I had wanted to visit the national parks in Utah for years. Unfortunately (or fortunately) international trips seemed to take up most of our vacation days. Long holiday weekends sounded like some the busiest times to visit. Finally, after A LOT of international travel in 2018 and deciding to visit family over Christmas, we were left with the option of staying in San Diego over New Years or taking a road trip. A road trip to Utah won!

While Zion and Bryce are two of the most popular parks in Utah, they are also the closest in driving distance from San Diego, and the warmest in winter! We also ended up visiting them during the government shutdown, but Utah had paid to keep them open and staffed through the end of the year. Zion even had shuttles running the week between Christmas and New Years, which I thought would be frustrating but after being in the park I realized the shuttle system was much more efficient than a line of traffic and since it wasn’t peak season we never had to wait for an empty shuttle – there was always space for us to get on.

Zion National Park

Where to Stay

There are tons of hotels in Springdale, the town sitting at the entrance to Zion. Not wanting to pay a ton for a standard chain hotel, we opted for the Canyon Vista Lodge, that ended up being more like an Airbnb. We had own private wing of a house, with a king-sized bed, living room, kitchenette, and full bath. While it wasn’t immediately next to any restaurants, you were a short drive from all of the restaurants, the couple of bars, and the entrance to Zion. Considering it was the middle of winter and we wouldn’t be walking anywhere anyhow, this place was the perfect fit for us!

What to Do

Hike! If you’re thinking about going to visit Zion and Bryce, chances are you like to hike (or at least take some walks). We had limited time so we decided to hit the popular spots:

Angel’s Landing – we did this hike first thing in the morning our first day. We had a chilly start but the weather felt nice as we started ascending and the sun started coming out. We had to contend with some snow and ice towards the top and throughout some of the chained areas so I’d definitely recommend wearing appropriate footwear and even bringing microspikes depending on the conditions and how comfortable you are hiking on ice on the side of a cliff.

Tip: I’d try and get an early (or late) start on this hike to (hopefully) avoid the worst of the crowds. Coming and going holding on to one chain can be a bit sketchy so I can only imagine what it’s like in the middle of the day during peak season!

Angel's Landing, Zion National Park
Angel's Landing, Zion National Park

Weeping Rock – this isn’t really a hike, so much as a very, very short walk to a rock that appears to be weeping because of all of the water falling off of it. However, since we were visiting in the dead of winter the very short walk was actually slighty treacherous, some parts being completely covered in ice. Weeping Rock was also completely covered in ice. However, since we were visiting during the late morning once the sun had shone on the icicles for quite some time a lot of melting was going on – those brave enough to head underneath the rock risked being hit. Toby was lucky to escape with only one hitting his shoulder.

Tip: no, it’s not a hike, but it’s pretty cool and it’s a quick stop on the shuttle. Definitely worth snapping a few pictures and taking a hiking break.

Weeping Rock, Zion National Park

The Narrows – I’ll have to admit, the idea of hiking in 37-degree water on a 40-degree day wasn’t the best. But, we rented our dry suits and boots, neoprene socks and walking sticks and were in the water by 9am on New Years Eve. Since walking upstream is a pretty solid workout, I didn’t really find myself feeling very cold unless we stopped or reached a point that was exceptionally deep (think, top of your legs deep – we didn’t have full suits on so anything more would have meant actually getting wet, with 37-degree water). Being in The Narrows was really cool and different than anything either of us had done before. Catching the light hitting the rock walls at different times of the day was beautiful.

Tip: Get an early start if you want to hike for awhile! We ended up hiking for a lot longer than we anticipated and I, for one, did not bring enough snacks.

The Narrows - Zion National Park
The Narrows - Zion National Park

Helicopter Ride – a Christmas gift for Toby, that also tried to make up for the weather that canceled our helicopter ride in New Zealand the year before, this experience did not disappoint. We used the company Zion Helicopters who is based out of Hurricane, about 30 minutes drive from Springdale (also, if you are driving in or out of Springdale you could consider doing this activity as one of your first or last things, but either way it’s an easy drive).

Zion National Park

We opted to go at 4 pm (sunset was around 5:30 pm) and chose the private helicopter ride with a butte landing. We flew around a bit right outside of Zion and landed on a butte where we popped open a bottle of champagne and that the whole place and some amazing views to ourselves.

Zion National Park
Zion National Park

Visit Bryce – yes, of course, Bryce Canyon National Park deserves its own blog post and more than a day trip, but, on limited time that’s all the time we could afford.

Since it was winter, the sun didn’t rise until after 7:30 am. We decided we’d wake up early and make the two-hour drive in the dark to catch the sunrise. We were a few minutes late but still got some pretty amazing shots!

Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park

We knew that some of the roads would be closed for the season, but while we there it seemed like almost all of them were – perhaps they weren’t plowing due to the government shut down – we’re not sure. At this point it seemed like we could only drive in between Sunrise and Sunset Points so we decided we’d hike down to hike from one to another. While Bryce was busy at the top of the canyon during sunrise, there were times on this hike down into the canyon where we couldn’t hear or see another soul. Visiting one of the most popular parks in Utah and being alone? Definitely not something I thought would be possible!

Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce was absolutely gorgeous with the snow and I’d definitely recommend visiting during a snowy time of year, even if all of the roads aren’t open.

Where to Eat

All of that hiking does make you hungry!

Oscar’s Cafe – we enjoyed some generous portions of Mexican food for lunch after hiking Angel’s Landing.

The Spotted Dog Cafe – we enjoyed a delicious dinner here. We sat in their back room which seemed to have a nicer ambiance. We had to wait for about 15-minutes for a table so I would try and make reservations here if you come during a busier time as it seems to be a popular place!

Rosita’s Santa Fe Kitchen – this place is on your way out of town (but wasn’t too far from our lodge). It’s an order-at-the-counter type and while we found the food and drinks to be good, we thought the portions were a little small and ended up ordering more food!

Switchback Grille – okay, I’ll admit it. The reviews I read of this place weren’t stellar. But, I didn’t want to have to worry about anything on New Year’s Eve and they were one of the only places taking reservations so we decided to go here. It wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t the best. I wouldn’t tell you to avoid it at all costs, but you can probably find a few other better places to eat if you’re only in Springdale for a few days.

Bit & Spur Saloon – one of the few places in town staying open until midnight on New Year’s Eve (and another reason we picked Switchback Grille – located right across the street) this was an interesting place. People were finishing eating when we arrived around 10 pm and a $20 cover was being charged for the band. We dealt with the strange Utah alcohol laws, enjoyed some drinks, counted down to midnight, and headed home. If you’re looking to head to a bar and listen to some music and maybe play some pool, this is one of your only options in Springdale!

All in all, we had a fantastic time visiting Zion and Bryce and absolutely recommend visiting them in winter. Both parks are relatively small, so unless you want to cover every single hiking trail, you can get a good feel for the parks in just a few days.

Looking forward to visiting more parks in Utah!