How Hot Does it Get in the Grand Canyon?
With the summer months officially upon us, it has come time to discuss one of the most-asked questions this time of year: how hot does it actually get in Grand Canyon? The answer is one word, three letters: H-O-T. The Inner Gorge regularly sees temperatures hovering over 110 degrees, and the Phantom Ranch Ranger Station, a popular destination any time of the year, has recorded temperatures as high as 116 degrees. Grand Canyon is one hot spot in the summertime, my friends.
Why is it so hot?
Several reasons contribute to temperatures in the depths of Grand Canyon. They may seem fairly obvious, but our bet is that some may be surprising. Many of our guests are not accustomed to traveling in the American Southwest, and are sometimes surprised at the heat. The temperatures may be doubly surprising given that elevations at either rim are well over 7000 feet above sea level. Let’s examine the culprits.
First of all, and most simply, it’s a desert. Grand Canyon sits on the Colorado Plateau, a saucer-shaped uplift in the Earth’s crust. The Plateau is sandwiched between two mighty mountain ranges, the Rockies and Sierras, both of which impound much of the moisture in the region. The Colorado Desert, as it is known to ecologists, lies adjacent to the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and Mojave Desert of California.
Though not as arid as its cousins to the south, the Colorado Desert is a desert nonetheless. Average annual precipitation across the Plateau is just 10″ in the lowest, hottest spots, The region is studded with laccoltith (granitic dome) mountains that receive snow, but the lowlands are hot and dry places, indeed.
Given its desert nature, much of the Colorado Plateau is a wilderness of naked rock. Vegetation in the lower elevations is sparse, lending very little shade. The bare rocks “breathe” heat, inhaling the solar radiation, then exhaling back out into the atmosphere. The darker and more dense the rock, the more inhaling and exhaling take place.
The rocks of Grand Canyon’s Inner Gorge, known as the Vishnu Metamorphic Complex, are prime candidates for this breathing action. Their color (very dark, essentially black in most places) and density (metamorphic rocks are extremely dense) make them enormously susceptible to heat absorption. Given their location in the depths of Grand Canyon, it is no wonder why the inner canyon can feel like a blast furnace in the hottest months.
Even the lighter-colored, less dense sedimentary rocks found in Grand Canyon such as sandstone, shale, and limestone, are very inefficient cooling centers. No matter where they are in the canyon, the rocks cannot escape the sun, and hikers in Grand Canyon cannot escape the rocks (yay!).
In essence, Grand Canyon behaves like a giant, incredibly scenic parking lot. The same action that occurs in the vast expanses of concrete jungles known as cities, also occurs here in Grand Canyon and across the naked rock wilderness of the Colorado Plateau.
Grand Canyon is a massive, inverted mountain. The summit of this mountain, the Colorado River, lies at roughly 2000 feet elevation. The base, respectively North and South Rims, are at impressive elevations of 7500 and 8500 feet. As you may imagine, this creates significant differences in temperature. The rule of thumb climbing mountains in in the upward direction is 5 degrees for every thousand feet. This same rule of thumb applies to inverted mountains.
A nice summer day on the North Rim might be 80 degrees. This same day temperatures on the South Rim may be a warm, but still relatively comfortable 85+ degrees Six thousand feet below at Phantom Ranch it will be a balmy 110 degrees. Temperatures in the sun may exceed 130 degrees.
The forested rims, particularly the lush North Rim, are in climate zones more similar to places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Rocky Mountain National Park. In contrast, the Inner Gorge lies in a climate zone similar to that of Saguaro and Joshua Tree National Parks which are located in the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts, respectively.
Is there any way to beat the heat?
Staying in the cool pine forests near the Grand Canyon’s North and South Rims is the best bet to beat the heat in the summer. South Rim regularly sees temperatures in the 90s, but shade is easy to find. Cool breezes often blow through the stands of ponderosa pine, making a picnic overlooking the canyon very pleasant.
