18 Dec Discover Bryce Canyon National Park in winter. Take a virtual tour now; plan a future travel adventure
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Bryce Canyon is spectacular to visit in December, January and February when peak season crowds are gone
Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park claims the world’s largest concentration of hoodoos – colorful rock spires jutting out of the ground to form weird columns shaped by time, wind and water. An average 400,000 people visit monthly in summer season to marvel at this otherworldly magic. We’d like to suggest that you visit in winter when the crowds are one-tenth that size and mother nature paints the signature orange and red rock hoodoos with a layer of white snow.
The current winter season may NOT be the time to visit Bryce Canyon. We advocate heeding the advice of public health experts regarding travel, so Bryce Canyon National Park may be a trip you enjoy virtually through these words and photos for now — and visit in the future.
Falling in love with Bryce Canyon National Park in winter
We fell in love with Bryce as a winter destination during a January 2020 trip that also included Zion National Park and state parks Coral Pink Sand Dunes and Snow Canyon. Awestruck and anxious for more, we intend to visit Bryce in winter again in the future.
Peter Densmore is one lucky dude who calls Bryce Canyon his workplace. The National Park Service ranger works at the park year-round and assisted Wandering Rose Travels with this article.
Densmore describes the magical Bryce winter landscape this way, “Winter snow and light enhance the colors, especially in the afternoon when snow melt wets the rock,” Densmore said. Winter sun hits the hoodoos at lower angle, producing an intense glow and making them appear lit from within. Snow also outlines many features that blend in otherwise.
“I describe the snow cap as icing on a cake,” Densmore continued. “Things are always better with a little icing. First-time winter visitors walk to rim of Bryce Canyon and have an awestruck moment. It’s unlike anything they have ever seen.”
We can validate Densmore’s description, experiencing our own awestruck moment … which actually lasted the entire two-day visit.
Bryce Canyon in winter: The silence is profound
“The silence is fantastic, profound” Densmore continues in describing how Bryce Canyon is different in winter season. “Already naturally quiet, the dampening effect of snow and lower visitation makes it easy to find a park location where you feel like you are the only person there.”
Some people refer to hoodoos as “fairy chimneys” because of their whimsical shape. The odd shapes survive erosion because a hard rock cap protects the softer stone column below.
Bryce Canyon National Park sits along the edge of a plateau, the highest section of Grand Staircase, a geological formation that stair steps from Bryce down to the Grand Canyon.
Elevation at the park’s entrance is 7,900 feet. A 19-mile main road travels the length of the park to reach 9,100 feet at its end. Snow usually appears in Bryce by December and may still be on the ground in May. The months of January to March see the most snowfall, an average of 17.5 inches each month.
We live in Piedmont North Carolina where snowfall is rare — and when it does occur, just a dusting. So hiking and snowshoeing Bryce Canyon’s trails surrounded by snow makes us giddy as small children.
Many visit Bryce Canyon without ever exploring the trails, taking advantage of 13 viewpoints with parking nearby to peer into the park’s 12 horseshoe-shaped canyons and marvel at the views that can extend 100 miles or more in winter. If that is the extent of your comfort level, you will have a marvelous experience. But if you are able, we hope you spend a couple of nights and explore this natural wonder on foot.
Winter lodging and dining options at Bryce Canyon
Winter lodging options within the park are limited to one campground (brrrrr) and the Sunset Hotel, though the hotel typically closes in January and February. Lodging and dining operations cease at the popular Bryce Canyon Lodge for winter.
Year-round lodging and dining are just outside the park entrance at Bryce City. Ruby’s Inn and Best Western Bryce Canyon Grand Hotel are the larger hotels. You can explore these and other lodgings at the Bryce Canyon City website.
We stayed at the 164-room Best Western which included a nice breakfast buffet (this was in January 2020, before COVID). There were only a handful of guests. I equate a winter stay here as social distancing before social distancing was a thing. We dined and shopped at Ruby’s Inn across the street. It was a pleasant delight after a recent, extensive renovation project. And winter’s sparse crowds means you can park right at the door, walk in and be seated. Quite a contrast to summer when buses and vehicles jam this gateway to the Bryce Canyon entrance.
Other dining options can be found in nearby Tropic. The short drive from the park is beautiful. Research what is open and call before you go! We found winter hours to be sporadic and variable. Trip Advisor is a good resource for restaurant research.
Advice for Bryce Canyon winter visitors to stay safe
Ice is the main cause of winter injuries in the park. Densmore encourages park visitors to use traction devices on their boots to avoid slips and falls. “Bryce Canyon is extremely icy in winter,” Densmore said. “Traction devices for boots and shoes are important even on parking lots and short walks.”
We, like much of the Wandering Rose Travels audience, are baby boomers and seniors. Not as agile as we once were, we advise readers that traction cleats are essential for a Bryce Canyon winter visit. Our YakTrak brand traction cleats slip easily on and off hiking boots and are worth their weight in gold for safety and confidence. We also advocate the use of hiking or ski poles for balance assistance.
