Every January Matt and I spend a week working in Las Vegas at a big trade show. After many trips to Sin City, Vegas itself is not very exciting but that’s OK because our fun begins when the show ends on Friday. In 2014 we drove to Temecula for a weekend in southern California wine country and last year we road-tripped east through Arizona to beautiful Sedona for a few days. This year we wanted to find another 3-day weekend getaway within driving distance, so after much research Matt and I decided to visit Zion National Park in southeastern Utah.
Why visit Zion from Las Vegas in January? Here were our primary reasons:
- Proximity: Zion is only 2 1/2 hours away from Las Vegas. You can easily drive back to Vegas to fly home, or catch a connecting flight out of the tiny regional airport in St. George, UT (that’s what we did).
- Off-Season: Like many National Parks, Zion is experiencing record numbers of visitors and over-crowding of the single park road, parking lots, and trails is becoming a real issue. We correctly figured that we’d miss out on all of that excitement and have the canyon more or less to ourselves during the third week of January.
- Weather: Zion usually has relatively mild winters and, unlike Bryce Canyon or northern Utah’s ski resorts, Zion usually doesn’t receive huge amounts of snow. We figured Zion’s winter weather would be perfect for hiking and we wouldn’t have to worry about trail or road closures in January. (This didn’t quite pan out!)
All of my research on the weather was well-intentioned, but sometimes you just can’t plan for mother nature. In the weeks before we visited, Zion received unusually heavy rain and snowfall. The rain caused mud and rock slides and, much to my dismay, a 200-ton boulder slide covered and closed the only road in and out of the canyon the Friday night before we left for Vegas. I stalked Zion’s social media all week — would we be able to get into the canyon or should we cancel our trip and plan to go somewhere else?? — and was extremely relieved when the Park Service reopened the road on Thursday, just 48 hours before we arrived. The weather forecast called for near-constant snow and rain, but once the road reopened we were determined to stick to our original itinerary.
Matt and I pulled into Springdale, Utah on Saturday afternoon, just in time to see a snow storm roll over the tops of the mountains around the canyon. We paid our $30 entry fee (good for a 7 day pass) and ventured into wintery Zion. The road along the canyon floor was wet and slushy, but the snow was sticking higher up on the canyon walls and at times the storm made it hard to see the mountain tops. Very dramatic! We hiked the short Riverside Walk trail, took lots of pictures, and ended the afternoon with an early dinner and beer tasting at the Zion Brewery.
Sunday we woke up early, had a massive breakfast at Oscars (one of the few Springdale restaurants that was open during this particular off-season week) and headed back into the canyon. We warmed up with a short hike to Weeping Rock, then headed up the switchbacks next to Weeping Rock for a few hundred yards to catch a better view of yet another storm that was obscuring the opposite canyon wall.
Next, we drove to the Grotto trailhead and hiked along the Kayenta Trail to access the Emerald Pools Trail. Lower Emerald Pools trail was closed due to falling ice, but we were able to hike right up to Middle Emerald Pool… just close enough to see a sign warning us about falling off the edge of the cliff! After a lot of snowy climbing we finally reached Upper Emerald Pool, which had a dramatic waterfall cascading off the top of the canyon into the secluded pool below. We hardly saw anyone on this hike and the waterfall was well worth the climb.
After lunch we decided to check out the Zion-Mt. Carmel tunnel. Completed by the CCC in 1930, this 1.1 mile tunnel is bored directly through the canyon walls. It has a low ceiling, no lighting except for a few gallery “windows” cut out through the cliff walls, and is accessed from the west by driving up a series of harrowing switchbacks on Route 9. Normally I have no issue with steep drop offs, but the precipitation that started out as rain on the canyon floor became progressively snowier as our Jeep climbed up and up towards the tunnel entrance. By the time we got to the tunnel it was snowing heavily and the road was completely covered, so entering the dark, dry tunnel was a bit of a relief… until we came out on the other side and discovered that the snow was MUCH heavier on the east end. We paused for a quick photo, then headed back west through the tunnel and down the snowy switchbacks towards the canyon floor. I think I held my breath for about 5 minutes straight as we made our descent!!
On Monday we set out on our longest hike of the weekend – the trek to Zion’s famous “Angels Landing” viewpoint. Except that we didn’t make it all the way to Angels Landing, which can only be reached by way of a treacherous climb along a narrow, rocky spine with sheer drops on each side. Due to the heavy snow that blanketed the trail and the safety chains Matt and I decided to play it safe and stopped just short of the final viewpoint at a spot known as Scout Lookout. From Scout Lookout we still had a great view of the canyon floor below which was enough for me. After seeing the many signs warning about people falling to their deaths I had no desire to try to attempt the final climb to Angels Landing!
After a satisfying lunch at Cafe Soleil Matt and I decided to give the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel one more try. Although the near-constant drizzle did change over to light snow as we ascended the mountain, the road remained fairly clear and we felt much safer this time around. We repeated the eerie drive through the dark tunnel (with no other cars in sight!) and emerged on the snowy east side again. We wanted to hike the Canyon Overlook Trail which is supposed to have great views of Zion Canyon, but unfortunately yet another storm cloud was obscuring the view. I was a little leery of the steep drop-offs and approaching storm, but Matt was undeterred and insisted we give the rocky cliffside trail a try.
Shortly into our hike we had paused for a photo when Matt excitedly exclaimed, “LOOK!! A GOAT!!!!” And sure enough, a big-horned sheep (we called him a goat the whole time we were up there) was standing squarely on the trail 20 feet ahead of us, utterly unimpressed by our presence. We cautiously watched the “goat” from our spot on the trail, wondering how the heck he managed to end up on a 3 foot wide ledge with a sheer cliff wall above him and a steep drop off below. We didn’t have to wonder for long, however, because soon he decided he’d had enough tourist-watching for one day and casually stepped off the edge of the cliff into a snowy bush for a leafy snack. It was fascinating to see him effortlessly navigate the mountainside! We carefully continued our hike and passed within a few feet of him, right before he launched himself down the near-vertical wall to some lower destination that we couldn’t see over the cliff’s edge. What a cool way to end our trip!
After a safe drive through the tunnel and down the mountain Matt and I exited the Zion National Park for the last time. The storm that was assaulting the tunnel’s east side on the mountaintop was nonexistent down at the southern end of the canyon, and we snapped a few final photographs of the late afternoon sun hitting the canyon walls before calling it a night. At 5AM the next morning we headed to St. George for our flight home, very thankful to have gotten a chance to experience secluded, snowy Zion for a few days after the noise and lights of Las Vegas.
1. We used Joe’s Guide to Zion to research hikes in advance. Highly recommended!
2. You can view my complete Zion photo album on Flickr here: Zion National Park (1/21-23/17)
3. If you’re visiting Zion in winter, consider packing Yaktrax or other traction devices. I’m glad we packed ours!!
4. We stayed at the Desert Pearl Inn which was awesome – great location, nice rooms, and friendly staff. Our favorite restaurants were Oscars (breakfast and dinner) and Bit and Spur.