5 Reasons to Visit Zion National Park in Winter (plus top things to do)
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There are a ton of great reasons to visit Zion National Park in the Winter. As a Utah local, I’ve visited the park in all seasons, and winter has some unique challenges, but also some great opportunities to explore and escape the crowds. In this post, I’ll share all the details and important information you need to know before you go. Let’s dive in!
Why Visit Zion National Park in Winter?
Zion National Park in winter can be an incredible experience. If you’re looking for quiet, peaceful solitude, you’ll likely find it in Zion during the winter months.
Here are my TOP reasons for visiting Zion in the winter:
1. Fewer Crowds
This is a BIG reason to consider going in the winter. I first visited Zion about 9 years ago. In the past 9 years, Zion National Park has become one of the most popular national parks in the country with every single area becoming really crowded in the Spring, Summer, and Fall months.
Zion is also a canyon, so there’s very little space for things to expand outward. Most of the year you can expect to wait in line to get into the park, get on the shuttle, go to the bathroom, and do just about everything else you want to do.
To be honest, I won’t visit the park during any other time of year anymore because winter is just so relaxing, quiet, and peaceful compared to the hustle and bustle of other seasons.
2. You can drive your own vehicle into the park (no shuttle!)
Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is the most popular destination in the park and many of the famous hikes such as Angels Landing, start along this scenic drive.
In all other seasons, you’ll need to take the shuttle into the park to access this road. This is one of the main benefits of visiting Zion in the winter! No waiting in line or cramming onto a hot crowded shuttle. Stop at whatever pullout you want, whenever you want!
Side Note: If you visit during a holiday like the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, the shuttle buses DO run.
3. Lodging in town is so much cheaper
I’m mostly a camper. Camping is fun and cheap, so that’s what I prefer to do on most trips. However, in the winter, there are not as many camping options, and lodging in town is so cheap that it’s fun to splurge on a hotel.
In other seasons, prices are around 3 times as much as they are in the winter months. You might as well take advantage of the good winter deals. One of the cool things about the town of Springdale, Utah is that pretty much everywhere has an incredible view!
I like to stay in the Holiday Inn Express. It’s really nice, the rooms have awesome views, and they have a year-round outdoor hot tub. It’s such a relaxing place. See more on lodging below.
4. Hiking permits are easier to get
This should come as no surprise, but since there are a lot fewer people visiting the park in the winter, there’s also less competition for hiking permits.
Most of the hiking that you probably want to do does not need a permit. I share some of my favorite winter hikes below that don’t require one, but if you want to hike the very popular Angels Landing hike, then you do need one.
I hiked Angels Landing many years ago before Zion got really crowded. It’s a strenuous hike on slick rock with steep drop-offs. While people do hike it in the winter months, I would caution against it, especially in snowy or icy conditions. Make sure you really think through what you’re getting into if you attempt this in the winter.
As you’ll see below, there are plenty of other fun hikes in the park too!
5. See snow against red rock and a lot more waterfalls!
Lastly, some of the unique things that you can see in the winter that you won’t see any other time are snow on red rock, frozen waterfalls, and a lot more waterfalls and melting snow.
Each season in the park is unique and offers a different perspective on the land. For example, in the Spring, the cacti are in bloom. It is one of my favorite things to see in the desert.
In the summer, the days are longer and the entire park is typically open.
In the Fall, the leaves start to change and the canyon is full of fall colors.
In the winter, you see the contrast of white snow on red rock. This is so cool. You’ll also see a lot more waterfalls throughout the park. As the snow melts from higher elevations, that water runs down and through the canyon producing small waterfalls.
The water hitting the rock is one of my favorite sounds. You can see and hear it in this video below:
Challenges of Visiting Zion National Park in Winter
Of course, while there are many benefits to visiting in the winter as I outlined above, there are also some unique challenges and things to consider in the winter months.
Hypothermia is when the body is cooled too much. It can easily occur in the winter months in Zion, and it’s responsible for the greatest number of deaths among people doing outdoor activities.
Luckily, it’s easy to prevent with planning, proper gear, and awareness. Wearing cotton clothing in the winter is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Cotton does not insulate when wet and it can make you cold quickly.
