How To See Utah’s National Parks In Winter

First of all, this is an extensive (yet simple!) guide to visiting Utah’s National Parks in Winter. Winter is the best time of the year to visit Utah’s National Parks if you want to avoid crowds and find cheap hotels. It’s also an opportunity to see some snow which only enhances the beautiful views you’ll enjoy.

I visited all of Utah’s “Mighty Five” National Parks for a week in February and it was amazing! I’ll share my travel schedule with you at the very bottom of the article. (Or just click on the link in the table of contents.)

Again, this is a simple guide and should get you started with your plans to visit Utah’s National Parks in winter! But, don’t be afraid to dive deeper in your research if there are certain things you really want to experience. This article comes after I found so many complicated travel articles online and after reading countless blogs, I still felt confused and overwhelmed. Hopefully, this guide gives you some peace of mind!

When To Visit Utah’s National Parks in the Winter?

Experiencing Utah’s National Parks in winter is a great idea if you’re looking for fewer crowds and cheaper rates on hotels. Your best bet is during the months of January and February. Yes, it will be colder and you may have some weather issues, but it’s absolutely the best time to visit if you want to explore these parks without tons of other tourists around you.

visiting Utah's National Parks in winter

Zion National Park

Visiting Zion National Park in Winter

This will either be your first stop (if coming from Vegas) or your last stop (if you’re coming from the east). Zion absolutely blew me away and I wish that I had set aside more time to explore. However, during a February visit, I was able to see quite a bit and didn’t feel like the park was super crowded.

The best benefit of a winter visit? The park’s main scenic road is open to all vehicles. Starting in March, you’ll have to ride on a shuttle to all of the points of interest. (No thanks!)

Here’s a great tip! When you start your day at Zion, head to the very back of the park and either do the Narrows (a strenuous hike that requires thoughtful planning) or the Riverside walk. (That hike is super easy, beautiful, and along a nice paved trail. That’s the hike I did. It was beautiful and easy.)

So why start at the back? Because as the various parking lots fill up along the scenic road, the park rangers shut down the entire northbound lane of traffic. When this happens (and it will, probably by 10:00am), you can still navigate along the scenic road as long as you’re heading south. Once you pass the road closure barrier, you can’t turn around. So be mindful of which stops you want to try and see as you work your way back toward the visitor center.

Lastly, keep in mind that some hikes require you to get a permit, even in February. The good news is, as of now, you don’t need to have a park reservation at Zion in the winter months unless it’s during a holiday weekend. (But be sure to check ahead!)

Where To Stay When Visiting Zion In The Winter

Where To Stay: Springdale, Utah has lots of hotels and lots of dining options! Even in February, most of the restaurants and hotels seemed to be open. Some hotels will try to charge you for parking. (Mine did!) When making reservations (or upon arrival) tell them that you know parking isn’t at a minimum like it is during the summer months and ask to have those fees removed. The good part about visiting Utah’s National Parks in winter is the rates are a bit lower and there are more options for lodging.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Utah's national parks in winter

Visiting Bryce Canyon in Winter

The risk of visiting Bryce Canyon in winter is that you’re likely to see snow. Hopefully, it’s just enough snow to be beautiful and not enough to cause travel headaches. The park seemed to be completely empty when I arrived about 7:30 on a Tuesday morning in February. It was cold and there was snow blowing around but the park was open and the roads were clear.

When you arrive, you should plan on driving the entire length of the scenic drive which is about 18 miles. You’ll have the opportunity at the end of the drive to enjoy some amazing overlooks of the canyon. On your way back, take time to stop at the different turnouts and overlooks. All of them are amazing, especially if it’s recently snowed!

Hikes To Try in the Winter at Bryce Canyon

I was able to do two hikes at Bryce Canyon even in the cold weather with snow on the ground. (Though, it might be worth waiting until the afternoon when it warms up.) The Navajo Loop Trail is where you’ll be able to really get close to the hoodoos and have a much different view of the canyon. Even if you only hike a small portion of this trail, it’s worth it. (Make sure you have good hiking shoes!)

The other hike that’s probably most popular is the sunrise to sunset hike along the rim of the canyon. Again, you can even do just a portion of this hike, but it’s worth it to experience part of it. The views of the Bryce Amphitheater are totally worth it!