The North Rim is cooler, typically seeing high temperatures in the low-to-mid 80’s. Stands of aspen forest tremble in the breeze, and at 8500 feet nights get quite cool. A trip to North Rim is a great way to spend a summer day. Summertime stars at either rim are a sight to behold.
But I still want to hike….
Hiking in Grand Canyon in the summertime, as you may gather, can be a interesting proposition. The Goat’s advice is to get out early. Starting a hike before dawn is a summer rite-of-passage in Grand Canyon. Avoid hiking during the hottest times of the day (10AM-4PM). If you are out on the trail during those times, it is a good idea to seek shade where available. Drink plenty of water (3-4L/person), and eat salty snacks that help your body to retain moisture. Nuts, Jerky, and cheese make a fantastic meal on the trail, but avoid food high in sugar.
Is it a good idea (or even fun) to go backpacking in the summer?
If you are planning a backpacking trip below the rim during the summer, know what you are in for and prepare for it. Following the general hiking guidelines outlined earlier is a great start. Plan your trip so that you will be near water, if possible. Many hikes from the North Rim have water along the trail, and the Colorado River makes a wonderful and very welcome swimming hole.
Packing correctly is quite helpful as well. A wide-brimmed hat is key, along with sunglasses and clothing material that wicks moisture. Synthetic garments work well, and avoid wearing anything that absorbs moisture such as denim or cotton.
What is the best time of year to hike in Grand Canyon?
If you can swing it, Grand Canyon hiking is best enjoyed during the cooler months. October to April are the best times, with November to March being particularly spectacular. Although it may be chilly on the rim, hiking in the canyon during these months presents daytime temperatures in the 50s and 60s, absolutely perfect for hiking.
Be advised that North Rim is open from May 15 – October 15. In the off-season there are no services available, and access is quite limited. In order to access North Rim during the winter, hikers must approach the rim on foot, in snowshoes, or on cross country skies.
Despite summer being warmer, there is no such thing as a bad time to visit Grand Canyon. Simply hiking along the rim to take in the astounding views is a great summertime activity, but hiking below the rim can be highly enjoyable too. Following our hiking guidelines will ensure that your backpacking trip or day hike is a safe and fun experience that yields stories and memories to last a lifetime.
Exploring Grand Canyon with a guide service is hands-down the best way to enjoy the canyon. This is true any time of the year, but is especially true when the temperature starts to rise. Blue Marble Adventure GeoTourism’s guides are certified in CPR and backcountry medicine in addition to being degreed geologists. This depth of medical knowledge is the key to keeping our guests safe on the trail, particularly when the conditions are not ideal. Hit us up for more information, or to join an epic backpacking or basecamp hiking tour.
Hiring an outfitter has several benefits. Namely, we worry about all the other stuff while you enjoy your adventure! Food, navigation, top-of-the-line gear, and deep knowledge of the landscape is the coup de gras.
The Goat’s Final Word
Grand Canyon presents the intrepid adventurer extraordinary experiences with unique challenges. Even without the heat, hiking in Grand Canyon can be demanding and requires preparation paired with realistic goals. Summer heat is certainly among the challenges one will find here, but it can be managed fairly easily by hiking smart.
In fact, the heat offers hikers the opportunity to really slow down and enjoy the vistas unraveling before their eyes. Hiking by moonlight is an extraordinary experience that not only beats the heat, but presents an altogether different perspective on this wondrous place. Trust me, wandering through a moonlight-bathed gorge while a Great Horned Owl hoots from the cliffs above is a sublime experience.
Slow down, find some shade, drink some water, and chill. Post up under a sprawling cottonwood tree. Have a well-deserved splash in the river or under a waterfall. Take cues from Grand Canyon wildlife. Do you see them going hard in the heat? No? Then you shouldn’t either. Above all, don’t force anything. If you feel hot, slow down. Don’t be afraid to take care of yourself, your body will thank you.
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