Instead, choose wool clothing. Wool will insulate even when wet and it comes in different weights depending on how warm you need it to be.
Also, make sure you’re dressing in layers – base layer, mid-layer, and outer layers. This will give you plenty of options to adjust as needed throughout the day so you stay at a comfortable temperature.
Staying hydrated is something that people often forget about in the winter months. As you hike and move throughout the day, you’ll lose water and salt through sweating. It’s so important that you continue to drink throughout the day to stay hydrated.
Make sure you also eat some salty snacks or mix electrolytes into your water every once in a while to help you stay hydrated.
In addition to my water and snacks, I love to pack a thermos full of something hot like cocoa or bone broth to help me stay warm and hydrated. I always pack these individual bone broth packets and mix them in my thermos with some hot water. They taste great and they’re really salty which I love on a cold day outdoors!
Some of the hotels in town have hot cocoa packets next to the coffee station so snag one or two for the day if that’s your thing.
Snow and Ice
Almost half of the precipitation for the entire year in Zion falls between the months of December and March. The main roads in the park are plowed, but they can definitely still be slippery.
In addition, there may be trail closures due to snow and ice. Even though the trails might not have a lot of snow, especially at the lower elevation parts of the park, there certainly can be ice, especially if you’re hiking in the early morning.
I noticed that as the sun comes out in the afternoon and starts to warm things up, there’s more melting snow and general wetness on the trails. It can get muddy!
Overnight, all that wetness turns to ice, and if you hike in the morning, it can be really slippery, especially around areas where there are waterfalls. Be careful! Traction devices are recommended. Even if you don’t think you’ll need them, it’s always smart to have them in your backpack at least.
Zion National Park Winter Weather
In the Winter months (December, January, February, and March) temperatures can get up to 50-60°F during the day and drop below freezing at night.
You can definitely expect a range of temperatures on your visit to Zion in the winter.
At lower elevations such as the main Zion Canyon area and the town of Springdale, snow typically disappears within a few hours. At higher elevations in the park, and even as you start hiking on some of the trails, snow can accumulate and stay longer.
During storms, driving conditions can be really bad. The roads in the park are curvy, and visibility can be poor during winter storms.
Zion National Park Winter Road Conditions
There are two main sections of Zion National Park. The most popular area is Zion Canyon around the town of Springdale, Utah.
The other much less visited section of the park is the Kolob Canyon area on the upper Northwest side of the park. The Kolob Canyon area has a separate entrance off of I-15 and these sections of the park do not connect by a road within the park.
Most people don’t visit the Kolob Canyon part of the park, but if you’re in the area, I highly recommend it. It’s beautiful.
The five-mile scenic drive along Kolob Canyons Road has some spectacular viewpoints. It’s important to note that access to Kolob Canyons does regularly close in inclement weather.
Check for any road closures or alerts before you make the trip up to this section of the park. There’s a visitors center at the entrance, but that’s about it. There is no lodging, food, or gas here.
As mentioned above, this is the most popular area in the park. There are a few roads that go through the park here:
- Kolob Terrace Road
- Zion Canyon Scenic Drive
- Zion-Mount Carmel Highway
Kolob Terrace Road
Access to the upper part of the Kolob Terrace Road, including Lava Point closes in the winter. This section of the park is at a much higher elevation and it receives more snow and is therefore not accessible in winter.
Zion Canyon Scenic Drive
This is THE scenic drive through Zion Canyon. In all other seasons, you’ll need to take the shuttle into the park to access this road. This road is plowed in the winter, but can still be snowy or icy after storms.
Zion-Mount Carmel Highway
Lastly, we have this incredibly scenic drive up and out to the East of Zion National Park. Depending on how you drive into Zion, you might actually take this road into the park.
For example, if you’re driving to Zion from Bryce Canyon in winter, you’ll take this road through the park and down into the town of Springdale.
It’s a beautiful drive! This road is cleared in the winter, but can certainly be snowy or icy at times.
