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One Of America’s Greatest National Parks Is Virtually Empty This Winter

Zion can be your personal playground.

zion hikers
Zion is somehow more magical with a light dusting of snow. | Valentin Wolf/Getty Images

Zion National Park is a transportative experience. Its deep canyons, red rocks, natural bridges, and full-galaxy stargazing feel completely otherworldly. That is until hundreds of tourists bottleneck on a narrow river hike, transforming your summer trek through The Narrows into something closer to the line at Splash Mountain. 

Not in the winter. Although Zion is the fourth busiest national park in the country, only about 13% of its 4.5 million+ annual visitors descend upon the park between November and March. That means those who visit Greater Zion—the southwestern corner of Utah spanning from the namesake national park to the city of St. George pretty much have the place to themselves in the winter, making it the ideal COVID-era retreat.

In January and February, average daytime temperatures typically hover in the 50s. By March, it’s basically T-shirt weather. While the shaded walls of the vibrant red canyons develop magical icicles and glassy frozen layers, it is rare to see snow anywhere other than dusting the highest peaks—and when snow does fall, it all only adds to the mind-boggling beauty of the place.  

Here are some of the best things to do when you have Zion all to yourself.

A crowded winter day in Zion. | Leon C Salcedo/Moment/Getty Images

Hike through an empty wonderland

In the summer months, the park’s most iconic hikes—Angel’s Landing, the Narrows, and the Subway—are absolutely packed with tourists stopping to take the perfect Insta shot, usually at the absolute worst (and sometimes most dangerous) time. During the winter, those paths still draw crowds, but in a hugely reduced number. 

But in Zion, even its lesser-known hikes are stunners, and experiencing them with minimal human contact is next-level surreal. Situated off of the park’s beaten path, Kolob Canyons offer a less-manicured hiking experience through rich foliage, towering trees, and rock formations that will make you dizzy with their majesty and unique shapes. Taylor Creek is a gentle, 5-mile round trip that takes you over several water crossings to an end point of a natural dome amphitheater within the cliff walls.

You don’t even need to be in the gates of Zion to feel like you’re on a different planet: Utah makes a strong case for being one big national park, and its state parks are a huge part of its appeal. To channel your inner Neil Armstrong, the moon-like red-and-white waves and hills of prehistoric sandstone in Snow Canyon State Park present a bounty of bizarre rock formations and trails for every level of hiker. 

Take a scenic detour to Bryce Canyon. | Cavan Images/Getty Images

Cruise some of America’s most gorgeous roads

Experiencing the sheer scope of the Zion area doesn’t always require you to squeeze through a narrow slot canyon or tiptoe across a dizzying arch: This is also prime road-trip country, and it’s thrilling on four wheels. 

The Zion-Mount Carmel Highway (UT-9 W) is one of the most striking drives in a country full of them, but take it slow. As jaw-dropping and head-swiveling as the scenery is, don’t be too much of a gaper because the road is narrow and the stakes high. This scenic byway goes on for 54 spectacular miles. and if you’re feeling extra road trippy, you can continue onto UT-12 and UT-24 through some of the nation’s most breathtaking landscapes without the parade of RVs you’d encounter in spring and summer. This is a trip that really rewards pit stops and side quests: Chart your map right and you can stop and have places like Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and Capitol Reef National Park largely to yourself.

Another bonus for winter travelers: For a few weeks, the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive— the six-mile-long paved road that follows the Virgin River from Canyon Junction to the Temple of Sinawava—opens to cars. The extremely popular hiking trails dotting this route are much less trafficked this time of year, but perhaps the best way to enter the canyon is by bicycle. With no shuttles and few cars along the Scenic Drive, two wheels is the ultimate way to take it all in along the relatively flat road—and you can stop wherever you want.

And if you’re feeling extra sporty, you can hit one of 13 golf courses amid red-rock cliffs of the Zion area, then take a short and spectacular drive to the often-overlooked slopes of Brian Head or Eagle Point Resort. 

In winter, the Cliffrose is all yours. | Cliffrose

Ditch the tent for something much nicer

In peak season, you’re likely to find yourself either jostling for a campsite or floundering for a centrally located room. You probably don’t want to take your chances sleeping in canvas-ensconced digs this time of year (night-time temps plummet drastically). Luckily the rooms that get booked up months in advance in spring and summer are not only available, but often significantly discounted from their peak rates.

There are multiple options right in Springdale—situated at the park’s main entrance and the hub of any Zion adventure—but The Cliffrose is hard to beat for location, access, and amenities. Having recently completed a multimillion-dollar renovation, it’s part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, which means it leans hard into luxury rooms and suites with canyon views, a beach area on the Virgin River, and open-air hot tubs.

Further west in La Verkin, The Dwellings at River Rock are brand-new mini homes offering luxe, self-contained lodging for these strange times, complete with access to the lava cliffs of Confluence Park. And in St. George—the region’s relative metropolis 40 miles west of the park’s main entrance— the ultra-hip Advenire Hotel brings boutique vibes (and an oversized rooftop hot tub) to the historic downtown’s shopping and dining scene. As a bonus, on-site restaurant wood.ash.rye’s melt-in-your-mouth filet mignon and life-changing chocolate-chip cookies are putting it on the fast track to becoming the region’s finest restaurant. 

For a truly upscale (and socially distanced) getaway, each of the massive units—from 600-square-foot studios to 1,500 square-foot two-bedroom suites—at St. George’s Amira Resort comes with a kitchenette, patio, fireplace, access to the large heated pool and hot tubs, and the distinctive feeling of a self-pampering vacation.

Zion Brewing is best experienced AFTER traversing steep terrain. | Zion Brewery

Get gluttonous at some of Utah’s most coveted tables

For much of the year, you’ll be penciling into a long wait list for a table or stressing over how to swoop into the patio spots with prime views. Not the case in winter. There’s no parade to follow at lunch time or happy hour, and the most frequented haunts are  all pretty much first-come, quickly served. Just bring an extra layer if you’re sitting outside. 

Zion Brewery has been setting the bar for suds in the region for a while. If you’re a connoisseur, the sour and the stout are the way to go. The Springdale location offers full food service and a huge patio, while the new location in St. George is housed in a converted 1918 firehouse. 

River Rock Roasting Company is conveniently located right next door to The Dwellings in La Verkin. With a similarly stunning patio perched on the lava-rock cliffs, you might be tempted to eat here for every meal: the fresh salads, sandwiches, and fire-roasted pizzas are as on point as the superlative coffee. Oh yes, the place also serves high-octane—well, more than the maximum 5% ABV allowed for Utah breweries— bottled beer and wine.

For a bit of history and bountiful pub fare (the sweet potato waffle fries are mandatory), George’s Corner in downtown St. George has a great vibe, and Oscar’s Café in Springdale is the place for Tex-Mex (go for the shrimp tacos). 

A short 15-minute drive from St. George, lunch spot Xetava Gardens Café in Ivins is surrounded by red cliffs and shills exquisite non-alcoholic drinks and fresh burgers, salads, and wraps. While you’re in this area, incorporate some culture and shopping at Kayenta Art Village, a small enclave of art studios and an amphitheater exhibiting an array of bizarre sculptures, murals, and handmade ornaments.

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A Denver native, freelance writer Shauna Farnell loves a throwback ski lodge but has never donned one-piece outerwear. Follow her on Twitter @shaunafarnell or on Instagram @mountaingirlinthecity.
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