I've said it before (I've even written about it before), but I'll say it again: winter is one of my favorite times to visit the American Southwest.
The cooler temperatures keep the larger crowds away, and the chance of a dusting of snow makes a trip to red rocks country extra magical.
After the Grand Canyon (which yes, you can visit in winter), Zion National Park is probably the next-most-popular Southwest park that people are curious about visiting during the winter months.
And the good news is that, yes, you can also visit Zion National Park in the winter!
Zion National Park weather in winter
While snow is the norm in some higher-elevation national parks in the Southwest in winter, you won't necessarily have to deal with it in Zion in winter.
Zion National Park is located in southwestern Utah, sitting at an elevation of about 4,000 feet – which is considerably lower than nearby parks like Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon that are more likely to see snow.
Average winter temperatures in Zion actually aren't too bad. Highs and lows you can expect throughout the winter months include:
- December: Average high of 53°F, average low of 30°F
- January: Average high of 52°F, average low of 29°F
- February: Average high of 57°F, average low of 31°F
- March: Average high of 63°F, average low of 36°F
Remember that these are just averages, though; it's not unheard of for daytime temperatures to hit 60°F (especially if it's sunny), or for nighttime temps to dip below 20°F.
And even though the National Park Service site will tell you that “nearly half of the annual precipitation in Zion Canyon falls between the months of December and March,” don't let that scare you away; Zion is located in a desert-like area of Utah, and average annual precipitation is just over 16 inches for the entire year.
When snow does fall in Zion Canyon, it usually melts quickly. In higher-elevation parts of the park, though, snow can accumulate and cause road closures.
You'll also have to watch out for ice and snow on certain trails, but we'll talk about that more later.
Is Zion National Park busy in winter?
Just as in other popular national parks, winter is the off-season or “silent season” at Zion National Park. It's the least-popular season to visit the park, which means less traffic, quieter trails, and lower accommodation prices.
The exceptions to this is around holidays. The week between Christmas and New Year's is a time I would probably avoid at Zion National Park, as it's a popular time for families to visit. I would also avoid MLK Jr. Day weekend in January since it's a long weekend AND there's free park entry on MLK Jr. Day, and President's Day weekend in February.
If you want to ensure a quieter park visit, I'd recommend visiting on weekdays outside of holiday periods. And, the colder the day, the better!
Getting around in Zion in winter
The biggest advantage of visiting Zion National Park in the winter is that you have the chance to drive your own car through Zion Canyon, the most popular part of the park.
From March-November, private vehicles are not allowed on the Scenic Drive inside Zion Canyon. Instead, visitors have to ride the Zion shuttle bus in order to reach trailheads, viewpoints, and other points of interest along the Scenic Drive.
During the winter, however, you can drive into the canyon and explore at your own pace.
This isn't to say that it never gets busy (parking at popular trailheads can still be difficult to come by on busy weekends, for example), but it definitely is a different experience to visiting when the shuttles are operating.
There are some busy dates when Zion does run the shuttles, however, so it's always a good idea to double-check the NPS site as you're planning your trip. (For example, during the 2020-21 winter season, shuttles are running December 24-January 2, and visitors MUST purchase tickets online in advance. There likely will be shuttles running over President's Day weekend in February, too.)
Shuttles *only* run in Zion Canyon, however. In the rest of the park, you can drive your own vehicle year-round, but you'll want to keep an eye on the weather forecast.
Zion Canyon and US Highway 9 which leads to it rarely close to vehicle traffic since they're at a lower elevation and don't get much snow that sticks around. But parts of the park at higher elevations sometimes experience road closures.
In other sections of the park, the upper part of the Kolob Terrace Road often closes in the winter, and access to Kolob Canyons can sometimes close in bad weather, too.
Things to do in Zion National Park in winter
To be honest, this list would be the same regardless of when you plan to visit Zion. Most of the park is open and accessible year-round; it's just that you'll find fewer people and colder temperatures in the winter.
1. Scenic drives
As I mentioned above, you can take you own car on the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive during the winter months (usually end of November through mid-February).
The 6.5-mile-long Scenic Drive follows the Virgin River through Zion Canyon, and it's a stunning drive even if you aren't planning to stop for any hikes.
Another scenic drive you won't want to miss in Zion is the Mount Carmel Highway (US Highway 9 on most maps). This 12-mile highway connects the south and east entrances of Zion National Park, and driving it is absolutely stunning at any time of year.
You traverse up and down steep switchbacks, and pass through the 1.1 mile-long Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. Eventually the highway meets up with US 89. (Just note that larger vehicles need a permit in order to use the tunnel; learn more here.)