We asked Denmore for advice on how to dress for Bryce Canyon’s cold, windy winter days. He advises checking the park’s website prior to your visit to check the weather forecast and for the latest closings.
Some Bryce Canyon visitors experience altitude sickness. Symptoms include headache, nausea, lack of energy and appetite. Drinking plenty of fluids and taking it easy the first day or two at altitude can help. Physical exertion like hiking increases the risk.
Bryce Canyon hiking can be a challenge. According to the park’s website, Bryce’s high altitude means your lungs get up to 30 percent less oxygen than you might be used to. The other challenge is most of Bryce Canyon’s trails begin at the top rim of the mountain and descent into the canyons. The website cautions visitors to “turn back BEFORE you become tired.” You might feel giddy and powerful hiking down into the bowls, but hiking back up steep trails is a completely different experience.
We encourage winter visitors to get out and explore. Bryce Canyon is best experienced away from the viewing areas up close and personal on the trails. Most hiking trails remain open year-round. Exceptions are the Wall Street side of Navajo Loop Trail and a section of the Rim Trail from Bryce Point to Inspiration Point which close in winter for safety. Fairyland Point Road and Paria View Roads close in winter to allow for cross country skiing, snowshoeing and other winter activities.
Winter driving tips in Bryce Canyon National Park
Chains on vehicles are not required within the park, but ice is possible on roads. “The park uses cinders on roads instead of salt to protect vegetation and wildlife,” Denmore said. “Ice is prevalent in winter. In fact, ice is the primary shaper of the signature hoodoo rock formations.” Stay alert. Safety should always be your primary concern.
The National Park Service does a great job of keeping roads and parking areas clear of snow within the park. Plows begin road clearing before sunrise whenever new snowfalls overnight. Clearing the first three miles of the park main road is a priority. This provides visitors access to the visitor’s center plus the popular Bryce, Inspiration, Sunset and Sunrise viewpoints.
Top winter things to do at Bryce Canyon
If you have one day: If you have a full day, Densmore recommends driving the main road to its end at the higher elevation southern viewpoints. “Winter has the best air quality and longest views,” Densmore said. “Often you can see more than 100 miles”.
Rainbow Point, Yovimpa Point and Natural Bridge are among his favorite viewpoints at the park’s highest elevation section. This section of the park gets more snow and less hiker traffic than more popular sections, so Densmore cautions that some hikes are not possible because of snow depth without snowshoes and cross-country skis. Rental equipment is available just outside the park entrance at Bryce Canyon City.
Backtracking along the main road after visiting the southern end, stop at the park’s most popular overlooks — Bryce, Inspiration, Sunset and Sunrise Points. A section of the Rim Trail connects Sunset and Sunrise Points. The one-mile round trip is flat with spectacular views into Bryce Amphitheatre. It is icy. To safely walk the trail, you need traction control devices for your shoes! Poles, too.
Looking for a more challenging winter hike. Our favorite hike any season, but especially winter, begins by taking the Queen’s Garden Trail from Sunrise Point down into Bryce Amphitheatre. The trail connects with Navajo Loop, which ascends back to the rim at Sunset Point. No park shuttles run in winter season, but it’s an easy half-mile walk on the Rim Trail back to your car at Sunrise Point. Note: Wall Street section of Navajo Loop Trail closes during the winter season.
If you have two or more days: Check out the overlooks you missed on day one. Experience both sunrise and sunset to see how the rising and setting sun paints the park like a masterpiece.
See what guided programs the park offers during your visit. Densmore recommends taking a ranger-guided snowshoe hike. Hikes are offered most days for ages 8 and older with same-day signup at the visitor center. Snowshoes and poles are provided at no charge for the 1.5 hours hike. Hike locations are ranger choices and vary depending on recent snowfall.
Densmore describes the snowshoe hikes as “moderately strenuous.” We can vouch for that rating as accurate. Our snowshoe hike at 9,100 feet elevation through 12-plus inches of fresh powdery snow left us gasping for air but energized. Dress in layers. We quickly shed most of what we had on as our bodies warmed quickly trudging through deep fresh snow. Take water. Altitude, cold weather and the physical endurance required for snowshoeing make water a great idea to keep you hydrated.
A benefit of ranger-guided snowshoe hikes is getting to go places in that park that are not accessible in summer.
Other winter activities include a full moon hike, cross-country skiing, winter bird count, rim walk, hoodoo geology talk and nighttime constellation tours.
You can also cross-country ski and snowshoe designated sections of the park on your own. Rental equipment is available at Bryce Canyon City just outside the park gate.
Explore other day hikes. Mossy Cave Trail lets you explore the park at a lower elevation. The payoff at the end is Mossy Cave, a grotto created by an underground spring that produces spectacular pillars of icicles.
When is the best time to visit Bryce Canyon?
Visitation to Bryce Canyon National Park March tapers off for the season beginning in November, with Christmas and Thanksgiving spikes. Snow arrives in December, with January and February getting the most snow. January and February mark the core of shoulder season. By mid-March, visitation starts to increase. Park shuttles begin seasonal operation in April. By Memorial Day the peak of visitation is underway and continues through mid-October.