Many people flock to the national parks during the summer months. Zion and Bryce Canyon National Park are so popular in the summer months that hundreds of shuttles run daily to ferry people around the main areas of the parks. However, my favorite time of the year to visit is during the winter months. The crowds are thin, the air is cool, and if you’re at the right place then snowfall transforms the landscape into your very own winter wonderland.
I love visiting these national parks in the winter months and have been coming back to parks like Zion, Bryce, and Death Valley year after year. My trips typically begin in Las Vegas as it’s the easiest airport (LAS) to fly into. There are plenty of stores around to get all the essentials before heading out.
I’ll try to share the details of my trip while providing some photographic tips and ideas for your own visit. I have quite a few pictures to share so I’ll split up the posts between Zion and Bryce Canyon.
I took the earliest flight into LAS and picked up my rental SUV at 10:30 AM. Zion is around 2 1/2 hours away from Vegas so it’s good to start early if you want to make it into the park by sunset. After picking up some supplies and stopping along the way for lunch, we found ourselves racing against the sun to make it there before sunset. We were staying in Springdale (which is right outside the park) but decided to skip checking in until after sunset. The sun sets around 4:30 in the afternoon during the winter months so you don’t get much daylight.
We didn’t have much time the first night so opted for the popular bridge overlook area. It’s actually a little before the bridge – there are a few pullouts where you can step down into the trail below. It’s amazing how much a difference clouds can make. We were blessed with beautiful clouds for most of our trip this year (last year, 8 out of 10 days in UT were clear skies for me).
After sunset we headed back into Springdale to check-in and have dinner. I would highly recommend Porter’s Smokehouse for dinner.
One of the benefits of winter trips is that sun rises much later. In December you can catch sunrise anytime from 7:30 to as late as 8 AM. That’s great for those who don’t enjoy waking up extra early. For our first sunrise of the trip, we were pleased to see the clouds still out. My guess was that it would be a spectacular show of light and boy were we not disappointed.
The light dusting of snow definitely adds to the feel of the photos. In my previous visits to the park, there was always light snow (but only when I was leaving the park!), so I was excited to be able to incorporate that into my photos.
Throughout the trip, I found myself using a telephoto lens more often. Even in an area as tight and narrow as Zion, I found myself wanting to get closer to subjects and my 70-200 really came in handy for that.
After a hearty breakfast in town we went back into Zion for a hike to Angel’s Landing. Angel’s Landing is a very popular moderate 4.4 mile hike (~2100 elevation). Search for photos and you’ll see how crowded the place gets. I would advise on having the proper gear before you do any of the higher elevation hikes in Zion. Many of the trails will be icy and some form of traction is recommended. I would recommended carrying microspikes + trekking poles. We passed many people coming up / down without them and they didn’t look very comfortable (or safe).
By the third day the clouds started rolling in. Thick and blanketing clouds covered the sky for most of the day. Rain mixed with snow hit throughout the day. We spent the morning exploring what I like to call “Upper Zion”. This is basically the east side of the park (on highway 9). The landscape up here is vastly different from what you see on the canyon floor. The landscape is littered with endless patterns and abstracts to capture.
For the afternoon, we headed up to Kolob Terrace. To get to Kolob Terrace you have to exit the park and head north at the fork near the town of Virgin. It’s around 45 minutes drive from Springdale. We planned to hike Wildcat Canyon but the road was closed 5-6 miles out from the trailhead. Instead we spent the rest of the day exploring from various pull outs and trailheads in the terrace area. There’s a ‘plains’ like feel to a lot of it.
Zion is an amazing place. It’s definitely a jewel of Utah. It amazes me how vastly different it looks each time I visit. I tend to come during the same time of year but each time it’s been a total joy to capture. I hope my photos can do justice for the vast beauty of the national parks but you really have to see these places for yourself.
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