Lastly, if you make it out to the far northwestern part of the park (40 miles north of Zion Canyon), Kolob Canyons is another spot with a gorgeous scenic drive with plenty of viewpoints to stop at.
2. Winter hiking in Zion National Park
Speaking of hiking… yes, you can definitely hike in Zion National Park in the winter! In fact, it's one of the better times to hike here since you'll encounter fewer people than usual on the trails.
You do need to go into your winter hikes prepared, though – trails in Zion are not maintained by anyone other than Mother Nature herself, so you'll want to be geared up with plenty of warm layers, drinking water, and good boots with a set of Yaktrax in case you encounter any snow/ice.
Trails that are generally flat and open year-round at Zion include:
- Riverside Walk – This 2.2-mile paved trail offers up great views of the Virgin River, and begins at the far end of the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. The trail *can* sometimes get icy, but closures are generally few and far between.
- Pa'rus Trail – This paved trail connects the South Campground (near the main Zion Visitor Center) to Canyon Junction, following the Virgin River. It's 3.5 miles round-trip and is relatively flat with great canyon views all around.
Trails that tend to get quite icy in Zion include:
- Weeping Rock – This short, paved trail is actually one of the ones most likely to be closed due to icy conditions in the winter. If you can reach it in cold weather, though, you can often find icicles hanging from the rock.
- Emerald Pools – One of the most popular trails in Zion, the Emerald Pools trail is usually open to the Lower Emerald Pools in the winter. But the trail can get icy, and it's not recommended to try to push on to the Middle or Upper pools at this time of year.
- Angels Landing – This is one of the most challenging hikes in Zion National Park, and parts of it get very little sun during the winter months, making the trail extra difficult at times. If you're going to try to reach the summit here, make sure you bring proper gear and look out for snow and ice on the narrow trail.
Trails you'll need to prepare for:
- Observation Point – The 8-mile hike to this famous viewpoint usually takes you along the park's East Rim Trail. However, this steep and strenuous trail can be dangerous during the winter (the trailhead at Weeping Rock is often closed). So, instead, there's also an option to hike, snowshoe, or even cross-country ski across the plateau to the viewpoint from Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort.
- The Narrows – People always wonder, “Can I hike The Narrows in winter?” This hike is the one you've probably seen in photos, where you have to wade through the Virgin River as it cuts through narrow red canyon walls. And even though this is definitely a cold endeavor during the winter months, the answer is that yes, you can absolutely hike The Narrows in winter*. But you will 100% want to rent a drysuit and other gear for the cold water; Zion Adventures rents out gear packages for reasonable prices.
*Note that in 2020 there's been a toxic algae bloom in the Virgin River, and hiking The Narrows may not be recommended.
And even though this should be common sense, I'll say it here anyway: you'll also always want to check in at the Visitor Center on the day you're visiting to learn about any potential trail closures before setting out on a hike.
You'll also want to keep in mind that longer trails in the park lack restroom facilities once you leave the trailhead. Leaving human waste behind anywhere in the park is the same as littering, so be sure you have a plan for packing out whatever you bring in! (Don't be one of those people who trash our national parks!)
Are there downsides to visiting Zion in winter?
As with all things in life, there are always going to be some downsides. While you will find smaller crowds and more opportunities to enjoy nature in silence during the winter months at Zion, there are still a few things to keep in mind when you're planning your trip:
1. Winter closures
Whether it's trail or road closures due to snow and ice, or seasonal closures of hotels and restaurants because of less tourism demand, you will indeed find that not everything is open when you visit Zion in the winter.
This winter (2020-21), most of the campgrounds are closed during to the coronavirus pandemic, too, as is the Zion Human History Museum.
2. Shorter daylight hours
The days are notably shorter in winter. At Zion National Park, sunrise/sunset times during the winter are as follows:
- December: Sunrise 7:30-7:45 a.m.; sunset 5:15-5:25 p.m.
- January: Sunrise 7:45-7:30 a.m.; sunset 5:25-6 p.m.
- February: Sunrise 7:35-7:05 a.m.; sunset 6-6:25 p.m.
The days in southern Utah aren't quite as short in winter as they are further up north, but you still have considerably less time for hiking and other outdoor activities in the winter. (In June, for example, the sun rises closer to 6 a.m. and sets around 9 p.m.)
3. Road parking issues
Zion National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the United States. And while it IS quieter during the winter, finding it feeling “empty” isn't necessarily something you should expect.
On my winter visit to Zion, there was one sunny weekend day where I drove into Zion Canyon and couldn't find parking at most of the trailheads I wanted. The trade-off of the shuttles not running during the winter is that you have to rely on finding parking in the canyon, and many trailheads only have a handful of parking spaces.
