Where were you during January’s record-breaking, pipe-bursting cold snap? Cuddled up in front of a fire with the heat jacked up? Not me. That’s the weekend I chose to set out on a journey to Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks.
My daughter, Brooke, home from college on winter break, was convinced I was crazy as I packed her and her sisters Juliet, 6, and Willow, 5, up for a chilly girls’ weekend adventure.
“We’re going to Zion tonight. In winter. Where it’s snowing. Also, I have a cold. Whose idea was this?!” Brooke posted in protest on Facebook. Her thoughtful boyfriend advised her to dress warm and stay in the tent.
Tent ... as if.
Normally when our family ventures to Zion we camp, or if we’re splurging we stay at the Bumbleberry Inn outside the park in Springdale, Utah. But with bargain winter rates, we headed to Zion Lodge. During the peak season, rooms are booked as much as six months in advance (every Saturday in June is already sold out) and you can expect to pay at least $185 or $192 a night.
In the winter, an overnight stay with breakfast for two in the Red Rock Grill starts at $99.
Bryce Canyon’s lodge is closed for winter, so for our night there we chose to stay just outside the park at the Best Western Ruby’s Inn. Again, the offseason is a bargain with rooms starting at around $69.95. In June, if you can find a room, expect to pay at least $149.95.
Besides the price, winter is a chance to see neighboring national parks without battling crowds. There are no lines at the check-in desk. There’s no need to make a restaurant reservation, and there are no mandatory shuttles. You can drive your own car through the parks. And when you set out to tackle the trails, you’re not marching in lines like New York sidewalks or jockeying for position at overlooks. On many stretches, you have the place all to yourself.
With rooms booked, we set out for Zion on a Friday afternoon. The park is about three hours from Las Vegas. We arrived after dark, and as I hopped out of the car, I first was shocked by the cold and then the brilliance of the stars. Living with the light pollution of Las Vegas, it’s easy to forget the skies can be so beautiful. A fresh coat of snow blanketed the ground, and deer grazed on the Zion Lodge lawn. Zion temperatures are typically moderate in winter, with highs in the 50s or 60s. When we arrived it was closer to the 10s. Snow, which is a rare treat, usually melts quickly in the lower elevations.
The lodge’s guest rooms are cozy and feature patios complete with a set of rocking chairs. The view from the Red Rock Grill on the upper level of the lodge is almost as great as the food. And downstairs there are sofas for lounging, a chess set for play and a gift shop for picking up forgotten necessities.
It’s best to check at Zion’s visitor center to see which trails are open during your stay.
After breakfast, we chose the Lower Emerald Pool Trail, which begins just across the street from the lodge. At 1½ miles round-trip, the trail takes about an hour to complete. The bridge over the river to the trail was a bit slippery, but past it, the paved walkway was clear of snow. About halfway up, an inch or two of snow covered the trail.
I paused to consider the risks, and test the traction on our boots.
“You need these,” a woman said pointing to the Yaktrax on her boots. You stretch the rubber and coil contraptions onto your shoes much the way winter drivers put chains on tires. They bite into the ice to make for safer winter hiking. They are sold in sporting goods stores and in the visitor centers at both Zion and Bryce.
The snow was still fresh without a hint of ice, so we decided to proceed with a vow that if things got too slippery, we’d turn back. Along the way, all the tiny trailside waterfalls were tipped with ice. Large flat rocks proved perfect for snow angels, a big hit with the kids. And at the end, the falls were frozen in long shards of crystal. As the afternoon sun warmed the walls, melting icicles came crashing down. The shattering spectacular booms had us all spellbound. The park service blocks off that last stretch of trail to protect hikers from falling ice. But you can still see the frozen Emerald Pool below.
Back to the car, we set out to drive through the park, a rare privilege prohibited during peak seasons. You pick where to stop without waiting for the next packed shuttle to arrive. If you want to pull over to watch deer, you can, and we did. Bucks congregating near the closed campgrounds and nature center seemed oblivious to us.
With the afternoon behind us, we set out on the drive to Bryce by way of the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway. The highway passes through the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway Tunnel, a 5,613-foot project completed in 1930. Vehicles traveling the tunnel don’t drive the length in darkness. Ventilation galleries constructed along the way let in light and air.
Finding a spot to eat along the way can be a challenge in winter. The snow proved to be a useful cue. If a parking lot was plowed, the place might be open.
We finally settled on a late lunch in the Chez Bison at Zion Mountain Ranch. The desk clerk assured us the bison grazing in the picturesque meadow were not the same buffalo in burgers on the menu. We had the restaurant to ourselves, and the food was fresh and flavorful. Outside, guests rode in the meadow on horseback. The ranch offers cabins, suites and family-sized lodges.
The temperature when we arrived at the Best Western Ruby’s Inn was zero. We decided to wait until morning to explore outside. The glass-walled indoor pool and the jetted tub in the guest room were welcome distractions from the cold evening. By day the historic inn offers a wealth of winter activities from sleigh rides and horseback riding to ice skating, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Every President’s Day weekend visitors come out for the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival with activities such as cross-country ski and snowshoe tours, indoor pool kayaking, snow sculpture contests, sled racing, ski archery, photography contests and more.
By morning, at minus 10 degrees the weather had not improved. We hung out in our room until checkout. At 4 below zero, we decided it wasn’t going to get any better and set out for the park. To be fair to Bryce, normal January temperatures run from a low of 15 to a high of 37.
The visitor center was toasty, and Juliet and Willow were eager to attend a geology talk and train as junior rangers. They learned that Bryce was once an ocean and then a giant mud puddle, and it isn’t a true canyon. Canyons are formed by water erosion from rivers.
The winter freezes are part of the magic that forms the hoodoos for which Bryce is known. Water gets into the crevasses, freezes and causes the layered rock to wear away at varying rates. Combined with wind and monsoon rains, the elements are constantly chiseling the landscape into seemingly impossible spirelike shapes.
I’m a bit of a desert rat, so hiking at minus 4 degrees didn’t sound like much fun to me. But there were at least a few hardy souls ready to hit the trails. The Queens Garden, a 2-mile hike into the canyon, was recommended. The walk from the car to the Sunrise Point overlook was enough for us. From there, the canyon stretches out in panoramic wonder.
“This place was meant to be seen in winter,” Brooke said.
She was right. The brightly colored hoodoos topped with layers of snow make the whole place look like a giant frosted castle cake.
The great thing about Bryce is even if you decide it’s too cold to hike, there’s still plenty to see. Overlooks along the plowed roadway provide views of spectacular natural formations from natural bridges to hoodoos with perky names such as the poodle. Parking at most overlooks is only a few steps away from the view, so it’s possible to rush out, see the sites and bound back into the car before you freeze.
We didn’t freeze, and we did enjoy the weekend trip. Next time we’ll avoid cold snaps.