Frosted Enchantment: Winter In The Southwest

 Every winter, I consider taking a seasonal break from guiding to rest, rejuvenate and visit friends who live in a warmer climate. But I just can’t bring myself to do it. I’ll miss too much. Simply sitting indoors long enough to write this blog post was a challenge. Just out my window, fog drifted along the vermilion cliffs and billowy white snow clung to each bright red ledge. I could not take my eyes off it. One Christmas Eve, ice crystals tumbled from the sky, glistening in the sun like diamonds, creating a colorful rainbow over North Coyote Buttes. And in the winter silence, we could actually hear the snowflakes bouncing off the brilliant sandstone walls of Peekaboo Slot Canyon.

Winter brings a certain magic to the desert. Yes, weather can be less predictable. Cold stormy days may bring gray skies and biting wind. Deep snow and the mud it leaves behind occasionally, but very rarely cancels tours. Icy conditions make some trails, like Angel’s Landing in Zion, dangerous. It’s a risk you take when you make travel plans in the dead of winter. But serious landscape photographers know the risk can pay off big. If you’ve ever been to Bryce or the South Rim of the Grand Canyon the day after a snowstorm, you know.

What kind of weather can I expect during the winter?

The average high temperature in January is 48 degrees. That means, half the days get warmer than 48, but half the days stay colder. When it’s 50 degrees and sunny, temperatures are absolutely ideal for hiking. (We see 256 days of sunshine each year so sun is likely) However, we do see some winter days that barely break freezing. If it’s cloudy or windy, it feels cold!  Kanab averages 21 inches of snow each year, but it doesn’t tend to accumulate or linger. Bring warm winter gear and traction devices for your shoes just in case.

Here are the big advantages to visiting southern Utah in winter:

Leave the crowds behind.

As November advances, the bustling crowds start to abandon even the most popular trails. Traffic thins, voices vanish and a stillness returns to the desert. If you can avoid visiting during Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s, you’ll find hiking areas more deserted and parking spaces available. You can even drive your own car right up Zion Canyon Scenic Drive before Thanksgiving and in January, check the Zion shuttle schedule.

Save money.

Hotel rates are significantly less in the off season. A quick glance at rates in January revealed many rooms at Kanab’s popular hotels for $60 per night, and even one of our favorites, Canyons Boutique, offered some dates for under $100. Gas prices also typically drop in winter. And some travelers take advantage of sweet package deals like our Winter Stay & Play special that includes three nights at Canyons Boutique, dinner at the award-winning Sego Restaurant, two full days of touring with Dreamland and really cool upgrades like hot breakfast and free entry into the Wave lottery for $749!

Better odds at scoring coveted permits.

Speaking of the Wave lottery, fewer visitors means less competition for hard-to-get permits. Odds of winning the daily Wave lottery are no longer published but we know from years past that odds of winning Wave or South Coyote Buttes permits are much better when visitation is down. Utilize the Stay and Play special or book a Conditional Tour and we’ll enter those lotteries for you. Other permit lotteries, such as Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park will also have better odds in the winter.

Cool and comfortable.

Most locals save their biggest outdoor pursuits for winter, when it’s possible to go long and hard without getting hot and exhausted. Even when it’s cold and cloudy, one can layer up and charge it vs. summer months when staying cool and avoiding heat exhaustion are important considerations.

Earlier sunsets.

With sunsets around 5:30 p.m. in the dead of winter, one can find an incredible national park view, linger for sunset, then head back to town for dinner. Or be out for that golden hour glow while you’re on tour with us. It’s hard to deliver that in summer when the sun sets so much later.

Soft sunlight.

In the winter, that giant nuclear reactor in the sky hangs lower and casts a calm, soft hue across the landscape. Lack of stark shadows and harsh light that washes away brilliant colors provides the conditions photographers seek.

Packed sand.

Trudging through sand is a lot of work. Cold, moist temperatures make hiking through it so much easier. This is the best time to tackle one of our challenging sandy trips such as the Amazing Sandstone Teepees, the Wave or the seldom seen Paw Hole area of South Coyote Buttes. Charge it!

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