With its southern desert landscape and abundance of national parks and public land, hiking during winter in Utah is a very good activity. As with any winter sport, conditions should be checked ahead of time. All of the national parks mentioned in this article are open year round, although portions of the parks or particular locations within each may be closed during the harshest part of the winter season.
Two cities in Utah offer great jumping off points for winter hiking include Kanab, a good base for visiting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Capitol Reef, Zion, and Bryce Canyon, and Moab, for Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. There are many options from simple hikes that only require a few hours or less to full day hikes in more challenging conditions. Travelers should consider an early start time for those hikes requiring a full 8 hours of daylight in the winter season.
Arches National Park
Open year round, except Christmas
Arches is so named because it contains more natural stone arches than anywhere else in the world…more than 2,000 in total. Overriding even that amazing fact is the glorious scenery in which those arches are set. A stunning desert studded with rock formations like arches and spires, set against an enormous sky, with a fragile high desert ecosystem, this is truly a special place for hikers. An added bonus to hiking Arches is winter is that the climate here is very mild.
Trails in Arches
There are at least 20 popular hiking trails that visitors can explore in Arches to take in the magnificent scenery of this stunning landscape. They range from easy to strenuous in difficulty. Many of the trails are interlinking. Those hiking in late November also have a good chance of seeing the elusive bighorn sheep that were reintroduced into the area.
Park Avenue Trail - This is a 2 mile hike from the parking lot’s trailhead to the rock formation known as Courthouse Towers. Along the way, hikers will take in some major attractions of the park including the Queen Nefertiti and Queen Victoria Rock, the Organ, the Three Gossips, and the Tower of Babel. Return by car at the pickup point at trail’s end, or for a more challenging hike, return by climbing the 320 foot return path to the arrival point.
The Windows Trail - This is an easy mile trail to see the double arches, known as the Spectacles. The two sandstone arches stand side by side, although separated by distance. A large "nose" (a giant fin remnant more than 100 feet wide) separates them visually from the southwest, calling to mind the image of eye glasses. Hikers can also see Double Arch, the Parade of Elephants, and other areas of Windows in this hike
Tower Arch - A more challenging trail, this 5 mile hike gains only 100 feet in elevation, but there is constant up and down movement, and hikers will get a real workout. The trailhead is located at the end of Klondike Bluffs Road, about 7 miles west of the Arches Entrance Road turnoff. In addition to seeing Tower Arch, hikers will also take in the formation known as Marching Men, as well as Anniversary Arch, in this hike.
Capitol Reef National Park
Open year round, except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day; unpaved roads may close in winter
The waterpocket fold is the unique identifying feature in Capitol Reef National Park. For 100 miles or more, these parallel sandstone ridges rise from the desert floor in what appears to be wavelike formations. At the southern end, there is outstanding backcountry backpacking (in Lower Muley Twist Cayon and Halls Creek Narrows), which can provide a real challenge for the experienced hiker.
Trails in Capitol Reef
There are exceptional hiking trails throughout this national park, but the biggest advantage over other Utah locations is the number of tourists overall. Trails here may rival the best of Zion, for example, albeit with far, far fewer people to share with them with. Below are just 2 of 18 popular hikes found in the park, which range in difficulty.
Hickman Bridge - This easy 2 mile hike from the parking lot follows a self-guided nature trail that leads to a natural stone bridge that rises 125 feet overhead. Just two miles east of the Capitol Reef Visitor Center, this scenic trek also provides access to some amazing sites, including the large arch itself, a miniature bridge, an ancient granary (used thousands of yeas ago by the Fremont Indians), and an overlook of the Fremont River and the mouth of Cohab Canyon.
Rim Overlook Trail - This strenuous 5 mile trail offers a great view of the historic town of Fruita from a vantage point of a thousand feet above. The Navajo Knobs (a pair of small hills atop a jutting section of the waterpocket fold) rise another 500 feet. Hiking another 2.5 miles west, hikers will get a remarkable 360-degree view of the park, including the nearby Henry Mountains.
Zion National Park
Open year round
Unlike the Grand Canyon, where travelers look down into the massive gorge, Zion National Park is like journeying through the gorge, looking up. Within Zion’s more than 200 miles of parkland, there are more than a hundred miles of trail that cross its backcountry. In addition, there are 23 miles of paved trails for less experienced hikers.
Trails in Zion
Unlike some other national parks in Utah, however, winter is very much a factor in hiking at Zion, as is snow coverage. While winter is still mild, the melting can lead to the development of ice along trails. This is particularly true of the park’s most popular trails, including Angels Landing, Emerald Pools, Hidden Canyon, Observation Point, and Weeping Rock. The Visitor Center will always have details about trail conditions, so check before setting out on one of its many trails.
On the east side of the park, most trails are unpaved, and winter hiking is possible. Snowshoes or skis (on the unpaved section) can be fun on the East Rim Trail. East Mesa to Observation Point and East Rim to Cable Mountain and Deertrap Mountain can all be enjoyed by experienced hikers in winter. (Backpacking permits for hiking the Narrows, which may be popular the rest of the year in Zion, are not allowed in winter.)
Coalpits Wash Trail - This trail follows the lowest point of Zion National Park near the base of Cougar Mountain through stands of pinyon and juniper in this desert-like environment. This 14 mile trail requires a good 8 hours of daylight, so it is important to plan accordingly. The trail takes in the following sights: Altar of Sacrifice, Bishopric, and Towers of the Virgin.
Scoggins Wash Trail - This is by far the best winter hiking area in the park, including some fun boulder crossing near the trail’s end. Scoggins is a tributary of the Coalpits, and it drains below the Altar of Sacrifice. The trail is 11 miles in length and requires 7-8 hours.
These trails just begin to scratch the surface of what is available to hikers during the winter in Utah. The state’s bounty of amazing open spaces, kept in their natural state offers the outdoors enthusiast endless possibilities, no matter the season.