real shock is the speed of transition, Phoenix's desert setting – which effortlessly pushes the temperature in the Arizona capital into the 70s, even in February – surrendering meekly to a chillier realm as I forge north, the mercury dropping 40 degrees in 100 miles.

This is down to Arizona's diverse geography. Perceived as an expanse of sand and cacti (which it is in its southern third, where the Sonoran Desert declines to halt at the Mexican border), America's sixth largest state also proffers the elevated scrub of the Colorado Plateau in its north-east corner, and high-rise terrain where the Mogollon Rim escarpment spans its midriff. The Grand Canyon, caught between plateau and peaks in the north-west of the state, has to cope with wild seasonal mood swings – whatever its postcards suggest.

So much becomes clear as I continue up Route 64, the wind howling in protest. Off to the east, the San Francisco Peaks prod the sky, their tallest member – the 12,633ft beast that is Humphreys Peak – so titanic that you can ski on its slopes at the Arizona Snowbowl.

Beyond the small town of Tusayan, gates guard the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. "I have to tell you, the visibility isn't good," says the park official as he takes my $25 (£17) admission fee. He has a point – although he is entirely missing another. Many people have seen this natural wonder in its summer finery, even if only in photos. But it is a rare privilege to catch sight of it when the worst of the weather is doing its best to repel you.

Three miles further on, mist and cloud clog up the maw of the canyon beneath Yavapai Point. But every couple of minutes, the wind tugs at the fog, the vapours part, and those sheer walls of stone are revealed in the gap. All around, the snow is mounting a campaign of conquest, weighing down bushes, masking pathways and supplying an extra note of treachery to the rocks at the lip of the abyss. It is as if someone has gouged a slice from a giant Christmas cake, cutting through the icing to uncover the fruit of the matter within.

Not everybody is impressed. A few yards away, an American family is surveying the murkiness with suspicion, a teenage son registering bemusement in shrugs and sighs. A park ranger – the voice of pragmatism – is standing alongside, explaining the situation.

"We're at 7,200ft," he nods, face semi-lost under a furry hat. "We can have snow at any time from November to June. Last year, we had it in May. It gets pretty cold up here."

He is correct on all scores, but especially the last one – so I retreat into the refuge of the Yavapai Point Museum. Perched precariously on the edge of the drop, this 1928 structure delivers brief insight into the canyon's formation, but is chiefly of interest for the view it provides. In the far corner, a gilded picture frame of the type you find in the Louvre has been fixed to a window – an effective way of emphasising the majesty of the panorama.

At the top, a quote from Theodore Roosevelt – one of the key players in the creation of the national park – has been glued to the glass. "Do nothing to mar its grandeur, for the ages have been at work on it, and man cannot improve it," he says in sepia. "Keep it for your children, your children's children and all who come after you." Perhaps the 26th US president is watching, because, as I peer through the pane, the curtains of cloud open once more.

When I depart, I take the eastbound stretch of Route 64 – an indirect way of venturing back to "civilisation" that traces the South Rim for 30 miles of precipice coils and loops.

But before I turn off, I pass the station, where the carriages of the Grand Canyon Railway (the tourist service that runs 60 miles from Williams) are idling – the picture made all the prettier by the definition that the snow gives to the tracks, showcasing them as slick black parallel curves.

As the train leaves, its horn-toots are muffled by swirling flakes, making it sound curiously forlorn. My mood, as I drive in the opposite direction, is anything but.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The only non-stop flights from the UK to Arizona are with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow to Phoenix. Other airlines – including Delta, United and US Airways – offer one-stop links from a range of UK airports via their hubs.

 

Staying there

Red Feather Lodge, 300 State Route 64, Tusayan (001 928 638 2414; redfeatherlodge.com). Doubles from $76 (£51), room only.

 

Visiting there

Grand Canyon National Park (001 928 638 7888; nps.gov/grca): $25 (£17).

Arizona Snowbowl (001 928 779 1951; arizona snowbowl.com): one-day pass $53 (£35).

 

touring there

America As You Like It (020-8742 8299; americaasyoulikeit.com) does a 15-night tour (Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Utah national parks, Grand Canyon, Scottsdale, Tuscon) that features two nights at the Grand Canyon. From £1,040 per person with flights, car hire and hotels.

 

More information

Arizona Office of Tourism: arizonaguide.com

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Sport
football
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all