Capitol Reef National Park

capitol reef in the winter

Visiting Capitol Reef in the Winter

Capitol Reef National Park is totally underrated. I had read on several travel blogs that you could skip this one if you’re traveling through Utah. I couldn’t disagree more! I really enjoyed exploring here. It’s not that crowded, the hikes are terrific, and the scenery is awesome. If you’re visiting Utah’s National Parks in winter, don’t skip this one!

If you’re just planning to stay for one night or only really want to explore a little bit. You can actually drive along Highway 24 within the park – for free. Only on the park’s scenic route do they collect a fee. (Or your park pass.) FYI – nobody was collecting fees at all throughout the entire day I was there in February.

Hikes & Drives To Try At Capitol Reef During The Winter Months

My favorite hike was to the Hickman Natural Bridge. The trail markers are a little wonky but as long as you’re paying attention to where you’ve been – you’ll be fine. The rock bridge is pretty neat. We saw people climbing down a nearby cliff which was pretty cool to watch.

One other thing not to miss is the drive at Grand Wash. It’s SO cool! Essentially, you’ll travel along the park’s scenic road and about a mile or so in, you’ll see the turnout for Grand Wash on your left. There are warnings to only have a 4X4 vehicle, but I spotted regular sedans driving through just fine.

(If you’ve ever traveled on a back country road with rocks and dirt, you’ll be fine.) HOWEVER – do NOT get on this road if it’s been raining, snowing, or there’s a threat of bad weather. If you’re visiting Utah’s National Parks in Winter, you could potentially get stuck on the road. Be careful!

Where To Stay Near Capitol Reef National Park in Winter

There is lodging in the small town of Torrey, Utah. And when I say small, I mean very small. There is nothing going on in this town, especially in the winter months. It’s about 10 miles from the park’s entrance. I stayed at the Days Inn, which was surprisingly better than I thought it would be. Don’t expect big perks or much of a breakfast. They offered cereal, toast, and a gallon of milk that all of the guests had to share.

Arches National Park

visit arches national park in February

Visiting Arches National Park in the Winter

Arches is one of the most popular National Parks in America and you’ll need a reservation to visit most of the year. However, if you’re visiting Utah’s National Parks in winter, you shouldn’t need a reservation. (Try to plan your trip so you visit this one on a weekday. It won’t be as busy!)

Hikes To Do in Arches National Park in the Winter

Without a doubt, the most popular hike at Arches National Park in the winter is the Delicate Arch hike. Fair warning – it’s tough but not so tough that the average person can’t do it. If you’re not an experienced hiker, you’ll just need to take your time and enjoy the views along the way. It’s a steep hike to the iconic natural landmark and you should be prepared with good shoes and plenty of water. There is no shade to be found, but it shouldn’t be too horrible in the winter.

After the hike, be sure to take time to drive around the park and stop at the various viewpoints and “mini-hikes” to some of the other arches. It’s pretty incredible!

Where To Stay Near Arches National Park in the Winter

The town of Moab is right down the road from Arches National Park and I absolutely loved it! It has great local restaurants, plenty of lodging options, and the locals seemed particularly friendly. If you’re visiting Utah’s National Parks in Winter, this will probably be your favorite town to visit.

I stayed at the Bowen Motel on Main Street and it was perfect. If you’re traveling in the winter months, you can snag a great deal (I paid under $100 a night) and it’s super close to the park. It’s definitely a “motel” but it’s ideal for anyone that just needs a place to sleep at night. The staff was really friendly, and they have free laundry machines, too!

Where To Eat Near Arches National Park in the Winter

I rarely give any advice on food but I must tell you I found a couple great spots while I was in Moab!

Canyonlands National Park

visiting canyonlands in the winter

Visiting Canyonlands in the Winter

Canyonlands was the park that surprised me the most of “The Mighty Five”. It seemed so much enormous than the Grand Canyon. (Which isn’t true – the Grand Canyon is much larger.) However, Canyonlands National Park is much less crowded, especially in the winter. And the scenery is largely the same. The deep canyons are simply astounding and so vast.

During my visit in February, I had much of the place to myself. The benefit of visiting Utah’s National Parks in winter is that you may only saw a handful of other cars (and tourists). That means more exploring on your own with peace and quiet for most of the day. These types of moments make you feel so incredibly small while you’re by yourself as you explore a place like this. This is why it’s best to visit these places in the off-season, if it means it’s cold!

