Whether you're asking travel experts for tips on how to save money on your next vacation, or inquiring about how we can help combat issues like overtourism around the world, there's one golden tip that is the answer to a lot of queries: travel in the off-season.
The off-season or “shoulder season” in a destination is always going to be a better time to travel. It might mean that the weather could be cold or wet or maybe even really hot – but you'll be almost guaranteed to find lower prices and, most importantly, less crowds.
And along with traveling in the off-season, we can also help alleviate the stress that popular destinations feel by broadening our focus. Instead of just focusing on the one big popular place that gets plastered all over Instagram, consider visiting lesser-known attractions nearby as well.
As an example, let's look at Zion National Park in Utah. It's one of the most popular national parks in the United States, with an annual average of 4.5 million visitors.
Sure, Zion is pretty amazing whether you're a hiker or just a landscape addict. But the truth is that there are plenty of other places in southern Utah that are JUST as beautiful as Zion – they just don't get as many visitors or show up in as many Instagram hashtags.
Visiting Utah's Snow Canyon State Park in winter
On a December trip to St. George, Utah, one year, I did my best to seek out some of the best outdoor spots that *weren't* Zion. And my favorite spot by far was Snow Canyon State Park.
Snow Canyon State Park covers 7,400 acres in southwestern Utah, within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and about a 20-minute drive from downtown St. George. It's fairly popular as far as state parks go, but this isn't surprising considering the incredible landscapes you'll find there.
Snow Canyon State Park is known for its petrified sand dunes, sandstone cliffs, and ancient lava flows. Add to this desert plants and miles of hiking trails, and you basically have an outdoor adventure paradise.
A common refrain you'll hear about this park is that, in any other state, Snow Canyon would be a national park. It's just that stunning.
I dedicated about half a day to exploring Snow Canyon. Normally, this wouldn't be enough time to fully explore a park, but thanks to some short hikes and the fact that I more or less had the park to myself, I packed a lot into just one day.
Here were my Snow Canyon State Park highlights:
1. Jenny's Canyon
One of the first hiking trails you'll come upon after entering Snow Canyon State Park is the trail to Jenny's Canyon. The “hike” to this little slot canyon is incredibly easy – just a quarter-mile each way on a flat, sandy trail. And the canyon itself is really impressive, even if you've seen slot canyons before.
There were two other people in the canyon when I arrived, but after they left I had the place to myself to practice my tripod selfies. Major bonus to visiting a place like this during the off-season!
Note: Jenny's Canyon is closed each year from March 15-June 1, in order to protect nesting falcons.
2. Whiterocks Amphitheater
From Jenny's Canyon, I headed to the other end of the park in order to seek out the Whiterocks Amphitheater. The quickest way to access this spot is to actually drive OUT of the park and make a left on Highway 18, where there's a parking lot and trail head.
Mine was one of just two cars in the parking lot here, and I only saw one other couple on the entire trail!
Speaking of the trail, it was mostly flat and sandy for the first bit, and then required a bit of scrambling over the white Navajo sandstone/slickrock that gives this part of the park its name. I eventually made it to the “Amphitheater” after less than a mile, and had the whole thing to myself for an hour.
Seriously, guys – travel in the off-season!
I could have continued on to the full Whiterocks Trail and then the Lava Flow Trail (many of the trails in Snow Canyon State Park intersect at some point), but I knew I wanted to be in a certain spot for sunset.
3. Petrified Dunes
The last trail I tackled in Snow Canyon State Park was the Petrified Dunes trail, which winds its way around and over the petrified sand dunes in the park. It's an excellent place to be around sunset, as the dipping sun makes the hardened dunes appear to be glowing.
You can get to the Petrified Dunes trail a couple different ways. It officially begins at a parking area along the park's scenic drive that's shared with the Butterfly Trail trailhead, but can also be reached from the Upper Galoot Picnic area, or from the Three Ponds Trail.
Parking wasn't an issue on a weekday in December, so I started at the Butterfly Trail trailhead.
Walking over petrified dunes is pretty cool. It's crazy to imagine that these were once flowing sand dunes.
The 1-mile trail here is technically marked, but the markers are few and far between. I think half the fun is climbing around on the former dunes and making your own trail anyway.
I stayed in this part of the park until just before sunset, and made my way back to my car before it got dark.
If you have more time
Like I said, most of the hiking trails in Snow Canyon State Park are connected, so you could easily hike from the White Rocks Amphitheater past the lava flows, onto the Butterfly Trail, and eventually into the Petrified Dunes.
One separate trail that I didn't have time for was the Johnson Canyon trail, a 2-mile round trip that takes you to a canyon that ends at a red rock arch. This trail is only open from early November to mid-March; the rest of the year it's closed due to nesting birds. I'm sad I missed out on this one, but I'll just have to save it for next time!
Practical info for visiting Snow Canyon
I've already mentioned several times that Snow Canyon State Park is a great place to visit in the off-season. Not only is the park less crowded, but it's also much more comfortable temperature-wise. This part of Utah gets HOT during the summer months; in the winter, though, you can comfortably hike in long pants and a jacket.
(Note though that the park DOES get busy on holiday weekends during the winter, especially over the President's Day school holiday!)
How to get there: You'll need a car to get to Snow Canyon State Park and explore on your own. It's about a 20-minute drive from St. George.
Park entry: Day passes cost $6 per vehicle; you pay at a ranger station upon entering the park. Grab a park/trail map here, too!
When to go: The park is open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. If you're visiting during the quiet off-season, any time of day is a good time to go. If you're visiting over a busy weekend or in the high season, going before 11 a.m. or after 4 p.m. will help you avoid crowds.
What to bring: Even if you're visiting in the winter, you'll want to make sure to bring sun protection (sunscreen and a hat are always a good idea!), and plenty of water and snacks. There are picnic and restroom facilities in the park, but not really anywhere to get fresh water – so make sure you bring plenty for yourself! (Invest in a backpack that can carry a water pouch for this sort of hiking – I like the Osprey Daylight Daypack with a 2L water reservoir.)
Where to stay: There's a campsite in Snow Canyon State Park, as well as accommodation options in nearby Ivins and St. George. If you're looking for luxury in Ivins, the Red Mountain Resort or The Inn at Entrada is where you want to be.
Have you ever discovered a place that was better in the off-season?
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