Zion/Bryce in Dead of Winter
August 3, 2018 8:18 AM   Subscribe

Mrs sandmanwv and I are thinking of doing Zion/Bryce maybe South Rim Grand Canyon over Xmas-New Years Holidays. Is this a good idea? We are not super experienced hikers/campers but will enjoy the scenery. We're hedging by getting cancellable lodging. Would there be an nature-alternative from Vegas in case there's a snowstorm?
posted by sandmanwv to Travel & Transportation around Utah (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
If you’re already in Vegas, Red Rock Canyon is right on your doorstep and has plenty of hiking etc.
posted by doctord at 8:35 AM on August 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


I've been to Zion in January. It's cold, below freezing at night, every night.

Winter hiking/camping is a thing I enjoy it but it's something to be seriously considered and maybe practiced in more forgiving environments first.
posted by French Fry at 8:39 AM on August 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


I did Arches and Bryce over New Year's Day so can speak pretty directly to this. Overall, I'd recommend it, if you keep a couple of things in mind.

On the pro side, the parks are much, much less crowded over the winter holidays than at any point in the summer. You won't ever feel packed in the way that you can feel in these parks, especially Zion, during the summer. In addition, if it has snowed, the combination of gorgeous mountains, hoodoos, snow and rock is simply spectacular and not something you can get at other times of the year. There's also pretty large diurnal temperature variation in this part of the world, so it's not uncommon to get temperatures in the 40s in the mid-afternoon.

On the downside, it is very cold at night. The temperature drops noticeably and rapidly after sunset; by right before dawn it is likely to be in the teens or even single digits Fahrenheit, depending on where you are. (Terrain and elevation have a big impact here.) In addition, the days are basically the shortest of the entire year, so if you have any kind of long hikes you want to do, it's best to get up quite early in the morning or even before sunrise, in those aforementioned cold temperatures. All bets are off if you get a bad winter snowstorm, but it sounds like you've planned for this just in case.

The biggest impact on your trip is lodging. My friend and I camp in the summer, but we stayed every night in "real" lodging (i.e. in motels) on our winter trip and I would strongly recommend this unless you are quite experienced with winter outdoors activities. With the right clothing, winter day hikes in this part of the world are very manageable, but it's another level to also sleep outside in those subfreezing temperatures.

I really enjoyed my trip, even though I was sick for unrelated reasons. To make the most of it, I'd say to pack lots of layers (for all sorts of temperatures -- one day it was 9 F when we left the car at a trailhead before sunrise and 45 F when we were eating lunch) and be ready to get up early and go to bed early, to make the most of the limited daylight.

I think southern Utah has the most beautiful and most striking scenery in this country (I'm from California and live in New York, for the record) so I strongly support this. Just pick your lodging carefully and pack right!
posted by andrewesque at 8:44 AM on August 3, 2018 [9 favorites]


On the pro side, the parks are much, much less crowded over the winter holidays than at any point in the summer.

I don't know what it's like in the summer, so I have no point of comparison, but I was at Zion the day after Christmas two years ago and it seemed very crowded to me. Maybe it was just because people had a day off? But we were driving through the park and were mostly unable to find a place where we could stop the car and walk around. This could be very different from the camping experience, so take what I say with several grains of salt.
posted by FencingGal at 9:00 AM on August 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


I have been to both parks at that time of year and snow on red rock with blue skies is as pretty a sight as you’re going to see. It was truly wonderful time to visit.

But there is no way I would camp because the nights are bitter cold. I‘d also be sure to have windproof jackets and hats or at least headbands to cover your ears because especially at Bryce it gets windy and then you have windchill. And consider your footwear. You want boots, not shoes, and you want waterproof. Hiking trails don’t get shovelled so you get snow, which starts to melt, freezes over night, melts some more and turns trails into semi frozen mud...

Be sure to ask about trail and road conditions when you enter a park. You‘ll be travelling on mountain roads in winter. You might encounter ice or snow days after the last snow fall because a shady turn may never get enough sun for it to melt.

This is a wonderful trip but don’t camp and be prepared for winter weather in the desert.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:02 AM on August 3, 2018


I've been in the Arches area at exactly this time of year. I would confine yourself to hiking there, and staying in hotels, instead of camping; it gets hella cold (I went on a hike with friends and slipped and landed with my foot ankle-deep in a stream; I had good socks, so I was okay during the 40-minute quick march back to the car, but it was cold enough for the hem of my jeans to freeze solid). If you're a bit new, it'll be easier to equip yourself to winter hiking than to winter camping. Any decent outdoors store should help you; there are some definite do's and don't's when it comes to dressing for outdoor winter activities. (For instance - cotton is a no-no.)