Parking will often spill out onto the sides of the canyon road, which definitely isn't ideal and can make driving through certain areas less enjoyable since you have to weave around cars.
If you want to do a popular hike in Zion on a nice winter day (and especially if you're there on a weekend), I'd recommend arriving into the park as early as you can.
Where to stay for a winter Zion trip
The good news about visiting a popular national park like Zion in the off-season is that you have a lot more options when it comes to accommodation.
And not only do you have a lot more options available, but you can usually find a place to stay for a much lower price than if you were visiting in the busy summer months.
There are 3 options I'd recommend when it comes to accommodation at/near Zion:
1. Staying in Zion National Park
There's one national park lodge within Zion National Park, plus a couple campgrounds that usually stay open through the winter. Campgrounds and the lodge can fill up months in advance, but winter is usually the season with the least amount of demand.
Zion Lodge is most affordable during the winter, too; right now (December 2020), you can find rooms for as little as $150 per night! The Zion Lodge offers both hotel-style rooms and suites, along with private cabins you can rent. There's an on-site restaurant, too.
Just outside of the park, you might also consider Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort, which offers all sorts of accommodation options and activities.
Find out more info about camping in Zion National Park here.
2. Staying in Springdale
Personally? I'd skip the in-park lodges and stay in the nearby town of Springdale, which has lots of hotel and restaurant options.
3. Staying in St. George, Utah
St. George is a little further away from Zion National Park, but is ideal if you'd like to base yourself in more of a city and plan to visit other nearby spots (there are some amazing state parks near St. George, like Snow Canyon!).
I stayed at the Hyatt Place in St. George, which has great access to I-15 for getting around and going to Zion.
You can also search for Airbnb rentals around Zion National Park here:
What to pack for a trip to Zion in winter
The main reason people visit Zion National Park is to hike. And if you're going to be doing any winter hiking at Zion, you'll definitely want to be prepared with the right gear!
Here are my must-haves for Zion in winter:
- A daypack – A good daypack is essential for any hike, but you'll especially want one this time of year so you can tuck away things like extra layers, a hat, a headlamp, etc. I love the Osprey Daylite Daypack, which is small and light but will still fit all your essentials.
- Warm base layer – If you're hiking on a cold day, start out your outfit with a good, moisture-wicking base layer. I love my Terramar turtleneck, and Columbia Omni-heat leggings.
- Mid- and outer layers you can remove – Winter temperatures in Zion can actually get pretty warm, so you'll definitely want to dress in layers that you can easily remove. If you think you might run into rain during your trip, pack a raincoat, too – I love my Columbia Arcadia II jacket.
- Hat, gloves, and other accessories – Again, if you don't need them, you can take them off. But if you do need them, you'll be happy you brought them!
- Good hiking boots – Good hiking boots are a must for any hiking adventure! My current go-tos are my Kodiak Surry II boots, which are comfy but not too restricting. I also love the Merrell Moab 2 Mid boots, which are sturdy and waterproof. Make sure to pick up some warm hiking socks, too!
- A pair of Yaktrax – No matter what type of boots you're wearing, grab a pair of Yaktrax to throw in your bag. You can slip these traction cleats on to instantly give you better grip on snow or ice.
- A water bottle or hydration backpack – Even if it's not hot, you'll still need to drink plenty of water! Zion is a desert, after all. The Osprey Daylite pack I mentioned above does have a pocket for a small hydration bladder.
- A headlamp – With shorter days, you might find yourself starting or finishing a hike in semi-dark conditions. A small headlamp is never a bad thing to have on hand.
- A thermos of hot water – Keep this in your backpack, or even in your car in case you need to quickly warm up after a hike. Throw in a couple packets of hot chocolate or instant coffee, and you can quickly whip up a hot drink anywhere. My current favorite thermos is the 2-in-1 CamelBak MultiBev bottle, which has a built-in cup.
Zion National Park essential info
Zion National Park is located in southwestern Utah. The main entrance to the park is at Zion Canyon, located off State Route 9 in the town of Springdale. There's another section of the park, Kolob Canyons, to the north, which can be reached via I-15.
The nearest international airport to Zion National Park is in Las Vegas (170 miles away), with smaller regional airports located in St. George and Cedar City, Utah.
The entry fee for Zion National Park is currently $35 per vehicle, $20 per motorcycle, and $20 per cyclist or pedestrian. The fee gets you a pass for 7 days. You can also enter Zion using a National Park Pass, which costs $80 for one year, and covers every national park site in the US.
Who's ready to plan a winter trip to Zion National Park now?
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