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Escape Crowds on a Quiet Winter Visit to East Zion

See Zion dusted in snow on a winter escape to the east side — where you’ll likely have the whole place to yourself.

Written by Jenny Willden

East-Zion_Winter_Slot-Canyon_Smith-Rachael_2020
East Zion   |  Rachael Smith

“We’re just curious, where are you visiting from?” asks East Zion guru Mark Wade. A Zion National Park veteran, Wade is a walking textbook of park and pioneer history, but today is on a mission to track winter guests. 

“Kansas City, how about you guys?” says the passing couple. “Oh, we’re locals,” our crew says in unison.

Walking from East Zion to Observation Point, we repeat this to every passing group, discovering explorers from 12 states during our six-mile trek. That number of hikers sounds high, but we still have the trail mostly to ourselves on this winter day. In East Zion, that’s just how everyone likes it. 

“When we say we’re busy, it’s still not much,” Wade says. “Maybe 15 or 20 cars, maybe 50 people walking on a 6-mile loop. Out on this plateau, we’re literally on top of the park, and then as we get out there, we drop 500 feet to Observation Point.”

We trek until the forest opens wide to Zion’s candy-colored cliffs and awe-inspiring sandstone spires. It’s my first East Zion visit, but my second to Observation Point. With the in-park Weeping Rock Trail closed due to rockfall, the East Mesa trail is the only path to Zion’s best panoramic view. Despite countless Zion visits, I’ve never explored this area in the winter. Here, occasional snow dustings add magic to Angels Landing and Great White Throne vistas. 

But there’s more to Zion winter than hiking in the park. Just beyond the eastern gate, adventures abound in East Zion. Stretching 4,000 acres and five linear miles along the park’s border, family-run Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort used to shutter entirely in the slow season. But these days, you and an in-the-know few can experience it in winter. 

From canyoneering and hiking to horseback riding and pondering the night skies, East Zion winter vacations mean solitude plus practically private guided experiences — without the private price. 

Overlooking Observation Point

Photo: Rachael Smith

A secret, guided zip line in East Zion

Photo: Jenny Willden

Horseback riding at sunset in East Zion

Photo: Mark Wade/Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort

Stargazing

Venturing outdoors for an impossibly cold stargazing tour on top of a desert water tower doesn’t sound enjoyable, but Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort makes the experience pleasant. A warm shuttle ride up saves the night-time walk, and we stay cozy under stacks of blankets beneath starry skies. 

A hot chocolate and cider station thaws us as our guide details the astronomic wonders of the heavens. While I certainly look to the skies on my own, listening to a guide with expertise in planetary alignments, hard-to-see stars and the myths behind constellations make the frigid hour outdoors worthwhile. 

Canyoneering

We’re all for slots, slots, slots in winter. Carved by wind and water, traversing these narrow sandstone canyons is like being bearhugged by Earth. If you’re into that, East Zion is the place to find them. A smorgasbord of slots take you sliding and stemming through canyons, while others require technical gear and rescue ranger skills. It’s almost always chilly thanks to the lack of light, but winter boasts the distinct advantage of — you guessed it — no crowds.

Test the rappelling waters on a short guided tour of East Zion’s Huntress. With nine rappels, the longest topping out at 70 feet, it’s pure fun, almost always dry and ends with spectacular Zebra-waved sandstone. Hardier adventurers will love thrilling winter canyoneering with Zion Rock & Mountain Guides, just beyond the park border in Lambs Knoll (on the Kolob side). While the hiking isn’t intense, long rappels into dark, foreboding canyons make your heart leap from your chest. (Plus, there may or may not be a secret zipline riggable by these pros.)

Jeep Touring 

I’m all for exploring East Zion on your own two feet. But have you experienced a winter Jeep ride with heated seats? When the temperature drops, take a break to see views unreachable on hiking trails. As we bounce down a dirt road into private land, our East Zion Adventures guide, Jurassic Jeff, describes the ancient seas and volcanoes that transformed Zion from a watery paradise into today’s iconic landscapes.

“This area is where dinosaurs brought their families for beach vacations,” Jeff says. “But today, the Grand Staircase is a giant sandcastle, if you will. Look at Bryce Canyon, the spires that go up and how it’s very ornate at the top.” 

This geologic staircase steps down from Bryce, with its lowest elevations being the highest in Zion. From this 8,100-foot high radio tower site — only accessible to East Zion Adventures’ guests — we see features forming Jeff’s giant sandcastle. Here it’s easy to get why the Radio Tower Jeep Tour is his favorite of all.

Horseback Riding

Saddled on giant, gentle horses, our crew bundles up in puffy coats, beanies and gloves, prepared for the inevitable temperature change as the sun dips below the horizon. For the casual or never-ever rider, it’s inspiring to see these landscapes how early explorers did — from atop a horse. In-park trail rides are solely a summer affair, but here at East Zion Adventures, small group sunset experiences are offered on mild winter days.

