Winter in Utah's Red Rock Country

Reasons to Visit

Considering that warning, why would anyone want to visit the canyon country of southern Utah in the dead of winter?

"This is an absolutely wonderful time of year to visit," Henderson said. "It's pretty quiet, but it's not going to stay that way much longer. By mid-March it starts to turn crazy here and it stays that way until fall."

Henderson's observation holds true for three of the other four National Parks in Utah. Arches, Capitol Reef and Zion National Parks see tremendous declines in visitor numbers between November and the first part of March.

Bryce Canyon, which is considerably higher in elevation than the other four parks, has long attracted snowmobilers and cross-country skiers, so there's a higher level of visitor services available than at its sister parks.

Although there are opportunities for overnight hikes, bicycle tours or four-wheel drive trips, most winter visitors content themselves with day hikes or vehicle tours.

Short days make for short trips. If you plan on hiking into a canyon, for example, you must consider both the temperatures and the daylight hours. The light in early morning can be spectacular, but it is the coldest part of the day. Sand and rock absorb cold as well as they do heat, so hiking through a narrow canyon before the sun has had a chance to warm it can be like moving through a walk-in freezer.

Better to linger over a cup of coffee and wait a few hours, until 9 a.m. or so, before venturing into the country. Plan to make your hikes shorter than you might at other times, because the sun will be well on its descent by 6 p.m.

Keep an eye on the terrain you're crossing, too. A patch of frozen mud you crossed easily in the morning may be a quagmire after the sun has warmed it for a couple of hours.

Ah, but there's real charm to the desert in winter. The scenery is breathtaking. One of the most magnificent sights is the contrast between a red rock canyon and the snow-blanketed mountains in the distance.

In a sense, winter turns back the clock on Utah's National Parks. Even in some of the most popular places— Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, or the Hanging Gardens in Zion, you may not see another soul. Campgrounds are open, but they rarely, if ever fill up before March. Permits to visit or camp in popular backcountry areas, such as the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands are easy to pick up in the winter months.

"This time of year, just about any campsite is yours for the taking," Henderson said."Getting a permit is the least of your worries."

The down side is that winter shuts down much of the rest of southern Utah. Many restaurants and motels close, and other cafes run shorter hours. But hey, if you wanted amenities you'd have gone to Vegas— part of the thrill of winter in the red rock country is that you're out there doing it on your own.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »