Here’s the best winter road trip through Utah
Experience iconic landscapes blanketed by snow—and free of summer crowds.
“The Greatest Snow on Earth” isn’t just Utah’s slogan—it’s an assertion backed by data, says Jim Steenburgh, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Utah. His work puts the Beehive State’s soft powder in a special category. With 10 ski resorts an hour’s drive from Salt Lake City International Airport and five national parks that transform into magical scenes as flakes fall from the sky—the average statewide rate is a foot every five days—Utah is a snow hound’s paradise from December into March.
Southern Utah remains the state’s less-touristed, higher-value winter destination. Locales that swarm with visitors in summer are now free of crowds, offering opportunities to lay down the first ski, snowboard, or snowshoe tracks at easygoing resorts prized for their personal service and short lift lines. All you’ll need to bring is an eagerness for new experiences in some of America’s most iconic landscapes. To keep up with weather conditions and any road closures, download the UDOT Traffic app before you take the wheel.
Stop 1: Bryce Canyon National Park
Home to Earth’s largest concentration of hoodoos—stone spires, here in pink and orange hues—Bryce Canyon National Park is a Utah treasure, and perhaps especially so in winter, when the fantastically shaped columns are dusted with snow. Scope out the park’s landscapes by cross-country skiing along some 20 miles of groomed trails with Bryce Valley Tours. For a closer look, head to Bryce’s Inspiration, Sunset, or Bryce Points, minding icy rims when posing for photos. On your way out of the park, refuel at Bryce Canyon Pines Restaurant, a 1930s diner and former dance hall where lunch isn’t over until you’ve tucked into a slice of homemade pie.
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Stop 2: Eagle Point Resort
A favorite among in-the-know locals, Eagle Point ski resort doesn’t need frills to keep snow fans coming back. Each ski run becomes a meditation as you glide down tree-lined pitches that receive some 400 inches of snow yearly. Slope averse? Rent snowshoes from the resort’s Skyline Lodge and tramp around frozen Puffer Lake. The lodge’s ski-in, ski-out condos make for cozy kips, while hot tubs and sunset views soothe sore muscles.
Stop 3: Brian Head Resort
A small ski resort with a big personality, Brian Head has something for all ages and abilities. Its ski school offers a range of classes, and its slopes include mellow runs as well as lights for evening skiing, snowboarding, and tubing. The stars shine brightly above the resort’s Navajo Lodge, where rangers from Cedar Breaks National Monument wax celestial about the designated International Dark Sky. Peer through telescopes, a cup of hot cocoa in hand.
Stop 4: Cedar City
Winter turns Cedar City’s historic downtown into a snowglobe-sweet postcard of times past. The former mining center’s vintage buildings house independent shops such as the mid-century emporium Bulloch Drug, where clothing and other wares share a roof with a tastefully restored (and tasty) soda fountain. A few blocks east, find the Rock Church, a Latter-day Saints landmark with unusual cobblestone walls. Sample wines at one of the area’s top vintners, IG Winery, then continue two blocks west to the Southern Utah Museum of Art, a trove of regional creativity housed in a striking white edifice.
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Stop 5: Springdale
Maybe it’s because the tiny town of Springdale is the gateway to Zion National Park, but the air around its web of streets practically vibrates with anticipation. Adding to its cachet: a designation as one of the “prettiest towns” in the country. Red-rock peaks and steep canyons ring Springdale’s valley setting, tempting visitors to head straight into Utah’s first national park. Instead, follow the sparkle of crystal to Zion Rock & Gem, and choose a geode. The staff will crack it open and tell you all about it. In winter, businesses here tend to close at sunset—but not Bit & Spur. For decades, travelers have counted on the saloon for home cooking, Utah-crafted spirits, and an enlightened sensibility: More than 90 percent of the solid waste here is recycled, and frying oil is donated to locals to power their cars.
Stop 6: Zion National Park
One of the most visited national parks in the United States, Zion is popular for its bucket-list options. High on the list is the rugged hike to Observation Point, which rewards winter visitors with uncrowded conditions and one of the park’s loftiest lookouts, over views such as the snowcapped slab of rock dubbed Angels Landing (itself a precarious trek in icy circumstances). Also accessible year-round is the deep gorge known as the Narrows. To experience this Zion showpiece, rent dry suits and wet boots from Zion Outfitter, then wade through the chilled, stone-dotted waters of the Virgin River, between 1,000-foot-high canyon walls. Look for waterfalls frozen in place, seasonal works of ice art.
Stop 7: Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
It’s almost impossible to drive past Mount Carmel Junction’s Thunderbird Restaurant, with its neon sign touting “ho-made pies.” Built as a diner and fueling station in 1931, the eatery still tempts truckers with complimentary pie slices that, you’ll discover, live up to the hype. Fueled, drive south to Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park—and a watercolor come to life. Nearly 4,000 acres of sandstone dunes tinted soft pink, orange, and gold seem to shift before your eyes, particularly at sunset. This is the only home of the coral pink sand dunes tiger beetle, distinguished by a metallic back stripe that flashes rose gold. For a thrill, rent a sand board or sled at the ranger station and carve turns down the steepest pitch you can climb.
Stop 8: Kanab
Before it became a hub for adventure types, Kanab, with its dramatic canyon setting, drew filmmakers of Western movies. More than a hundred films and TV shows, starring the likes of Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, were shot here, all celebrated at the Little Hollywood Museum. A walk around town also reveals film-set remnants. Animal lovers, too, flock to Kanab to visit the 20,000-acre Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, a refuge in Angel Canyon that on any given day shelters some 1,600 dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, birds, and other critters. You can tour the compound, play with adoptable animals, even volunteer. On your last night, check in to the new Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile, a 40-room hotel and general store that serves vegan food and takes pet friendly to a whole new level.
- Nat Geo Expeditions