The sparsely populated state of Utah packs five glorious national parks into its southern half: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands—each a unique slice of a timeless landscape, rich in history and beauty. Together, they make for an epic road trip with equal parts driving and wandering among geological masterpieces.
Winter is certainly the off-season, but a cold-weather visit has its advantages. While Zion and Arches are known for summer crowds, in winter, they’re practically empty. Snow is a dazzling accessory for desertscapes, and although icy conditions can be tricky, it’s often more comfortable to hike in cold weather than sizzling heat.
Our trip starts in Las Vegas, Nevada, where flights and rental cars are as abundant as neon lights, but we’re quick to leave the gamblers’ oasis in search of our true quarry—nature and adventure on a week-long jaunt through the American Southwest’s greatest hits.
To Zion – 250km from Las Vegas
As we enter the park, we’re immersed in Zion Canyon—a 730m-deep, meandering gorge with sculpted red Navajo sandstone walls that contrast sharply with a thin layer of snow.
We drive the scenic road, skirting the North Fork of the Virgin River, past mule deer and tumbling waterfalls. Standing guard over the valley are immense rock formations with names like Three Patriarchs (a mountain each for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), Mountain of the Sun, Angel’s Landing and Great White Throne. If you sense a religious undertone, you’re right. Mormon settlers, who saw Zion as a place of sanctuary in the mid-19th century named the park and many of its features.
The road ends where the canyon walls encroach too much on the river, but a footpath carries on at the Temple of Sinawava until the walls edge out even that. The most curious aspect of this natural amphitheatre is not the soaring strata, but the groups of visitors, all carrying wooden staffs and dressed in different coloured jumpsuits, as if members of rival bands of ninjas. Eventually, I ask what the outfits are about.
“It’s a dry suit!” explains a man wearing an ecstatic smile tinged with exhaustion. “You rent them in Springdale to hike The Narrows.”
The Narrows is among the most famous and unique hikes in the South-west. Most of it is under water, charting a course through the grandfather of all slot canyons along the gushing Virgin River, amid towering, claustrophobic cliffs eroded over millennia. In summer, when crowds descend on Zion, eager hikers vie for limited permits to explore The Narrows.
I had no idea you could hike it in winter, so with this intel, we rush back to the outfitters in the gateway town of Springdale to rent the necessary gear. The next morning, we’re back at the trailhead, clad in dry suits, doubled-up neoprene socks and wide-soled river boots.
As we splash slowly upriver over slippery boulders in the current of icy, turquoise water, the walls close in until we reach “Wall Street”, where the canyon constricts to width of merely six metres. Snow coats the boulders and driftwood poking above the waterline, and icicles drip from ferns clinging to sheer walls high above. Beyond the rush of water and occasional birdsong, the canyon is amazingly quiet. We’re among few visitors, and though thousands have passed through here before, we feel like we’re breaking new ground. Personally, we are – I’ve certainly never hiked in a dry suit.
To Bryce Canyon – 130km
Ever heard of a hoodoo? I hadn’t either, but Bryce Canyon is famous for them, ranging in height from human-sized to as tall as a 10-storey building. According to geologists, hoodoos are fingers of rock that have outlasted millions of years of erosion that carved away the interconnecting bits.
But a Paiute native elder explained in 1936: “For some reason, the Legend People in that place were bad. Because they were bad, coyote turned them all into rocks. You can see them in that place now, all turned into rocks; some standing in rows, some sitting down, some holding onto others.”
“Hoodoo” comes from the same source word as “voodoo”, and Spanish explorers named these towering spires with a mystical connotation in mind.
Bryce’s vast canyon – studded with hoodoos – is even more enchanting under a blanket of snow, which at an elevation of more than 2 000m, is likely. We arrive in the park amid heavy snowfall, so our first stop is the visitors’ center to buy elastic crampons that give our boots extra traction. Then, it’s on to Sunset Point for panoramic canyon views. We try hiking the Navajo Loop Trail that descends from the rim to wind through the hoodoos, but with ice on the trail and snow still accumulating, a soak in our hotel’s outdoor jacuzzi sounds more appealing than slipping off a ledge.
By the next morning, enough snow has fallen to close the park’s roads, so we rent cross-country skis to explore the vast conifer forests of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. Skiing is a beautifully serene way to explore this fairyland. We’re inexperienced, so there is plenty of falling, laughter and muscle pain.
To Capitol Reef – 180 km
Highway 24 carries us right through Capitol Reef, which was named by explorers who found the huge monolithic formations here a barrier, like a reef is in the sea. One sandstone hill reminded them of the dome on the Capitol Building in Washington – thus, Capitol Reef.
We stop off in Fruita, the remains of a pioneer village that just a century ago was among the most isolated outposts in Utah. Today, the national park maintains the ghost town’s orchards, which contain thousands of trees.
At a sheer cliff bearing ancient Fremont-culture petroglyphs, we stop to gape at the carvings. Human figures decorated in headdresses stand amid bighorn sheep – testament to the longstanding relationship between humans and nature in this rugged landscape. We likely follow in their footsteps on the 3km trail to Hickman Natural Bridge, an arch of red sandstone rock stretching conveniently across a small stream. It’s a small taste of what’s to come.
To Arches – 215km
The name “Arches” needs little explanation. More than 2 000 natural stone arches decorate this red-rock paradise near Moab. So do pinnacles, fins and giant boulders balanced on thin spires. Visitors can eyeball many of these geological wonders from the road, but short hikes lead to even more awe-inspiring vistas.
We trek the 4,8km trail for a close-up of Delicate Arch, the park’s most iconic feature and highest free-standing arch, soaring 18m above the surrounding rock shelf. Conditions are icy, so we’re thankful for our crampons. Still, it’s easy to appreciate the appeal of winter here when we have Delicate Arch to ourselves for sunset. In summer, visitors by the hundreds crowd this natural stone amphitheatre.
The next morning, we explore a 12km circuit of primitive desert hiking trail transformed into a winter wonderland by fresh snow. Here in the Devil’s Garden, cottontail rabbit tracks crisscross the trail, and cairns show the way up and over hillsides, boulders and delicate fins. We hike to Landscape Arch (a 93m-long behemoth) and on to Primitive, Double O, Navajo, Private, Tunnel, Partition and Pine Tree Arches, then to the spire known as Dark Angel. The scenery is spectacular as ravens fly overhead against a soft blue sky, but we’re thankful to make it back to the warmth of our car.
To Canyonlands – 45km
On our last day, we drive through snow-swept roads into Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District. A short hike takes us to the famous Mesa Arch, perched on a cliff and perfectly framing the distant canyons in a ribbon of red.
We head to the appropriately-named Grand View Point and hike the also-appropriately-named Grand Overlook Trail. From here, peering out over a vastness that defies capture by my camera, I wish for more time to explore this massive park’s hidden gems. The Colorado and Green Rivers that carved these awesome canyons also divide the park into three other districts: The Needles, The Maze and Horseshoe Canyon. For now, these natural playgrounds remain unexplored as we’re due for flights out of Salt Lake City. But a future road trip beckons.
Where to stay in Utah
by Morgan Trimble