Ice and rock, snow and splendor: Winter in Southern Utah

CRACK! The sharp sound jolts me out of my reverie. Startled, I turn to observe a giant sheet of ice peel off the high red rock walls of the Zion Canyon Narrows and come crashing down — BOOM! — into the Virgin River in a thousand wintry shards.

“Whoa,” I say to the river, my eyes saucers, “You don’t see that every day.”

No. You don’t. I am two miles upriver on one of the most popular hikes in one of the most popular of the United States’ 59 national parks and I am the only soul on planet Earth to witness this icefall, which echoes downstream like a gunshot, punctuating the silence in its wake.

Ice and red rock as a pair are a rare sight in Zion National Park — rare because there aren’t many humans around to do the sighting. Few venture into the park when frozen stalactites dangle from overhangs and cling to cliff walls like icy hanging gardens. It’s beautiful, sure, but it’s not for everyone. Zion’s peak season spreads out shoulder to shoulder April through October, which means sharing the trail with outdoor enthusiasts from around the world.

Few venture into the park when frozen stalactites dangle from overhangs and cling to cliff walls like icy hanging gardens. It’s beautiful, sure, but it’s not for everyone.

In February, solitude comes easier. I am wading in the icy cold water of the Virgin River thanks to neoprene socks and chest-high waders and I plow upstream, giddy with the air of discovery. Around every corner is a new stunning sight and it’s all mine, save for a few other intrepid souls dotting the river. I soak it in and keep making the same dumb joke to myself: If a giant slab of ice falls into the river and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?

  • Open to Snow

    Zion's eastern entrance on a wintry day. Photo: Hage Photo

  • Narrows in Winter

    A winter excursion in the Zion Narrows offers a unique glimpse of this natural wonder filled with icy water falls and blessed solitude. Photo: Hage Photo

  • The Narrows

    Find an outfitter who can gear you up for a wintertime exploration of the famed Narrows within Zion. Photo: Hage Photo

  • Cedar Breaks

    Sunset at Cedar Breaks National Monument. Photo: Adam Clark

  • Brian Head

    A snow-meets-red rock view from Brian Head Ski Resort. Photo: Adam Clark

  • Brian Head Lookout

    One of two resorts in Southern Utah, the town and resort of Brian Head is located a whopping 9,800 feet above sea level. Photo: Adam Clark

  • Chow Down

    Brian Head Resort’s owner John Grissinger hails from Kansas City and brought his love of BBQ to the slopes. Photo: Adam Clark

  • Last Chair Saloon

    The kind of place that you might find yourself singing along with strangers to the likes of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.” Photo: Hage Photo

  • Red Canyon

    Red Canyon blanketed in white. Photo: Hage Photo

  • Sunset Point

    Time for a snap at Sunset Point in Bryce Canyon National Park. Photo: Hage Photo

  • Fresh Tracks

    Cross country skiing in Bryce Canyon National Park. Photo: Hage Photo

  • Catch the Sunset

    Sunset Point at the right time of day in Bryce Canyon National Park. Photo: Hage Photo

  • Eagle Point

    Flying down a run at Eagle Point Ski Resort. Photo: Adam Clark

  • Eagle Point

    Enjoying the glowing downhill of Eagle Point Ski Resort. Photo: Adam Clark

  • Beyond the Golden Hour

    Sunset at Eagle Point Ski Resort. Photo: Adam Clark

An alternative to the Narrows, the Watchman trail passes overhanging cliffs and stratified rock layers. Photo: Hage Photo
An alternative to the Narrows, the Watchman trail passes overhanging cliffs and stratified rock layers. Photo: Hage Photo

Day One: Las Vegas to Springdale and Zion National Park

Activities: Hiking

I started this five-day adventure at McCarran International Airport’s baggage claim in Las Vegas, below the Godzilla-sized Celine Dion and Cirque du Soleil billboards. Vegas wants so very badly for me to stay and get lost in its labyrinth of casinos and consumption. Poor thing, it’s practically begging.

Soon enough I am rocketing away from Vegas’s hollow promises in my rental car. I feel like I’m leaving a bad marriage. Hey Vegas, it’s not you, it’s me. To mark the moment, I put on U2’s “The Joshua Tree,” the perfect soundtrack for the 2.5-hour drive into Utah and my first destination, Springdale, the oh-so charming village that is the gateway to Zion National Park.

As I enter Utah, the desert gets more, I don’t know, desert-ey — the rocks begin to rise out of the Virgin River Gorge and the iron in the soil gives them a red tint. Nevada definitely lost the scenery lotto and this effect intensifies as I pull into Springdale.

