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Zion is one of those rare national parks that always seems to get crowded at the worst times of year. With minimal snow and moderate temperatures in the main canyon, intrepid winter travelers have the unique opportunity to see this top-ten park in an uncrowded atmosphere.
The soaring red rock faces, the outstretched wings of endangered California condors, and the scrappy pinyon pine trees that seem to defy gravity as they cling to steep hoodoos… there are so many things to love about Zion National Park, and yet, due to its scorching desert location, it’s not the best destination for a summer road trip when the kids are out of school.
Average temperatures in Zion can easily reach into the 90s during summer months, while in the winter, they’re mellow and generally in the mid-50s. Plus, winter is the only season in which the park’s notorious shuttle buses stop running, which allows visitors to explore at will and at their own pace, harkening a Zion of yesteryear that feels like a timeless gift.
That being said, there are a few considerations to make before packing your bags and plunging straight into a winter trip to Zion National Park.
Related read: When is the Best Time to Visit Zion National Park?
Things to Consider for a Winter Zion Trip
- Zion’s free park shuttle buses, which are usually mandatory, do not run from December through February, except during holidays, like the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day and on President’s Day weekend. This is a rare opportunity to drive your private vehicle into Zion’s main canyon.
- Driving conditions can be perilous during active storms, but roads are plowed, and most of the park is still accessible.
- Though snow in the park typically melts in the warmth and sun of the day, upper elevations and shady trails can hold ice and deep snow drifts. Traction devices on your hiking shoes might be necessary for safety.
- Access to the upper part of Kolob Terrace Road, including Lava Point, closes for the winter months.
- South Campground and part of Watchman Campground close in wintertime, but nearby hotel accommodations and vacation rentals are much more affordable than in summer. Hotels and cabins may be preferable in winter, given the rain and subfreezing temps the park often sees.
With fewer people in the park, winter hiking and recreating in Zion can be a magical time. Roads are plowed, hotels are cheap, and most tour operators still book a full range of activities December through February.
Though Zion Canyon is typically a very accessible winter hiking destination, with snow melting quickly at its lower elevations, certain trails may close due to falling ice, so it’s crucial to check current conditions before heading out.
Hikers looking to explore the park’s higher altitude areas like Kolob Canyon and Kolob Terrace will definitely want to toss a pair of microspikes or snowshoes into their pack, depending on snow accumulation. Talk to someone at the visitor center before venturing out into the winter wilderness.
Given that you can drive your private vehicle into Zion Canyon from December through February, winter is a great season for pulling up to a popular trailhead and hopping right onto the path, no shuttle bus required.
Popular easy hikes that are well worth a winter visit (if only to experience the epic views sans crowds) include the one-mile Canyon Overlook Trail, the accessible, 3.4-mile Pa’rus Trail, and the 2-mile Riverside Walk, which connects to the beginning of the infamous Narrows.
Visitors who do want to hike The Narrows during winter months should do so with caution, as water temperatures in the canyon are extremely cold during this time. The park recommends that all Narrows hikers from December to February bring a dry suit to hike safely.
Looking for a bit more mileage? Both the La Verkin Creek Trail and the West Rim Trail are great winter hikes, and with practically no crowds, you’re likely to have the immense, rust-hued sandstone all to yourself.
If you’re craving a more guided option, winter is a fantastic season to go on an inn-based hiking tour. Wildland Trekking is one of the top-rated guiding companies in the world, and they offer winter trips in both Zion and Bryce Canyon.
Related read: 14 Best Hikes in Zion National Park, Utah
If you’ve got 2-3 days in the park, it’s absolutely worth it to tack-on an all-day scenic drive to marvel at the rich red Navajo sandstone cliffs that make the Zion area so magnificent.
Though often overlooked in favor if the more popular (and more crowded) Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, the Zion – Mount Carmel Highway, which meanders through the eastern edge of the park is a gem hiding in plain sight.
After the mile-long tunnel (a feat of conservation corps engineering), pull over to hike the short, 1-mile Canyon Overlook Trail for the best views of Court of the Patriarchs in the joint. Continue on past tangerine-hued hoodos and scraggly pinyon pines, stopping briefly at the immense textured formation known as Checkerboard Mesa.
By then, if you’re still itching to stretch your legs, check out the beginning portion of the East Rim Trail, which may or may not have snow in winter months. To get back into Springdale, simply turn around the way you came.
Winter is also a fantastic time to take on the infamous Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, too, because it’s the only time of year you when can take your private vehicle into the most popular canyon in the park.
Rather than jamming onto a crowded shuttle bus, you can take your time and explore scenic trails and overlooks like Weeping Rock, The Grotto, The Sentinel, and some sincerely breathtaking views of Angels Landing. If you attempt to hike the latter, just be sure to check the park’s current permit restrictions.
