The first time I set eyes on the Grand Canyon was in the fall. September, to be exact. After a long drive through northern Arizona, I stood mesmerized on the South Rim of this immense hole in the earth, at a total loss for words. The bands of different colored layers of rocks stretched as far as I could see. No photos, no video recordings, no descriptions could prepare you for the sheer size and beauty of this canyon.
After that first trip as a visitor, I ended up moving to Arizona, and as a resident of the Grand Canyon State, visited this wonder of the world often. Over almost 3 decades, I’ve seen it in every season, but fall remains my favorite time to visit. The following are a few of the reasons autumn is my favorite time to visit the Grand Canyon National Park, both South and North rim.
1. Fewer Crowds
Because it’s so unique and awe-inspiring, the Grand Canyon attracts millions of visitors. Over the years, I’ve seen the crowds multiply in the park, especially at the South Rim. But most visitors come in the summer. As temperatures drop, children go back to school, and overall, summer breaks end for many people, and therefore the crowds thin at the Grand Canyon.
You’ll notice an obvious drop in the number of visitors at the South Rim after Labor Day. There are crowds, but at least you can move around without bumping into others.
The North Rim, harder to access, never gets as busy, but the number of visitors drops in the early months of fall, too. Keep in mind though, that the North Rim closes mid-October, and mornings and nights get cold in the fall.
2. More Comfortable Temperatures
Perhaps as much as the thinning crowds, I love fall weather at the Grand Canyon. Summers can get uncomfortably hot, especially mid-day, and winters are cold, but autumn offers the perfect weather for spending time outdoors in Northern Arizona. Though it might get chilly in the early morning hours and after sunset, during the day it is pleasant, perfect for a stroll along the rim or even a longer hike into the canyon.
3. The Trail Of Time Is More Pleasant To Enjoy
Since the park set up part of the Rim Trail as the Trail of Time in 2010, the stretch became more crowded than ever before. I’ve always enjoyed this section of trail, with gorgeous views of the canyon, and I remember hiking it with no one else in sight. Those days are over, but as the summer high season ends, it’s easier to enjoy it.
The 2.8-mile paved trail is a favorite of visitors, and mine, as well. Though geology is not one of my major interests, here, with millions of years of geological history out in the open through the layers of the Grand Canyon, I find it intriguing. And walking along the Trail of Time, filled with interpretive signs, rocks, and exhibits explaining the formation of the immense canyon, offers a perfect learning experience.
4. Hiking Is More Pleasant On Any Of The Trails
Autumn is also the perfect time to try any of the other trails in the canyon. While in the summer I would not even dream of stepping on any of the trails leading into the depths of the canyon, during a fall visit I like to take a short hike below the rim.
My first choice for this is the wide and well-traveled Bright Angel trail offering the easiest descent into the canyon. For more dramatic views below the rim, I used to hike down a bit on the South Kaibab trail. No matter which trail I chose, I don’t descend far; those who plan on hiking all the way down should be seasoned hikers and well prepared.
Besides hiking into the canyon, you’ll find plenty of shaded trails on the rim to enjoy the autumn air in the surroundings of the Grand Canyon.
5. Fall Foliage: Aspens At The North Rim
The Grand Canyon is many things but is not a destination for fall foliage. However, among all the evergreens, you’ll find several patches of aspens on the North Rim. Their bright gold or pale yellow leaves add an unexpected splash of color to the surroundings in late September/early October.
Besides the view of the rocks of the Grand Canyon, I love visiting the North Rim in autumn for its aspen colonies. Walking among them, surrounded by their white barks and bright gold leaves fluttering in the slightest breeze, are some of my favorite autumn moments.
Aspens grow at higher elevations, and since the North Rim is about 1,000 feet higher than the South, this is where you’ll find them. Take a walk through the campground of the North Rim, or ask the rangers to point you to the best display at the time of your visit.
6. Wildlife Encounters
Wildlife is abundant at the park, and you’ll see more of it during autumn. Cooler temperatures and fewer crowds allow the animals to be out. Besides chipmunks and Albers squirrels, you are most likely to see mule deer and an occasional elk, both at the South and North Rims.
We encountered these species during all of our fall visits to the canyon over the years. Besides these mammals, when we camped or stayed the night at the Grand Canyon Lodge, sitting outside in the dark, we noticed bats flying above our heads.
But these animals are only a small part of the wildlife, home to 90 species of mammals, nearly 450 species of birds, a few species of amphibians, and reptiles. Many of them are more active in the fall, so look out for them.
7. You Can Enjoy Indoor Exhibits At Leisure
With fewer crowds, you can explore the indoor exhibits at the South Rim at a more leisurely pace. One of my favorite spots is the Watchtower at Desert View, not only for the gorgeous views of the canyon it offers but the Native American artwork featured on its walls. During high season, I would not be able to enjoy it, but with fewer visitors, I can usually stop and enjoy the artwork, along with the views of the canyon.
Note: Due to COVID, the Watchtower is closed until further notice, though the ground-level retail shop is open.
The Yavapai Geology Museum is another one of these indoor exhibits I enjoy more during the off-season. Perched on the edge of the rim near Yavapai Point, the museum offers the best views along with information about the geologic history recorded in the landscape.
8. Exploring The Historic Grand Canyon Village Is More Pleasant
The Historic Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, dating from 1901, offers an opportunity to step back in time while wandering through its old structures. As with most other outdoor activities, fall offers a more pleasant experience, with fewer cars and visitors, and more comfortable weather.
I like to stroll through the village and stop at the Hopi House, modeled after the Hopi village of Old Oraibi, the perfect setting for the Native woven rugs, baskets, pottery, and jewelry on display. We often see Hopi and Navajo dances and other cultural demonstrations in the small plaza in front of the Hopi House.
Another one of my family’s favorite activities in the village is to walk through the historic train depot and watch the old-fashioned steam train coming in or leaving. When we take the train from Williams, we start and end our visit here, riding through some of the best scenery in Northern Arizona and entertained by a mock train robbery.
My family likes to end the day at the Grand Canyon with dinner at the historic El Tovar. We find the experience more enjoyable in autumn when crowds thinned, but it’s not too cold yet to sit on the patio after our meal.
9. It Is Easier To Book A Room
If we choose to spend the night at the Grand Canyon, and we have our heart set on El Tovar, fall is also the time we have a better chance of booking a room.
Though you still need to book early if you plan to visit the North Rim, you are more likely to find a room (or cabin) at the Historic Grand Canyon Lodge there as well, especially in September and early October, before the rim closes for the season.
As pleasant as it normally is, fall can be unpredictable at the Grand Canyon, so make sure you have warm clothes and rain gear, especially if you are staying overnight. By mid-October, temperatures might drop below freezing at night.
Fall weather doesn’t mean you don’t need to be properly prepared to hike. Daytime weather might still be warm, but remember, you are in a high desert environment, with little moisture in the air. It’s important to drink enough water while outdoors, no matter how short or long you plan to walk.
Carry a reusable water bottle. You’ll find filling stations all over the park. If you forgot your own, you’ll find one at any of the gift shops in the park. You won’t find single-use plastic water bottles in the park however, due to the park’s go green initiative, one of my favorite things about the park.
COVID Protocol: At the time of this writing, wearing a face mask is required in all indoor areas and in the national park, regardless of vaccination status.
The Grand Canyon is one of America’s greatest treasures, and is a target destination for many travelers: