IN THE SUMMER, 23,000 people a day swarm over the Grand Canyon, their campers and trailers inching along the forest roads bumper to bumper, so crowded that the main South Rim drive has to be closed off.

You can spend an hour just waiting for breakfast in the cafeterias.

The waiting list for the 770 hotel rooms is six months long.

Even the trails are jammed.

In the winter it's a different place. This year the South Rim has been mostly free of snow, and the desk clerks say they've never seen the place so busy, but even so, you will feel you almost have the canyon to yourself.

In February, only the Thunderbird Lodge, where we stayed, and the classic old El Tovar Hotel, with a blazing fire in its lobby, were open. They were filled for awhile (mainly with Arizonans who apparently make reservations literally years in advance just to have them), but after a night blizzard that left three inches of snow, the fainthearted fled and the handful left had the best canyon-view rooms.

In that dry, high area, snow rarely lasts long, and the roads are kept open with maniacal efficiency.

Best of all, it never snows very far below the rim, for the canyon bottom is true desert, unliveably hot in summer but pleasant indeed in winter. And if you do visit the Grand Canyon, you will want to get down into it, if only a few hundred yards. You can't possibly grasp its scale, its beauty, its majesty by merely gawking down from the rim.

Even if you have to take the mule trip, even if you only stroll down a few switchbacks in your sneakers, do see this wonder of the planet as it deserves to be seen.

With hiking shoes, a lunch and water, you can walk to Plateau Point -- and gaze straight down to the gleaming, artichoke-green Colorado River -- in two hours or so, climbing back in less than four hours, to make a hard seven-hour day of it. The trip will pop the eyes from your head: yawning chasms, great golden cliffs, snow-flecked promontories, deer and tuft-eared squirrels and wheeling ravens -- and the silence. The silence alone is worth all the panting. A silence like that is vast enough to change your life.

In the winter, you can make contact with the l,500 people who live year-round at Grand Canyon Village, go to their chili suppers and to the movies, advertised on posters at the general store. Few visitors do. You might meet a guy whose father hauled the cable down the canyon to make the first suspension bridge, or a teacher, or a trail guide, or an agent for the local airline that runs helicopter trips into the canyon.It's a relief from the narrow world of the tourist.

You can also avoid the restaurant trap by buying yogurt and lettuce and avocados and cheese and crackers at the store, and eating them in your room. It's a blessing for those feeling overfed with tasty but heavy restaurant food. One thing: The salt pours very fast in that dry air.

When you are finished with the canyon, you might try the Hopi-Navajo country three hours to the east, and Canyon do Chelly, and Monument Valley. All of these places, many of them on Indian reservation land, are virtually abandoned by tourists in the winter. The roads are clear, and you don't have to fight for reservations or wait in line to eat.

Probably the simplest approach is to fly to Phoenix and hire a car. Just keep an eye on the weather, which you can see coming for miles. If it does close in, you can always go back to Phoenix and swim in the motel pool.