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

Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
health
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
News
people
Life and Style
love + sex
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
News
i100
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
Jeffrey Archer holds up a copy of 'Kane and Abel', a book he says was ripped-off by Bollywood
books
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Fay Weldon suggested authors should tailor their work for Kindle readers
books
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: Product Advisor - Automotive

    £17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to the consistent growth of...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Automotive

    £18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ex...

    Recruitment Genius: Renewals Sales Executive - Automotive

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity exists for an ou...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers