Words and Photos By Emily Pennington The Brazen Backpacker
I gasped as I took my last few steps up the slick, wet sandstone, carefully leaning my weight against the mounted chains atop Angels Landing. The view was positively Technicolor as the sun began to stretch its translucent rays through the clouds, illuminating the canyon floor. “This can’t be real,” I whispered under my breath as I watched my partner’s pair of bouncy, brunette pigtails crest the final few steps to take it all in. I felt wistful and fantasy-bound, suspended in the clouds 1500 feet above the valley floor in Zion National Park. Welcome to Utah.
When you look up “best National Parks to visit in the wintertime,” Zion pops up high on every list, and it’s easy to understand why. With rust-colored hoodoos dusted with feathery, white snow and squat Pinyon Pines jutting out every which way from towering rock formations, the park truly comes alive in the season of cooler temps and fewer tourists. Plus, the possibilities for off-trail peak bagging are huge. Just be sure to check the weather forecast for the entirety of the week before you go – wet sandstone can put a damper on lofty climbing goals.
First of all, temperatures can vary wildly in Zion during the winter, often fluctuating between 20-50 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning you could be post-holing through knee-deep snow on the East Rim Trail or having an all-day epic battling crumbling rock on the Watchman scramble. Several areas of the park itself, like Kolob Canyon, are at a higher elevation and hold snow much later into the season. Bring a good jacket and a pair of snowshoes if you really want to explore the backcountry in blissful solitude.
One thing I adored about Utah was its plentiful options for cheap hotels with breakfast included. For about $50 per night, we opted to share rooms in nearby Hurricane, feasting on crisp, buttery waffles before hitting the trails each day. Maybe I’m the worst dirtbag ever for splurging, but I always feel emboldened by motels. I know that I can go 3 times harder in the wilderness when I have a warm room to sleep in that night – and a heater on which to dry my wool socks!
Though there are tons of lesser-known gems that are on the menu during the winter, Angels Landing was easily the best hike in the park. Trekkers struggle up switchback after switchback, cut into the edge of Zion’s main canyon, before ascending a wildly exposed class 3 route up the neck of a huge, red sandstone behemoth. Go slowly, wear shoes with good tread, and take a deep, calming breath before passing people on the chains!
If you find yourself in a snow-free Zion National Park, there are a multitude of full and half day scrambles to spice up your trip. Cave Knoll and Firepit Knoll in the Kolob section of the park are brimming over with strange, Martian landscapes. I fell in love with the stacked, round hoodoos sitting like rust-colored teardrops in every direction. The Checkerboard Mesa area of the park also comes highly recommended. Park your car, take an off-trail adventure, and explore the fiery, tangerine lumps that dot the horizon.
If you only want a quick visit or are with kids or a less adventurous group, you can stay on easy trails and still soak up some of the best stuff Zion has to offer. The Watchman Trail is a great option, but one trail I would implore you not to miss is Canyon Overlook. At dusk, my friends and I sped over to watch as the clouds that had loomed overhead all day finally broke apart just as the sun was setting. The extraordinary colors and the way light trails meander through this Triassic canyon is pure magic. We brought a blanket and watched the moonrise, pointing out far-off constellations, hunting for shooting stars, and giggling as the temperature dropped.
Sometimes, I can get cranky living in Los Angeles in the wintertime. I feel stifled by avalanches on Mt. Baldy and wet sandstone warnings at local crags. The smog-ridden constellation of concrete one finds in any major city can be a drag when the weather looks glum for months on end. Winter shouldn’t keep anyone from exploring some of our nation’s greatest treasures. If you’re willing to give up a bit of sleep on a Friday night, it’s remarkable what wonders you can reach as a tenacious weekend warrior. Plus, wintertime is often the most magical season to visit our national parks; there are fewer crowds, and you’re sure to see things that summer simply can’t provide. Go on; declare a snow day. Tangle yourself with friends and you’re sure to have a good time
Explore Zion National Park with Bivy APP