Things To See in Canyonlands in the Winter

The most iconic thing to see at Canyonlands is the Mesa Arch which is best viewed early in the morning. You can visit at sunrise, but it’s not totally necessary. I visited Mesa Arch about an hour or so after sunrise and my photos were beautiful. It also wasn’t full of other photographers. (That’s apparently an issue, at least in the warmer months.) It’s a pretty simple hike from the parking lot – maybe half a mile.

Like the other parks, Canyonlands has plenty of places to pull the car over and explore on foot. The park itself is so big that it’s divided into several sections. I only explored the main section, referred to as Island in the Sky. Unless you’re a hardcore backpacker or into driving jeeps or something – this is the part of the park you’ll want to explore, and it’s the most popular.

Where To Stay Near Canyonlands in the Winter

Canyonlands National Park is about 30 minutes from Arches National Park and about 40 minutes from downtown Moab. Moab is the ideal spot to stay if you want to visit Utah’s National Parks in Winter. You can also experience two National Parks at the same time. One day for each park is ideal and what I’d suggest, but you could also see both in one day if time is tight.

Utah's national parks in winter

How To See Utah’s National Parks in One Week

I set aside one week to visit Utah’s National Parks in Winter. It was a success! In one week, I was able to visit each park, accomplish at least one hike and have time to drive around and take photos at various turnouts. I started my days early and really felt like I got a great taste of each park.

Keep in mind, some roads and certain hiking trails are closed during February. However, this will not affect your experience if you’re visiting these parks for the first time. You’ll be absolutely blown away!

My Exact Schedule For Seeing All Five of Utah’s National Parks in Winter

SUNDAY – Arrive in Springdale late afternoon from Las Vegas. Early to bed for an early start on Monday!

MONDAY – Through the gates at Zion by 7:00AM. No crowds. Spent most of the day hiking and exploring before heading back for dinner and my hotel around 5:00. Early to bed for a long Tuesday of travel.

TUESDAY – An early start to drive to Bryce Canyon National Park. Again, no crowds as I made it through the gates around 8:00AM. Spent 4 or 5 hours driving through the park, and completed one hike on the Navajo Loop Trail. Grabbed a quick lunch in town to chill for a bit before driving two hours to Torrey, UT for the night, a few miles from Capitol Reef National Park.

WEDNESDAY – Capitol Reef is generally not that busy so I slept in a bit before heading out to explore. I did one hike, drove the scenic route, and took one “off-road” adventure. It was a long day on Tuesday, so I decided to catch up on rest and ended my exploring mid-afternoon.

THURSDAY – Woke up early and was out the door by 6:30AM to drive to Arches National Park. Explored Arches and did the famous Delicate Arch hike. I was on that trail by 9:30AM. Spent a few hours afterward driving around the park and walking to some other points of interest before checking into my motel in Moab around 2:30.

FRIDAY – Got up early to see the sunrise at the famous Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. The park is about 40 minutes from downtown Moab. I spent about four or five hours driving around the park and taking photographs. After lunch, I drove one of the scenic Colorado byways to take some photos before calling it a day around 4:00PM.

SATURDAY: Headed out after breakfast for Denver as I started making my way back to the midwest!

visiting Utah's national parks in winter

Final Thoughts & Tips For Visiting Utah’s Mighty Five!

This is an incredible road trip that you’ll never forget. Visiting Utah’s National Parks in winter was so magical! I know that I’ll do this road trip again at some point.

As you’ll be traveling in winter, it’s important to remember to keep extra water and snacks in your car. You never know when crazy weather may make travel tough or impossible in a heartbeat. Be safe! Have a flashlight as well as a blanket or two. It’s probably a good idea to bring along a small air pressure machine (they’re cheap on Amazon) as cold weather tends to make your tires lose air. You won’t have cell service to call AAA in some places!

My best advice is getting to bed at a decent time and waking up early to hit the ground running. By early, I mean – get into the park by 7:30AM. Only Arches National Park even had someone manning the gate at that time! You’ll beat any crowds, find parking, and have some quiet time for yourself to explore.

Don’t forget to purchase an America The Beautiful National Park pass instead of paying for fees at each individual park. You only need one pass per vehicle!

You’ll be so glad you decided to decided to visit Utah’s National Parks in Winter!

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