Related read: Salt Lake City to Zion Ultimate Road Trip Itinerary
Climbing culture runs deep in Zion Canyon, and for smart rock climbers who don’t mind a little cold and who want to avoid soaring 90 degree daytime temps, winter can be an excellent time to head up the rust red sandstone. Just be sure to check the weather in advance, as sandstone is unsafe to climb on within 3-5 days of a rainfall event.
Many accredited guiding companies offer winter-specific climbing trips for travelers hoping to send the gnar on their Zion road trip. Trips vary from full-day to half-day, and are available for all experience levels. There are even winter canyoneering trips available (guided, of course) for the truly intrepid.
If you’d rather have someone else do all the hiking for you while you simply sit back and enjoy the views, why not go on a guided horseback ride through Zion National Park?
Stay bundled up, cowboy-style, with East Zion Adventures as you explore scenic slot canyons, majestic mesa top views, and, of course, those infamous desert sunsets that turn the sky to fire.
Related read: 8 Unforgettable Romantic Getaways in Utah
Another great wat to stay warm while exploring as much of Zion as possible during the winter is from the cozy seat of a helicopter tour.
Locally run out of Virgin, Utah, Zion Helicopters boasts 15- and 35-mile panoramic flightseeing tours that take tourists up and over the serrated red cliffs and narrow ravines that make this landscape so magical. Check out Zion’s stunning Kolob Canyons from above before circumnavigating the immense peak of Red Butte Mountain.
Weather and Road Closures
While the snow melts quickly in the desert surrounding Zion National Park, winter does see over half the park’s annual precipitation in a mere three month timespan. Snow flurries and icy roads may be prevalent in the morning, but mostly melt by afternoon. Due to its relatively low elevation (3,500 feet), Zion Canyon remains an accessible hiking area year-round.
Keep in mind that higher elevation trails (like those in Kolob Canyon and the East Rim Trail) are often covered in snow until spring, meaning that a solid GPS and traction devices like microspikes are essential. Be prepared for road closures on both the Kolob Terrace and Kolob Canyon roads, especially during storms.
Average winter temperatures in Zion’s main canyon range from 30 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit; perfect for chilly daytime hikes, but frigid for sleeping in a tent.
Related read: The Ultimate Zion to Bryce Canyon Road Trip Itinerary
Year-Round Lodging in Zion
If you’re brave enough to camp in sub-freezing temperatures, the park operates its Watchman Campground year-round. But, if you’re like the rest of us who like to go hard in the cold and come home to a hot tub and a crackling fire, here are a few of our favorite year-round lodging establishments.
On a budget? Book in nearby Hurricane for the best winter deals.
Related read: 11 Beautiful Glamping Spots Near Zion National Park
Zion National Park Lodge
Perhaps one of the best examples of “park-itecture” in the entire NPS, Zion Lodge was designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood in 1924 and has since been updated to provide all the modern amenities today’s travelers crave.
Rooms vary from spacious cabins with double beds to hotel-style suites with patios, seating areas, and heaters.
Red Rock Inn
Ranked as the number one B&B near Zion by Trip Advisor, Red Rock Inn has been a fan favorite for years, featuring a selection of clean, modern cottage dwellings with just a hint of western park flair.
The grounds themselves are lavishly landscaped, with verdant green bushes, trees and flowers giving this desert haven a resort-like feel.
The Ark Tiny House
Make winter funky again! This colorful tiny house is full of bright pops of brilliant turquoise, which contrast perfectly against the crumbling hills and desert scrub that surround it.
Outside, guests can take a post-hike soak in the bubbling jacuzzi or hang out with friends around the fire pit, recounting the day’s glories. Inside, guests will find a full kitchen with robin’s egg blue cabinets, an adorable seating nook, and enough room to sleep four.
Related read: 12 Best Airbnb Rentals Near Zion National Park, Utah
Cable Mountain Lodge
Experience modern, luxury digs just steps away from Zion’s main entrance at Cable Mountain Lodge.
With sky-high views of the park’s vermillion cliffs from nearly every room, plus a private picnic area, a pool, and a hot tub, it’ll be hard to ever want to leave the lodge to go to the park proper. Guest rooms are designed suite-style, with seating areas and kitchens to keep the whole crew happy.
Spacious Springdale Studio
Skip the hassle of driving to and from the park every day and stay at this bright, modern loft, located just 0.1-miles from Zion’s southwest entrance. Not only are the adorable shops and local eateries of Springdale all at your doorstep, but this location is close enough to hike or bike into the park from, no car needed.
The studio space can sleep up to six, with a king bed, queen-sized bunkbeds, and a pull-out sofa in the living room, plus, there’s an open-plan kitchen area, perfect for fixing up a post-park feast with a phenomenal sunset view.
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