Winter in Southern Utah: Peak Relaxation
Southern Utah is known as a summer paradise, but the winters are also fantastic. When cool temperatures roll in, the crowds roll out, and visitors can find solitude while hiking trails and relaxing at overlooks to enjoy stunning sunsets. While it can get cold in winter, daytime temperatures often hover in the 60s and 70s in southwestern Utah and 40s to 50s in the Moab area, providing a perfect climate for spending time outdoors. Those who want to explore the mountains and canyons can choose from a wide range of activities. Miles and miles of trails are accessible for hiking, canyoneering, skiing and snowshoeing, depending on the elevation you seek. Plus, roads are plowed and typically free of snow, so you can cruise through the mountains to enjoy the scenery and take in the views from easily accessible overlooks.
Whether you want an easygoing vacation or a few days of rugged adventure, Southern Utah is an ideal winter destination. To help you map out your trip, here are several possibilities for places to visit and things to do in the area.
Zion National Park
The famed Zion Canyon in Zion National Park takes on a much quieter persona during the winter months so accessing popular trails and finding parking when the temps drop is much easier and less crowded. One of Zion’s most popular destinations in the summer is the The Narrows in Zion Canyon. This deep section of the canyon is a narrow corridor with towering sandstone walls. During winter, there’s a good chance you won’t see another soul as you walk upstream in the gently-flowing Virgin River. Mind you, because of the water, you will need to rent a drysuit for this hike (check with local outfitters).
To reach The Narrows, begin at the Zion National Park Visitor Center and drive 7.9 miles to the Temple Of Sinawava trailhead, the final trailhead in Zion (typically accessed with Zion’s passenger shuttle, which runs March through November plus December holiday service). From the trailhead, most people walk one to two miles and then turn around. Average high temperatures during winter can be in the upper 40s or low 50s, so time your hike to maximize midday sun so you’ll enjoy a warmer journey.
As you proceed through the canyon, you’ll encounter several small areas of high ground where you can eat lunch. At about the 1.5-mile mark, Orderville Canyon veers off to the right. Many visitors love the short side hike into the lower section of the canyon, which is less traveled and can have very deep pools. It’s also a common turn-around point.
The first half of this hike is upstream, and while you’ll use significantly more energy on the way out, be sure to save energy for walking back. Classic end-of-hike leg fatigue takes on a new level of difficulty when walking through knee-deep muddy water. Before you embark on your hike, be sure that you have proper clothing and equipment, and check with park officials to get info on any possible flood conditions or other hazards.
Skiing at Brian Head Resort
Brian Head Resort is just minutes from I-15 and a few hours’ drive from Salt Lake City, but it’s still a hidden gem in the world of skiing. The resort receives 360 inches of annual snowfall, offers stellar powder skiing, and boasts impressive red-rock views. However, it doesn’t see the kind of crowds you encounter at many other ski resorts. It’s also a good destination for skiers of all ability levels.
There are eight lifts that provide access to a wide variety of terrain, including plenty of family-friendly groomed runs. Experienced skiers can take the Giant Steps Express high-speed quad to glades, bumps and steeper terrain. After a fantastic day in the mountains, stop by the Last Chair Saloon for barbeque, plus live music on weekends.
Cedar Breaks National Monument
Located just 3.2 miles from Brian Head, Cedar Breaks National Monument offers a stunning panoramic view of a red rock amphitheater. There is a plowed parking area at the junction of Highway 143 and Highway 148. From the parking lot, it’s an easy 5-minute snowshoe to the rim of the amphitheater. Approach the rim with caution, because it’s not maintained during the winter and there can be sheer cliffs. The National Park Service recommends staying at least 200 feet from the rim.
From the edge, you’ll see a beautiful landscape of spires, hoodoos, and cliffs tinted with shades of red and orange. During winter, brilliant snow caps the rust-colored peaks creating a striking contrast in colors. To explore the area further, don your skis or snowshoes and make your way down Scenic Byway 148. In the winter, it’s closed to vehicle traffic and becomes a groomed snow trail that runs for several miles along the rim of the park. From January through March, volunteers lead guided snowshoe hikes, and you can check online or contact the park for specific dates. The area is also popular for snowmobiling, and Cedar Breaks is one of the few national monuments that allows people to ride unguided. (There are restrictions, however, and you can find the rules here.) If you would like a guided tour, Thunder Mountain Motorsports offers excellent trips to the region for snowmobilers of all abilities.