Tips for Visiting Zion National Park in Winter
Winter Travel Safety:
The first thing we need to talk about is winter travel safety. This is a very important, often overlooked area. Is your vehicle stocked and prepared for winter travel?
Conditions can and do change quickly in Zion National Park. You and your vehicle must be prepared! You also must be flexible and change plans depending on the weather.
Proper Gear and Clothing:
Are you prepared with the right clothing and gear for the activities you’ll be doing? For example, hiking in winter has its own challenges. Areas in the park are remote and you won’t always have cell service.
Make sure you’re prepared with appropriate winter gear and clothing. For example, hiking in a cotton shirt is not a good idea. Wool is my go-to for winter travel and hiking. Always tell someone where you’re going and when you’re planning to be back.
Check the Weather:
I know this seems annoyingly obvious, but it’s really important in the winter months because the weather can and does change quickly. You don’t want to be up on a hike only to realize a storm rolls through with thick fog and snow.
My Top 3 Winter Hikes in Zion National Park
One of the most popular activities in the park is of course hiking! There are so many great short, day hikes in the park that don’t require a permit. Here are my favorites:
Canyon Overlook Trail:
This is definitely one of my favorites! It has almost everything – epic views, fun sections of trail (long drop-offs that are mostly fenced), alcoves of red rock, and waterfalls in the winter. This trail is about 1.0-mile roundtrip and it goes out to a beautiful viewpoint of Pine Creek Canyon and lower Zion Canyon.
The only downside is that the parking at this trailhead is limited, but in the winter months, I did not have any problems. I’ve also done this trail in the summer and it was definitely a challenge to find parking.
Sections of this trail can be icy, snowy, and/or muddy. Be prepared with at least some traction devices such as microspikes. Trekking poles also help a ton on uneven muddy terrain.
Upper, Middle, and Lower Emerald Pools:
There are a lot of different ways you can loop these hikes to make them longer or shorter.
Lower Emerald Pools are really cool and the easiest hike out of the three. It’s about 1.2 miles.
The last time I hiked this area, I went up to the Middle Pools and then made a loop down to the Lower Pools and back to the car. It was a great hike, however, I think it’s fairly common for the trail to be closed at the Lower Emerald Pool due to falling ice. Check before you plan your hike.
Even if it’s closed at the Lower Pools, you can still see them and the hike up to them is really pretty. When I went, it was SO slippery. Be careful and make sure you have your traction devices for your hiking boots.
The Watchman Trail:
I think this is one of the more underrated trails in the park, but it’s such a fun hike! This hike is about 3.3 miles round-trip and ends with viewpoints of lower Zion Canyon, Watchman Peak, and the town of Springdale.
This trail can be really muddy and slippery when wet. It’s easily accessible from the Visitors Center.
Where to stay at Zion National Park in Winter?
There are plenty of options for lodging around Zion in the winter. As I mentioned above, one of the main benefits of visiting in winter is how cheap the lodging is!
Lodging in Springdale, Utah
The town of Springdale is just outside of the park. Everything is really close. In Springdale, there are hotels, gas, groceries, and plenty of restaurants, although many of them have limited hours in the winter months.
Make sure you plan some time to just relax at the hotel and dip in the hot tub. Sitting in an outdoor hot tub in winter watching the sunset on some red rock is hard to beat. It’s one of the things I look forward to the most when I visit Zion in the winter!
The Watchman Campground is the only campground in the park that’s open in the winter. You can find more information about camping and reservations here.
Outside of the park, you’ll find more camping and RV camping options too.
The Zion Lodge
The Zion Lodge is the only lodge actually inside the park. They are open in the winter and offer special packages for the winter months.
Honestly, since it’s so easy to drive into the park in the winter months, I think it makes more sense to save some money and stay in one of the hotels in Springdale that also have great views and easier access to restaurants and shops.
So after all of this, do you think you’ll visit Zion in the winter?
With the lack of crowds, beautiful hikes, and easy access to viewpoints, winter really is such a beautiful time to be in Zion.
Take advantage of the peaceful, slow, and quiet energy of winter. I’m already dreaming of going back and sitting in an outdoor hot tub looking up at the red rock at sunset. It doesn’t get much better than that!