Everybody can use a little peace and quiet.
Parents with young children can use it more than most.
Lucky for us, there are two places brimming with solitude and cinematic views just a few hours’ drive from Las Vegas. All you need are some warm clothes, sturdy hiking boots and a family member, baby sitter or kennel willing to watch your kids for the weekend.
Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks attract millions of visitors each year, and at the peak of summer vacation season, it can seem like all of them are there at once. But in the dead of winter, these iconic Southern Utah attractions take on a downright sleepy feel.
January and February are the slowest months by far at both parks. You can easily find yourself alone on even the most popular trails. And with a little effort and some extra gear, you can push out into areas where you might not see another soul for hours.
With our kids safely in the hands of a willing grandmother, my wife and I jumped in the car after work on a recent Thursday and headed north on Interstate 15 for a rare weekend alone together.
The drive to Bryce Canyon takes about four hours, depending on the route and weather, so we made it to our motel with just enough time for a glass of wine before bed.
The lodging options near the park can be limited in winter, but barring a special event such as the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival (Feb. 15-17) the places that are open generally have plenty of available rooms, even if you book late.
We spent our first night at Ruby’s Inn, a clean, well-appointed and reasonably priced motel that boasts the closest accommodations to the park entrance.
The next morning, we skipped breakfast, grabbed a few snacks from Ruby’s enormous gift shop and general store and headed into the park. On the way, we rented some cross-country skis from the motel ($7 for a half-day, $10 for the full day), which maintains a network of groomed trails through the surrounding forest and out to the canyon’s rim. (Ruby’s also rents skates for its on-site ice rink, but we decided a broken tailbone on day two might spoil the rest of the trip.)
There are miles more of ungroomed trails suitable for cross-country skiing inside Bryce Canyon National Park. We chose the relatively flat, 1-mile road leading out to the canyon overlook at Fairyland Point — a perfect entry point for those who don’t spend a lot of time on cross-country skis or snowshoes but still want their trek through the white woods to pay off at the end.
This was a big draw for my wife, who grew up in the Midwest, loves to ski and misses real winter — at least small doses.
In the almost two hours it took us to cover the 2-mile round-trip to the rim and back, we never saw another human being.
The scene was a little different at Sunset Point, Bryce Canyon’s most popular spot. Even there, though, there were people but no crowds.
We traded our snow equipment for hiking boots and headed down the Navajo Loop Trail, where we encountered no more than a dozen other hikers on a crisp, sunny Friday.
The famed Wall Street section of the trail was closed because of falling ice and rocks, but no matter. There was plenty of breathtaking scenery all around us as we followed the zigzagging path through the gallery of eroded towers known as hoodoos, some of them still frosted with snow from a storm days earlier.
The only downside: Several sections of the trail were coated with ice or sloppy with mud, so you had to keep your eyes on your feet instead of the view.
Staying warm wasn’t an issue, even with highs around 40 and lows in the teens or 20s. Except for some gusts in the afternoon, the air was still, especially below the canyon’s rim. After a few hours of hiking in the sun, we were ready to shed our outermost layers.
That night, we splurged on pricier accommodations at one of several bed-and-breakfasts within a 25-mile radius of the park boundary, most of which offer discounted rates in the winter. For $150, roughly twice what we paid at Ruby’s, we got a luxurious, two-bedroom cabin with a gas fireplace at the Stone Canyon Inn in the tiny town of Tropic. But the real selling point was the private hot tub on the deck so we could look up at the stars while we soaked our tired muscles.
On Saturday morning, we discovered another benefit to staying in Tropic: a place called Mossy Cave about 4 miles northwest of town, where state Route 12 cuts through the national park. There, a half-mile path led past a frozen waterfall to a spring-fed cavern filled with massive columns and delicate stalactites of ice.
The walk was slippery and a little treacherous, but it culminated with an otherworldly view, especially for desert dwellers like us. The cave was alive with the echoing sounds of dripping water, and as we stood there watching, large chunks of ice crashed down from the ceiling and tumbled into the gully below our feet.
We said our goodbyes to Bryce and headed south on U.S. Highway 89, pausing only briefly along the road near Alton, Utah, to watch a flock of about 10 bald eagles hunkered on the banks of the East Fork of the Virgin River.
Most visitors from Las Vegas enter Zion National Park from the west, but the east entrance on state Route 9 is a drive that rivals any in the National Park system.
Just east of the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel, which carries Route 9 through more than a mile of sheer canyon wall, we stopped at a trail we had somehow missed on previous visits to the park. The half-mile Canyon Overlook Trail rises from the parking lot on stairs cut into sandstone. Then it hugs the cliff wall as it winds through a shallow cavern and out to a ledge overlooking the canyon and the towering stone sentinels that guard it.
We saw more people here than at any other stop on our trip, but it was far from crowded. It would have been worth it even if it was. No other trail in Zion provides such an impressive vista in such a short distance.
Back in the car, we finished the twisting drive through the park and into the town of Springdale, which also grows quiet in winter but stays livelier year-round than any of Bryce’s gateway communities.
We spent our last night at Flanigan’s Inn, where $80 during the offseason will get you a modern, spacious room with a private deck, a view and a king-size bed big enough to double as a helicopter pad.
First, though, we dumped our luggage in the room and headed back into the park to catch the sunset along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which is open to private vehicles from only November through March.
After dark, we headed back into town for dinner at the Bit &Spur, one of several Springdale restaurants that outdo most anything you might find around Bryce Canyon, at least in January.
Our long weekend was almost over, but we saved the best adventure for last: a hike up the Virgin River and into the twisting sandstone slot known as the Narrows.
Shortly after sunrise on Sunday, we drove back to the end of the scenic drive and struggled into rented cold-water gear in a near-empty parking lot. First came the dry suit over our clothes, then two pairs of neoprene socks followed by special, ankle-high water boots. A long wooden walking stick completed the ensemble, which looked like a cross between a Mountie’s uniform and a “Star Trek” getup.
A few outfitters rent such equipment. Ours came from Springdale’s Zion Adventure Co., which offers all-day packages for $50 per person. That might sound like a lot for borrowed clothes, but it didn’t matter what the outfit cost or what it looked like, so long as it kept us warm and dry for an experience worthy of any bucket list.
Simply put, the Narrows is one of the most amazing hikes in America, no matter the time of year. It’s also a trial — the upstream leg especially — to wade through a frigid river over loose, polished boulders the size of bowling balls. Most people do it during the summer, when the air and water are warmer and you might share the canyon with hundreds of strangers. The reward for hiking it in winter is solitude.
My wife and I encountered only eight other people all day, six of whom we didn’t see until early afternoon, near the end of our 8-mile trek up and down the canyon. The rest of the time, we were utterly alone in a towering sandstone cathedral carved by the water flowing over our boots.
No more than three hours from the bright lights of home, it was hard not to feel like the only two people on Earth.
Contact Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350. Find him on Twitter at @RefriedBrean.