La Sal Mountains
Just outside of Moab, the La Sal Mountains are a well-kept secret for winter recreation. If you love snowmobiling or ski touring, you’ll find that the La Sal Mountains offer a level of solitude rarely experienced in the Wasatch, Uintas, or San Juans. You can access the mountains via the Geyser Pass Road and marvel at 12,726-foot Mount Peale as you make your way up the route to a winter parking lot.
From this spot, you’ll have access to a network of backcountry trails that provide amazing views. From higher elevations, you can see the towers of Monument Valley, the three Canyonlands districts and the red cliffs of Paradox Valley. (Read: How to Have a Wintertime Yurt-to-Yurt Excursion in the La Sals.)
The Utah Avalanche Center provides forecasting and backcountry travel warnings, so be sure to take an avalanche course, check the forecast, bring your transceiver, shovel, probe, and all other necessary gear.
Canyonlands National Park & Dead Horse Point State Park
If you’d rather tour the mountains in your vehicle, you can access several panoramic overlooks near Moab during winter. A popular spot is Grand View Point, which is located in the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park, about an hour’s drive from Moab. Sitting at 6,080 feet of elevation, Grand View Point provides an excellent view of the mountains and gorges of Canyonlands. If you’re up for a short walk, take the half-mile loop trail to visit the impressive Mesa Arch, which sits at the edge of a 500-foot cliff. The arch frames a picture-perfect view of the White Rim country, plus you can see the La Sal Mountains towering in the distance.
To extend the scenic drive, add the spur trip to Dead Horse Point State Park. You’ll find overlooks in the park that offer dramatic views of the Colorado River and the White Rim country of Canyonlands. For an added treat, bring blankets and hot drinks and stay for the sunset.
Capitol Reef National Park
Located 11 miles from the town of Torrey, Capitol Reef National Park is one of Utah’s best-kept secrets. It’s home to Cassidy Arch (named for Butch Cassidy), one of the few arches that you can walk on (conditions permitting). To reach the arch from the Visitor Center, take Scenic Drive south about 3.5 miles and turn left at the sign for the Grand Wash Trailhead. You’ll drive down a dirt road that sometimes requires 4WD or high-clearance vehicles (check with the Visitor Center for road conditions). After you travel 1.2 miles, you’ll reach the Grand Wash parking area. From there, walk up Grand Wash for less than a mile to reach the well-marked junction with a path that leads to Cassidy Arch.
The hike is rated strenuous, and the approach is exposed at times, so be sure to wear shoes with good grip and watch out for ice patches. The trail is generally well-traveled and marked with cairns. When you reach the arch, take in views of Grand Wash’s red rock walls and the snow-capped arch, which sits at an elevation of 6,450 feet.
From the same trailhead, the Grand Wash Trail offers a less strenuous walk that’s about four miles out and back. You’ll walk through a dry creek bed with towering sandstone walls. Keep an eye out for the enormous dome-shaped rock formation known as Fern’s Nipple. Grand Wash can be accessed from either Scenic Drive side or Highway 24.
To stay safe and comfortable during your winter visit, be sure to pack the following gear and clothing:
- Warm hat
- Waterproof jacket and pants
- Multiple insulating layers (wool or synthetic baselayer, wool or fleece midlayer, jacket with down or synthetic insulation)
- Fleece pants (for chilly mornings and evenings)
- Paper topographic trail maps
- Waterproof hiking boots/shoes (break them in before you go!)
- Plenty of water (often trailhead water stations will be out of service during the winter)
- 20- to 30-liter backpack
- Microspikes for footwear (essential for walking on icy trails)
As you’re traversing Cassidy Arch, wading through The Narrows, or skiing the slopes of Brian Head, you’ll have moments of sheer bliss in Southern Utah. The winter brings a peacefulness that’s often hard to find during warmer months when the trails are busy. Plus, the scenery is sublime, as a dusting of snow softens the desert landscape. As the sun climbs to bring mild, mid-day temperatures, you can’t help but feel inspired to get moving and go exploring. If you’re the type of person who loves the desert, you’re going to love it even more in winter.
Written by Jed Doane for Matcha in partnership with Utah Office of Tourism.