January 10, 2020 - 2:38 pm
Bryce Canyon National Park is an extraordinary place any time of year, but in winter it’s even more magnificent, not to mention more affordable.
While the park is called a canyon, it is actually made up of 12 natural amphitheaters on the eastern escarpment of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in southwestern Utah.
In these natural steep and wide gullies there are spires and pinnacles of red, orange and pink limestone that have been carved into fantastic shapes by frost wedging. This form of erosion takes place during the 200 or so days of winter when temperatures alternate between freezing and thawing.
Thawing allows water to fill cracks in the rock; it freezes that night and wedges the crack a little wider. Eventually, a piece of rock will fall away.
The remaining shapes suggest grotesque living beings. To some imaginations they seemed scary and thus were named “hoodoos.”
Most visitors come from late spring to fall, but if you go in winter, you’ll have added treats. With snow, the hoodoos’ colors seem more vibrant and you can cross-country ski, snowshoe and take part in other winter activities. Winter lodging rates are cheaper, and you won’t encounter crowds at the overlooks or on trails.
The average snowfall in both January and February is 17 inches with March receiving about 15 inches. Elevations in the park range from 8,000 to 9,115 feet. In January and February, expect average high temperatures in the 30s, dipping into the mid-teens overnight. But temperatures can be much colder. On a couple of occasions, I’ve experienced overnight lows here in the minus-20s.
The park has a 7.4-magnitude night sky, which means on a clear, moonless night you could see 7,500 stars. On a clear day, from many of the viewpoints, you can see about 100 miles.
The 35th annual Bryce Canyon Winter Festival will take place on Presidents Day weekend, Feb. 15 to 17. This event features free clinics, demonstrations, tours and ranger programs, both indoors and outdoors, with some suitable for all ages. Highlights include ski and archery clinics and serious competitions, such as an archery biathlon and cross-country ski races. Some others are just for fun, such as the Kids’ Snow Boot Races.
Most of the festival takes place in or around Ruby’s Inn just outside the park’s entrance, but there are a few great programs in the park itself, such as stargazing with telescopes and geology talks. For a full schedule of events, call 866-866-6616 or visit rubysinn.com/bryce-canyon-winter-festival.
The visitor center is the place to start any Bryce Canyon outing. Its exhibits include geology, wildlife and prehistoric culture, and there is a fine book and gift store. Be sure to inquire about trail conditions, pick up some maps or learn about the winter ranger programs.
These include, weather permitting, the Bryce Canyon Snowshoe Program, a ranger-guided outing to introduce the winter wonders of the park. This usually lasts about two hours, and they will also outfit you with snowshoes and poles. You must provide your own snow boots or waterproof hiking boots, gloves, hats and appropriate winter clothing.
While the park is open 24/7 year-round, the visitor center is open daily 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with extended hours spring through fall. It is closed Christmas and New Year’s days. Contact the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center at 435-834-5322 or visit nps.gov/brca.
If you go
Lodging: Good options are the Best Western Ruby’s Inn (866-866-6616 or rubysinn.com) and Bryce View Lodge (888-279-2304 or bryceviewlodge.com).
Winter warning: After major winter storms the 18-mile scenic drive main road could be closed beyond Mile 3 for one to two days to remove snow. Also, some trails remain closed for the season because of steep and dangerous conditions; these include the popular Wall Street, and the Rim Trail from Bryce Point to Inspiration Point. In winter, Fairyland Point Road and Paria View Roads are open only to human-powered activities such as cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.
What to pack: Traction devices that easily slip onto your boots are needed for walking on the snowy and icy trails or even visiting the viewpoints. Most outdoor stores in Las Vegas sell them, but you can usually pick them up at the Ruby’s Inn general store or the visitor center. If you didn’t pack skis or snowshoes but want to head out on your own on some of the groomed trails, head over to the Ruby’s Inn Adventure Center. There you can get outfitted with skis, poles, snowshoes, or skates for their ice rink.