Visit Bryce Canyon, a Winter Wonderland in the Desert

Inspiration Point at Bryce Canyon. | Photo by Nicole Ely

Inspiration Point at Bryce Canyon. | Photo by Nicole Ely

Sometimes the best medicine for the holiday hustle and bustle is escape. Luckily, several options in a car with the neon in the rearview can transport you to otherworldly wonder, and Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah provides the perfect blend of seclusion and snowy majesty.

Bryce Canyon became a national park in 1928. The name came from the Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce, who ventured to the area in 1875 with his family and built a road into the cliffs, pink from iron oxidation, for easier access to timber. His road ended at a stone forest of hoodoos, known as the amphitheater, and the settlers began calling it Bryce’s Canyon. Although the frontiersman moved his family to Arizona five years later, the name stuck.

The area has the largest collection of hoodoos in the world. Erosion patterns form these rocky fins and spires that create a collection of skinny, stone giants, through which is a hiker’s paradise. In winter, especially when the temperatures drop to freezing, snow blankets the amphitheater, creating a candy cane-like swirl of red and white.

Thanks to a span of 2,000 feet in elevation, Bryce Canyon is perfect for those who love breathtaking views and animal watching. The elevation allows for three different climatic zones, so hikers can enjoy more than 100 species of birds and more than 1,000 species of plants. The combination of elevation, low humidity and air quality enables visitors to gaze more than 100 miles into the distance on a clear day.

How to get there

Bryce is about four hours from Las Vegas, heading north on Interstate 15. If you have time and want your fill of the high desert, you can take Interstate 9 east to stop in Zion National Park. Otherwise, take Utah State 20 east and follow the signs for Garfield County. If after Bryce you are still feeling the call of the wild, you can venture farther down Utah State 12 east, where the road is sandwiched between national forests and stunning wilderness.

Where to stay

Since winter is low season for tourists, it’s slim pickings when it comes to lodging. Many of the cabins and bed and breakfasts, including the historic Bryce Canyon Lodge inside the park, are closed or have limited availability. If you’re going the inexpensive route, Ruby’s Inn provides a comfortable and whimsical option that’s close to the park entrance. The hotel offers a general store, antique shopping and Western-style photos if you want to dress like a cowboy with your travel companions.

Where to dine

The same issue regarding lodging applies to dining. Bryce Canyon is home to many Western-style steakhouses that shutter or have limited hours for the winter season. The restaurant at the Bryce Canyon Pines motel offers an array of hearty comfort food and are known for their homemade pies. But call ahead, or you might end up with what’s available in the general store.

What to do

Don’t forget some waterproof hiking boots with good tread, because you’ll be missing out if you’re not hiking. Once you pay the $30 entrance fee, you’ll have access to all of Bryce’s wonders for seven days. Drive down the main road and almost any stop will provide amazing lookout points and hikes, but check at the visitors center because rangers will close icy trails deemed too treacherous in the wintertime. The Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden Trail winds among the towering hoodoos, natural bridges and tall pines. At the north end of the park, a short uphill hike to Mossy Cave leads to a cavern with a massive, frozen waterfall.

Once the snow exceeds a foot, more wintery goodness ensues. The park offers full moon snowshoeing hikes, as well as sledding and cross country skiing. If you plan to visit in February, you’ll be in time for the Winter Festival, where the park bustles with archery and snow- sculpting contests, winter sport races and much more.

Don’t miss

For the perfect introduction to the park, watch the sunset at Inspiration Point. This spot is perched above the Silent City, where you can peer at the main amphitheater as it slowly changes from a fiery red to a deep purple as the sun sinks behind the distant mountains. Just don’t go too close to the edge. The steep cliffs can be slippery in the snow.