Checking into the Cliffrose Lodge and Gardens and a sprawling, fully appointed room in this suite-only hotel on the banks of the Virgin River, I drop my bags. I’m headed to Zion Outfitter on the edge of the park to rent my waders and river shoes for the out-and-back trek up The Narrows. The Narrows are perhaps Zion’s most popular excursion; it is not so much a hike as a ramble up the Virgin River below towering cliff walls that “narrow” as you get farther upriver into one of the most accessible slot canyons in Southern Utah. I return four hours later, smiling and ready for dinner.

Before heading out tomorrow morning, I’ll sneak in a hike to get a parting glimpse of the canyon from on high.

Stargazers gather for dark sky viewing at Brian Head Resort. Photo: Hage Photo
Stargazers gather for dark sky viewing at Brian Head Resort. Photo: Hage Photo

Day Two: Springdale to Brian Head

Activities: Hiking, Scenic Drive, BBQ Dinner

There are several strenuous trails ascending from the floor of Zion Canyon. The most well known, Angels Landing, is a butt-kicking climb to the top, very top, of the canyon, famously completed by a chain route — where the vertiginously narrow trail offers chain hand holds as you crawl up tummy-turning sections of trail with sheer drop offs. The bucket list hike is crowded in summer — I’d likely have opted for Observation Point or The Watchman — but much more reasonable in the winter season.

I get out early, entering the park at 8 a.m. for the five-mile, round-trip clamber to the top. The chains section is daunting but doable with a healthy dose of patience and slow moving. Had it been raining or wet, I would have stopped at the plateau where the chains begin (which is a worthy destination in itself). My efforts were rewarded with a top-of-the-world view into a moody winter sky above snow-accented red rock cliffs in every direction.

Exhilarated, I pack up for the next leg of my journey, leaving Springdale for Interstate 15 and the 1.5-hour drive to Brian Head Resort. I arrive early afternoon and take the time to get ski rentals and gear sorted for the next morning, checking into the Grand Lodge as the sun sets.

In search of fun, I venture over to the Last Chair Saloon, where the weekend crowd — in from Las Vegas and Los Angeles — is embracing the bar’s après-ski offerings with gusto and a solid cover band (also in from Vegas) plays the hits in the corner. Soon enough, Brian Head’s owner, John Grissinger, starts rolling out his famous BBQ dinners to the gathered crowd and holds court behind his smoker. It is a good night, Brian Head is a friendly place, everyone is happy to be away in the mountains and tonight is the kind of night that you find yourself singing along with strangers to the likes of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

Snowshoeing along the Bryce Canyon Rim Trail. Photo: Hage Photo
Snowshoeing along the Bryce Canyon Rim Trail. Photo: Hage Photo

Day Three: Brian Head Resort

Activities: Skiing, Snowmobiling

The following morning, nursing a decent hangover, I boot up and head to the lifts. A few warmup laps and the crisp winter air chase the cobwebs away and I take the grand tour of the resort, mainly sticking to the groomers but finding a few stashes of hidden powder left behind from the last storm. Brian Head Resort is small, manageable and wide open. It’s a novel moment standing below Brian Head Peak and looking off in the distance at snow-covered red rock, something no other Utah resort can offer.

After lunch, I head over to Thunder Mountain Motorsports to embark on a snowmobile tour of the canyon rim above nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument. The group and private tours take riders on several miles of excellent snowmobile track, through gladed meadows of aspen in Dixie National Forest to a lookout above Cedar Breaks, a sort of mini-version of Bryce Canyon that is generally snowbound during winter. My tour guide, an affable, young Southern Utah kid named Cash, lets me tear ass around a meadow for a while on the way up, which I appreciate.

After the sun sets, Brian Head’s convivial weekend crowd is at it again. Tonight, it’s karaoke at the Lift Bar in the Grand Lodge. None for me, thanks. Tomorrow morning, I’ll head to Bryce Canyon National Park and Southern Utah’s other ski area, Eagle Point Resort.

Taking in the views from Eagle Point Resort. Photo: Adam Clark
Taking in the views from Eagle Point Resort. Photo: Adam Clark

Day Four: Brian Head to Bryce Canyon; Bryce Canyon to Eagle Point

Activities: Scenic drive, cross-country skiing

The drive from Brian Head to Bryce Canyon National Park is a beautifully scenic stretch of road that runs through the picturesque little town of Panguitch before dropping me onto Utah’s All-American Road: Scenic Byway 12. The scenery alongside the byway gives me a taste of what to expect in Bryce Canyon, famous for its slender, towering hoodoos created from centuries of artful erosion by wind and water.