But my word it's gorgeous.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:06 AM on August 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


100% staying in hotels FYI.
posted by sandmanwv at 9:08 AM on August 3, 2018


I don't know what it's like in the summer, so I have no point of comparison, but I was at Zion the day after Christmas two years ago and it seemed very crowded to me. Maybe it was just because people had a day off? But we were driving through the park and were mostly unable to find a place where we could stop the car and walk around.

I definitely agree that the winter holidays are for sure the busiest time of the winter, but summer is on another level altogether (I've been at both times).

As a point of possible comparison, were you driving through Zion Canyon in the winter? In the summer season you can't even drive through the canyon in a private vehicle (a mandatory shuttle service was put in place because the summer traffic used to be so awful), let alone park in the canyon.
posted by andrewesque at 9:11 AM on August 3, 2018


I cannot imagine a better way to start off 2019. If you can fit it in, it's worth giving yourself a day to explore Kolob Canyons, which is in the less crowded northern part of Zion.
posted by roger ackroyd at 9:19 AM on August 3, 2018


I did south rim grand canyon at this time. We got spots in the lodging at the bottom for New
Years Eve booking the same day. People did camp - it was of course much warmer at the bottom. It was a fantastic time to do it. No experience with Utah but did camp near Zion in April and it is below freezing/snow even then.
posted by decathexis at 9:56 AM on August 3, 2018


If you're going to be in/near Vegas, look at Valley of Fire State Park about 60 miles away. It's a Nevada state park and truly one of the prettiest, most visually interesting places I've ever seen. I can't speak to the actual camping/hiking there -- I'm more of a drive-around-and-look kind of gal -- but I really loved this place!
posted by mccxxiii at 10:30 AM on August 3, 2018


As a point of possible comparison, were you driving through Zion Canyon in the winter? In the summer season you can't even drive through the canyon in a private vehicle (a mandatory shuttle service was put in place because the summer traffic used to be so awful), let alone park in the canyon.

Yes, we were driving through the canyon. Thanks for bringing this up - that was the only time I'd been there, so I had no idea what the summers are like, though it seemed likely they'd be a lot more crowded. I think a shuttle would have been better though, since it was almost impossible to park and walk around.
posted by FencingGal at 10:34 AM on August 3, 2018


We did Zions last January and it was great. No crowds. The temps are good for hiking (with proper clothing) unless it's snowing or has snowed in the last few days.
Bryce might be 10 degrees cooler than Zions.
posted by WizKid at 10:36 AM on August 3, 2018


You may have already seen this, but Bryce Canyon has a page about activities during winter that should give you a good idea about what conditions might be like. Also, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, UT is a great place to visit near Zion and Bryce Canyon. You can even sign up to volunteer there. I've never been in winter, but if I were you, I would sign up for a volunteer shift with the pigs, because I love them.
posted by amarynth at 11:02 AM on August 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


I’ve been to the Grand Canyon between Christmas and New Years, and it was fine! A little snowy, but manageable cold. Trails were walkable; buy your YakTrax ahead of time so you can walk without slipping. Everything seemed to be open.

We did run into a snowstorm in West Texas on the way, and it was terrifying, but that won’t be an issue for your itinerary.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 11:29 AM on August 3, 2018


Lots of good advice above. I used to live in Moab so I will add just a couple thoughts. Like most have said, this area in the winter is really lovely and totally doable.

1. Lots of places in the surrounding towns close down for the winter. There will not be as many hotels, restaurants and such open, so plan accordingly. The big main lodges are all open and usually not booked up.

2. This is the most important advice I can give you: The winter days are short, so you need to plan accordingly if you are going to do long hikes. If it gets dark on a hike when you are out in Zion or similar, it gets very hard to see the cairns marking the trail and is easy to wander off trail. This is how people die there in the winter. So if you're planning long hikes, 1) start early, 2) stop at the ranger station and tell them what hike you are doing, 3) carry flashlights, matches, and a spare phone battery.

Have fun! Winter desert is the best desert.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:51 PM on August 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


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