Weekend Warrior: Chill Thrills

Winter visits to Bryce and Zion national parks offer off-season rates and epic adventures

By Geoff Griffin and Kathleen Curry

During the warm months of spring, summer and fall, people from all over the world flock by the millions to Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks. In the winter, the crowds drop like the temperatures. It’s a time for Wasatch-Fronters to enjoy their own recreational backyard with less stress, moderate temperatures and an increased wildlife presence in the parks. The following itinerary aims to give northern Utahns a chance to experience the beauty and sunshine of southern Utah in the coldest months of the year.


Thursday

The quickest route to adventure

Thursday afternoon
SLC to Manti

Consider taking the scenic route on your way south on U.S. Route 89, which runs through the heart of Utah both literally, and figuratively, as you enjoy the scenery of farms and historic, small towns. Take Interstate 15 south into Utah County. Near Spanish Fork, you’ll see signs for US-6 going east toward Price. Hop on for about 15 miles before following the signs for US-89 to Ephraim and Manti.

It’s about a two-hour drive to reach Manti, where you can stop for dinner at Dirk’s Farmhouse Restaurant.  The restaurant is known for its chicken Marsala, or you can experience the same bacon-mushroom sauce on top of a Marsala burger. For dessert, check out the deep-fried xangos. What’s a xango? All you need to know is that it’s a mixture of cheesecake, bananas, caramel and tortillas cut into small chunks. Did we mention that it’s deep-fried?

Thursday night
Manti to Bryce Canyon

After dinner, head another two hours south on US-89 before taking a left onto Utah State Route 12 in Panguitch, and driving east for a half hour to arrive at Ruby’s Inn  This well-known establishment has been housing travelers since 1916 just outside of Bryce Canyon National Park.


Friday

Friday Morning
Bryce Canyon National Park

After a good night’s rest at Ruby’s, start the day by enjoying the sunrise on a 9-mile drive to the east on UT-12 to the town of Tropic. There you’ll find Bryce Canyon Coffee Co. which has all the coffee and tea combinations you’ll want, as well as baked goods and Wi-Fi.

Friday Afternoon

When figuring out what to do at Bryce Canyon in the winter, the same instructions apply as during the summer. Make sure you know what the weather will be like and be prepared with proper clothing, hydration and emergency gear. It’s always a good idea to stop by the visitor’s center and talk to a ranger about which trails are open and clear, and what to expect.

If you want to just look out on the beauty of Bryce Canyon, the snow is usually cleared off the Rim Trail sidewalks from Sunrise to Sunset points. The parking lots for the four overlooks into the canyon Amphitheater also are plowed after every storm.

Some roads are intentionally left unplowed so that visitors can enjoy cross-country skiing or snowshoeing. If you’d like to give the latter a try, check out the Bryce Canyon Snowshoe Program. It’s free, and they’ll provide not only the equipment, but also a ranger to guide you around. Sessions typically take about two hours.

Outside of the park, Ruby’s Inn has its own ice-skating rink, and can also set you up with local outfitters to do a range of winter recreation activities, including snowmobiling and sleigh rides.

Also, consider setting aside Presidents Day Weekend (Feb. 16-18) to attend the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival for three days of indoor and outdoor fun.

Friday Night

Head back to Ruby’s Inn at the end of the day and get ready for dinner at the Cowboy’s Buffet and Steak Room, located on the property. As the name indicates, your options include going with a buffet or classic steak plates, but you might also want to consider trying the wild-mushroom stuffed ravioli smothered in Alfredo sauce, made fresh daily.


Saturday 

Zion National Park dusted with snow

Saturday Morning

You’ll want to get an early start before spending the day in Zion National Park. The good news is that from the end of November until early March, Zion shuts down its shuttle service, so you can drive through the park at your own pace. The bad news is that when all of the parking spots are filled around the park, the staff may decide not to let new cars in until some have left. The early bird not only gets the worm but also full access to the park.

Head back west on UT-12 and then turn south onto US-89. It’s about an hourlong drive to get to Mount Carmel Junction, where US-89 intersects with UT-9. The Thunderbird Restaurant (435-648-2203) sits right on one of the corners of that junction. You can’t miss it because you won’t be able to ignore the large sign reading, “Home of the Ho-Made Pies.” It may have seemed like a clever play on words when the owners came up with the phrase in 1931, but a 21st-century audience may see it as unintentionally funny.

Since it’s breakfast time, you might want to skip the pie, but you can still get “Ho-made biscuits” as part of a dish called “Ernest’s stuffed biscuits,” which features bakery items stuffed with sausage and scrambled eggs and smothered in country gravy.

From Mount Carmel Junction, it’s a 30-minute drive west on UT-9 to go through the east entrance to Zion National Park and reach the parking lot for the Canyon Overlook Trail. The hike is only a milelong with slight elevation, but there is uneven terrain and steep drop-offs. The name tells you why it’s worth the effort.

Once you leave the trail, it takes just a couple of minutes to get to the Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. This 1.1 mile tunnel was completed in 1930 as a way to get from Bryce Canyon to Zion. It still functions nearly 90 years later and has several cut-out “window” sections along the way with stunning views into the park.

In terms of hikes and activities in the park, again, check the weather and speak with the rangers. Average highs in Zion in the winter months can be in the high 50s and low 60s, making for exceptional hiking weather. However, it gets dark early and temperatures drop to below freezing at night so watch the time and beware of ice.

While many animals are hibernating in Zion, winter can also be a great time to see bighorn sheep, elk, deer and eagles.

Depending on the weather, you might be able to cross-country ski or snowshoe between the East Rim Trail and Observation Point. Given the daytime highs, snow can melt quickly so make sure to check ahead to see if there is actually any white stuff on the ground.

Saturday Night

You won’t have to leave the park if you stay at Zion National Park Lodge and take advantage of its winter bed-and-breakfast package, which includes a night in a hotel room, suite or cabin along with breakfast for two at the on-site Red Rock Grill.

That restaurant will also be where you’ll get dinner on Saturday night. Red Rock is noted for its chef-created Navajo tacos or Western bison meatloaf. Whatever main dish you order, the menu gives you recommended wine and beer pairings.


Sunday

A giant peeks through the clouds at Zion National Park

Zion National Park to SLC

Enjoy breakfast dishes at Red Rock, such as omelets or pancakes, or give the “Weeping Rock Waffle” a try before heading out to get in one last short hike or drive around the park.

Take the West Entrance out of the park into the town of Springdale. Before you travel UT-9 over to I-15 north for the four-hour drive home, you may want to stop in at MeMe’s Cafe. Whether morning, noon, or night, MeMe’s is known for crepes. Popular combos include “Momma’s Favorite”—Nutella, banana, chocolate drizzle, powdered sugar and whipped cream—or the “Savory”—cheese, spinach with roasted red-pepper aioli.

In the spring, summer and fall, Bryce Canyon and Zion are places where the world can come to marvel at nature’s majestic beauty. In the winter months, they are still there, but this time to be used as a playground for Utahns

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