The Narrows

East Zion may be your focus, but that doesn’t mean you should skip the park. If there’s any Zion experience that’s made better by winter weather, it’s the iconic Narrows

Traversing the slimmest part of Zion Canyon, The Narrows’ towering, 1500-foot walls were carved by the raging Virgin River. It’s the most popular hike in the park, and arguably one of Earth’s greatest walks. Here the trail is the river, and you travel its entirety in ankle- to waist-deep water. 

Parades of people can ruin summer treks, but a winter walk is a return to The Narrows of the past, where you’ll see few folks beyond the first mile. But the icicle-coated canyon walls and 40-degree water temperatures are no joke. Renting dry pants, neoprene socks, canyoneering boots and a walking stick is essential to prevent hypothermia. 

While you can hike alone, we booked a guide through 57 Hours. These experts share local lore, shuttle you to start and back (a bonus when parking is full) and capture perfect Instagrams along the way. Going guided is also a fun (and safer) alternative to tackling The Narrows alone. Be aware: The winter window is short, as it becomes impassable with spring run-off by March or April. 

The Narrows’ towering, 1500-foot walls were carved by the raging Virgin River.

Photo: Jenny Willden

Photo: Rachael Smith

Where to Stay

Checking into our cabin on a cold winter weekend, Zion Ponderosa Ranch looks more ghost town than resort. But winter is a rare moment of calm for this family-friendly hotspot. Boasting more on-property adventures than any resort west of the Mississippi, Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort is a one-and-done lodging and recreation destination. East Zion Adventures runs tours from the property and shuttles guests to trailheads. 

Daytime winter weather is typically mild, but nights can get cold. Book an affordable Cowboy Cabin if you don’t mind an outdoor bathroom, or choose a full cabin with all of home’s amenities. Onsite activities include a climbing wall, mini golf, paintball, skeet shooting, zip line and double-decker swimming pool and hot tubs.

The Ranch is also an ideal basecamp. “You can base from East Zion and do Zion National Park and hit the East Rim trails,” Wade says. “Then Bryce is 75 minutes away, Grand Staircase starts 20 minutes away and Kanab is 35 minutes. You’ve got all kinds of attractions.”

Is D-I-Y more your scene? Try East Zion Resort. This collection of cabins, tiny homes and even a treehouse in Orderville along Highway 89 offers contactless check-in, pool and hot tub access and modern design.

Where to Eat

Limited visitors means fewer dining options, with some restaurants shuttering entirely during January and February. Fuel up beforehand at La Verkin’s River Rock Roasting Company, home to inventive pizzas and the wildly flavorful, Morrocan-inspired Amerikesh salad. 

In Springdale, eat where locals do: Oscar’s Cafe. It stays open in winter and offers the largest portions near the park. From hearty Mexican cuisine to the locally famous Murder Burger, go splitsies if you’re a light eater — but don’t miss the housemade chips and salsa. If eclectic’s your jam, try Anthera inside Cliffrose Springdale. With hip, inventive takes on American fare and strong Old Fashioneds, it’s a newer contender in the local dining scene. Rather dash and dine? Takeout is widely available. 

On the park’s east end, winter dining is limited. Luckily, Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort includes breakfast with many stays and serves three meals a day at Ray’s Restaurant. In Mt. Carmel Junction, visit Thunderbird Restaurant for homestyle eats, boasting a full vegetarian menu. 

East Zion Winter Trip Tips

Drive safely.

Zion’s shuttle operates in winter only during busy holiday times. Plan to drive yourself, or book a private shuttle when the scenic drive is full. Snow typically melts fast in Zion Canyon but can persist and turn to ice in East Zion. Equip your car for winter conditions, including snow tires or chains. 

Pack Properly.

If the forecast calls for snow, you’ll need specific gear. Bring over-the-shoe traction devices and sturdy, waterproof hiking boots for winter walks. Planning to hike The Narrows? Head to Springdale’s Zion Outfitter to rent dry bibs, neoprene socks, canyoneering boots and a wooden walking stick. Dip a single toe into that 40-degree water, and you’ll find it’s $45 well spent.

Check for Seasonal Closures.

Some Zion roads and routes close in winter, especially if snow sticks to the streets. Research your path beforehand to avoid disappointment. 

Stay Longer.

Say it with me: A one-night stay isn’t enough. East Zion is vast, and the effort to reach it isn’t worthwhile if there’s no time to explore. “A minimum two-night stay is almost mandatory because the experience can’t be what you want it to be if you’re just in late and out early the next morning,” Wade says. “A two-night stay gives you one full day, but there’s enough to do here for a week.”

Winter in Zion National Park

With more than 300 days of sunshine a year, Zion National Park is a great place to enjoy sunny skies, fresh air and get a little extra Vitamin D in the winter months. Plan a winter visit to soak up the sunshine while enjoying moderate temperatures and a stunning sandstone kaleidoscope of reds, oranges and pinks. Winter visitors will find plenty to do, including hiking, photography and gazing up at the wonders of the night sky.

Explore Winter in Zion

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