Ruby’s Inn, a sprawling hotel and resort complex just outside of the park, has a Winter Activity Center that rents cross-country skis and snowshoes. The inn offers miles of groomed cross-country ski track and leads guided tours. You can also take snowshoes to the park to hike down into Bryce Canyon. I opt to rent a pair of cross-country skis and head out onto the track. It’s a bluebird day, and skating along the snowy trail is a great workout and a reprieve from the confines of my car. The trail leads to the rim of Bryce Canyon, where you overlook the unique hoodoos and wedding cake splendor of the park. Off in the distance I can see the Tushar Mountains, where my next destination, Eagle Point Ski Resort, lies.

I’m finding untrammeled powder even though the last storm came through five days ago. Am I dreaming?

The road to Eagle Point rises from the low desert lands into a stunning alpine setting. The Tushars are a relatively untouched range and as I wind up into the mountains, the air cools as the road narrows. At the top, I find the rustic village surrounding Eagle Point, which consists of a small collection of vacation homes and condominiums and a base-area lodge, bar and restaurant, below the high peaks of the Tushars rising above. The condos rent out for jaw-dropping affordable rates (starting at $89) and the price for an adult day pass to ski is an unheard of $45, depending on the day (2017–18 price, some Saturdays and holiday dates are higher). It occurs to me that the small resort would make for a great family getaway or a guys or girls trip. It’s the kind of place a merry band of skiers could just take over for a weekend. In fact, sitting at the bar after dinner, talking with the resort’s operations manager, Lane Tucker, I learn that Eagle Point offers a package to big groups — you can rent the entire resort, soup to nuts, for 10 grand.

I watch the stars from a hot tub on the lodge patio (they call it the hot tub garden) and wonder what the skiing is like.

Day Five: Eagle Point Ski Resort

Activity: Skiing

It’s a cliché but the phrase “best-kept secret” keeps running through my head as I explore Eagle Point’s 40 runs and side country. I pretty much have the place to myself, like, really. I am skiing right onto lifts that seem like they are running just for me. And because the resort is less-trafficked and only open Thursdays through Mondays, the snow isn’t all carved up. There literally isn’t enough ski traffic to make moguls and it is steep! On the skier’s left side of the resort are some of the steepest chutes I’ve ever skied, the runs are so steep the resort can’t groom them. And, when I venture out of the gates, I’m finding untrammeled powder even though the last storm came through five days ago. Am I dreaming?

Sipping a craft beer watching the sunset at Eagle Point I reflect on five days of a grand adventure. I’ve had two of the world’s most popular national parks nearly to myself, hiked to stunning vistas and in foreboding canyons. I’ve ridden a snowmobile (for the first time ever) and had two perfect ski days, and all of it was within a four-hour drive of a major airport. Which begs the question: If a dude has a perfect winter trip in Southern Utah and no one is there to see it, does it make a sound?

Jeremy Pugh

Jeremy Pugh is a writer living in Salt Lake City who, in one way or another, has been writing about culture, history, and the outdoors in Salt Lake City for more than a decade. Formerly the editor of Salt Lake magazine, Pugh is a freelancer and consultant writing for SKI, Sunset, and Salt Lake magazines and the author of the book 100 Things to Do in SLC Before You Die. A lifelong Utahn, Jeremy travels widely but always loves returning home to the mountains where he bikes, hikes, and skis as much as possible.

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Explore the Resorts

Brian Head Resort

Brian Head Resort

It’s easy to Find Your Greatest across Brian Head’s 650+ acres, eight lifts (including the new, significantly faster high-speed quad) and 71 runs. There are also three terrain parks, two tubing hills and lots of backcountry access to keep the whole family and all skill levels engaged.

Eagle Point

Eagle Point

The Tushar Mountains-area near Beaver is quiet and serene country. Fans of Eagle Point say it feels like having your own private resort. Or, as Eagle Point puts it, "your second home."

Trip Tips

  • Southern Utah is generally seasonably warm during the winter months, with snow only at the higher elevations and the roads leading to them — where Eagle Point and Brian Head ski resorts are, naturally. Elevation is a major factor. At about 4,000 feet above sea level, Zion Canyon averages low 50s °F in the winter with overnights just below freezing. Between 7,500 and 9,000 feet above sea level, Bryce Canyon daytime temperatures can drop to the low-30s °F, receive heavy snowfall, and dip well-below freezing overnight.
  • The weather can be, shall we say, moody? So be sure to pack a range of layers and wet weather gear in the spirit of being prepared. But oftentimes you’ll experience dry conditions and cooler temperatures. Always check conditions before traveling.
  • And while the great outdoors in Utah is always open for business, some of the business in the area take the winter off, so when planning your trip, especially lodging, be sure to check seasonal operations. This slight inconvenience is more than made up for by the relative solitude you’ll encounter.
  • The closest airport to many of southwestern Utah’s adventures is McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas (LAS). It’s an easy drive up Interstate 15 to the wonders of Utah’s red rock country.