Wintertime roadtripping in South-Western (?) US - what is sanity?
October 6, 2006 5:47 AM   Subscribe

What is sanity - wintertime roadtripping in South-Western (?) US - where to go?

Thanks in no small part to MeFi, I've had an amazing time roadtripping California last autumn, during which -even though I was warned by several MeFites- my head asploded daily because of the insane, crazy beauty (Yosemite, Mono Lake, HW1, Yosemite!) and the joys of driving long, winding roads.

This coming January/February I have a new opportunity to fly out to the US and spend about two weeks on a roadtrip on which I hope to visit a number of National Parks to make my head asplode again. Obviously, the winter season has a big impact on my plans. I think. I don't mind a bit of cold (due to either the season or altitude), but am certainly not looking to go skiing or freeze.

Studying average temperatures isn't very helpful (Yosemite in October was still lovely and warm during the day while freezing at night) so I hope
some of you will have suggestions on where to visit and what to stay away from.

Even though I'd like to visit them, this probably means that Glacier National Park, Crater Lake, Yellowstone as well as the High Sierras are out. Correct me if that's a silly assumption. It would be great to know roughly how far north the temperature gets too unpleasant (I know it's subjective, but think: fun roadtrip, not uncomfortable polarexpedition) or how high up the weather becomes too unstable.

I am likely to be flying into Las Vegas, but a return flight from other airports should be possible. I do enormously enjoy the driving-part of roadtripping, so distance is not a problem, although staying away from Highways as much as I can will limit me in the distance I will be able to travel.

I was planning on visiting Death Valley, Zion, Bryce, and Grand Canyon National Parks. Is this reasonably possible and if so, with which places, roads and parks could I extend this trip?
posted by Grensgeval to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Temperature can vary as much by elevation as how far north you are. Bryce gets pretty cold, IMHO, because it's higher up. Zion less so, though I find that varies -- on one occasion I visited there in late January when it was freezing and never took off more than my second layer of clothing, and on another occasion hiked comfortably in shorts in early February. Also, like a lot of desert environments, it can get much colder at night than it is in the daytime. So, you know, dress in layers and bring warm sleeping gear.

Snow Canyon (state park northwest out of St. George) is a place I've often found to be on the warmer side in the winter and it's got some of the interesting big/red rock stuff.

Valley of Fire and Red Rock are two places not far out of Vegas that I've enjoyed.

If you really want to extend your trip with lots of driving, you could come up into southeast Utah and hit Goblin Valley and Canyonlands, Arches, and Dead Horse Point (good place to catch a sunset). These places are on the colder side in the winter, though, and some of my scariest driving moments ever have been on I-15 between Cedar City and I-70 in the wintertime. Conditions are often fine and roads can be well-cleared, it's just that you can also get whiteout conditions and cars off the road everywhere and while that can be its own brand of white-knuckled fun, after spinning off the road once, I tend to tell people to be cautious and check the weather reports.

There's a bunch of earlier AskMe threads that you might find interesting too:
Grand Canyoning, Grand Camping, Arches, General Hiking.
posted by weston at 6:55 AM on October 6, 2006

We went to Zion and Arches in May and we were going to drive from there to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. The road was still snowed out. This was May, 2005. Just FYI.
posted by cobaltnine at 7:09 AM on October 6, 2006

I've camped Death Valley in December, as well as Joshua Tree, Guadalupe, and Saguaro. It got cold at night, but not dangerously so. This was car camping, so we had a lot of blankets and some dogs to keep us warm if we needed. During the day it was warm enough to go in short sleeves.

These are all within easy driving distance from LV, and I’d recommend any of them, but be prepared for cold and warm weather, and be ready to bail if a snowstorm comes in.
posted by ijoshua at 7:55 AM on October 6, 2006

note: I won't be camping, so cold nights are not a problem. Snowstorms are though. It sounds like I might have to reconsider this roadtrip...
posted by Grensgeval at 8:59 AM on October 6, 2006

It would be great to know roughly how far north the temperature gets too unpleasant

It's going to be a bit of a crapshoot for you -- you're arranging your travel time in advance; but there's no great way of predicting whether you'll hit a cold snap or blizzard during your visit.

Nevertheless, the Grand Canyon is great in the wintertime, especially if there's snow on the ground. (I was there in early February, 2003.) The North Rim is closed, but the South Rim has the lodge and visitor center and closest access to the interstate highway.
posted by Rash at 10:08 AM on October 6, 2006

Grensgeval - There's plenty to do/see further south. Maybe not as grand or well known, but lots of New Mexico and Arizona is still snow free during your time frame.
posted by FlamingBore at 10:31 AM on October 6, 2006

The road was still snowed out. This was May, 2005.

This is not quite the usual state of affairs, though. 2005 was a particularly weird year in Utah. Snowed quite a bit, stayed cool into May (and then the temperatures rose really quickly and you should've seen the runoff literally gush out of the mountains!)

Snowstorms are though. It sounds like I might have to reconsider this roadtrip...

You should be aware they're a real possibility, at least somewhere on the road, but if you leave your plans flexible, follow the weather reports, and time your trip later in the season rather than earlier, you can probably avoid storms that create safety and accessibility problems.
posted by weston at 10:34 AM on October 6, 2006

I was snowed out at Bryce two Januarys ago. Check out the elevations of where you want to go. For my temperature comfort zone and other experiences in Moab, I'd say 4000' is too high. (And Bryce is at 6000-8000' feet, so no wonder I got snowed out!) I'm not saying you shouldn't go (most places, they do clear the roads, and I was snowed out only because a big storm had just hit). But ... you shouldn't expect it not to be winter.

Have you considered Death Valley, the Joshua Tree, Anza Borrego, and the Salton Sea? You could almost totally avoid winter there. Or head toward Tucson (hitting Sedona, AZ, on your way, though it'll still be cold there). Different scenery than Yosemite, though, so check out pictures. I love the Moab area, but I still go to Death Valley in the winter for the warmer weather.

As the time approaches, you can check out weather reports and webcams. Eg, here's a webcam for Zion.
posted by salvia at 11:09 AM on October 6, 2006

Organ Pipe Cactus NP is nice in the dead of winter, as is Saguaro. Unless you're used to heat, I'd suggest that the *only* time to visit Joshua Tree and Death Valley are in the winter. Zion at New Years makes you glad to be alive, though you often can't take hikes up the sides of the canyon. And brice is f-f-f-f-f-f-cold, though the snow that's usually there makes it even more of a visual oddity.
posted by notsnot at 1:03 PM on October 6, 2006

Having seen pictures of Bryce covered in snow I would imagine that it is stunning (as it is with non snow and far more beautiful than the Grand Canyon). I've only visited in summer but can imagine that the roads are quite nasty with a touch of snow/ice. I remember it was quite a climb and quite taxing with night driving - but then we were running low on gas and had to coast alot of the way back down.
posted by floanna at 1:18 PM on October 6, 2006

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