Country: USA States: Nevada, Utah Sites: Las Vegas, Zion National Park (Angel's Landing & The Narrows), Brian Head Ski Resort
Ever since I saw my first photo of Zion National Park, I knew this place had to be put on my bucket list! There’s a reason Zion is visited by over 3 million tourists each year. It has heavenly sites, hikes for all skill levels, scenic overlooks, canyons, and multi-colored cliffs. I decided to travel to Utah in December of 2021. I knew Zion would be less crowded in the winter, but I would still be able to enjoy the hikes and sites on my list. From my understanding, the weather in southern Utah is generally mild and if snow comes through, it passes fairly quickly. However, this was NOT the case for when I arrived in Zion. A freak winter storm came through with squalls of hail and snow…. Very exciting! This guide includes some of the best and most popular hikes in Zion, nearby winter skiing recommendations, as well as a stop in Las Vegas!
We kept this trip budget friendly by flying in and out of Las Vegas, which was significantly cheaper than any other option. It is possible to have different start and end locations, depending on what’s cheapest for you!
Day 1: Flying to Las Vegas & Road-tripping to Zion!
I found a reasonable round-trip flight to Las Vegas from my home airport in Newark, NJ using my award miles connected to my United MileagePlus Explorer credit card – check out the card to receive countless travel benefits and earn bonus miles! The flight was at the end of December (after Christmas), so I was a little worried about it being too cold in Vegas and Zion, but it ended up being the perfect time to go! The park was much less crowded than in the spring and summer months. Upon arriving in Las Vegas, I met my friend at the airport. We picked up our rental car and made our way to our Airbnb outside of Zion. It was about a 3 hours drive.
Day 2: Zion National Park (Angel’s Landing)
We made our way to Zion for some winter hiking and to tackle the infamous Angel’s Landing. Angel’s Landing is one of the most popular hikes in Zion and also one of the most treacherous; not just in the winter, which posed many interesting challenges! The hike is strenuous and takes about 4 hours for the average hiker. It’s a 5.4 RT hike that ascends 1,488 in elevation.
The views are AMAZING at the top, so I highly recommend this hike. However, if you have a severe fear of heights, really do your research. For most of the trail, you are on the edge (the literal EDGE!) of the cliff holding onto a chain while rock-scrambling.
If you do this in the winter time, be prepared with microspikes/crampons. My friend was unable to get to the top because of the snow and ice on the trail and was not prepared with spikes for his boots, so I climbed alone (but made some very nice friends along the way)! I highly recommend these Kahtoola MICROspikes.
PRO TIP: Due to concerns regarding crowds and congestion on the trail, as of April 2022, you now need a permit to reserve a spot to hike. Head to this website to reserve your permit!
After tackling Angel’s Landing, we decided to hike the beautiful, scenic Emerald Pools Trail. This trail connects two pools of water, Lower Emerald Pool and Upper Emerald Pool. There are gorgeous waterfalls to view along the way. The hike is 1.5 to 3 miles RT depending on where you start and how far you hike.
Day 3: Moqui Sand Caves, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, Mount Carmel Highway
Today we set out to explore the surrounding area of Zion. We randomly came across the Moqui Caves in Kanab, UT and decided to venture out to see what they were about! There is a museum here that you can check out, which depicts the life in Southern Utah spanning the centuries. However, we wanted to try to find the trail to reach the sand caves!
To reach the sand caves, you have to find the trail (click here for directions) which is located in between the Moqui Caves and the Best Friend Animal Sanctuary exit on HWY 89. This is a short hike and is family-friendly. You will have to scale up a wall for a very short distance, but it won’t be a problem if you have some good traction on your shoes (sneakers are fine). The trail isn’t marked, so you have to look up to find it, but once you are on the dirt trail, you will make your way towards the mountain and caves. There is no fee for this hike, just go at your own leisure!
Just southeast of Zion National Park and near the town of Kanab are the Coral Pink Sand Dunes. In the warmer months, the dunes have a pink hue to them, but as you can see here, we experienced snow-covered dunes. They were still very beautiful, nonetheless. There is a $10 entrance fee (as of 2021), so we opted to park off site and walk to the dunes. If you would like to stay longer, you can ATV, camp, hike, horseback ride, among other things. To find out more information, check out their website.
Next, we headed out to explore the Mount Carmel Highway. One of the draws to Zion National Park is this scenic, winding road that connects the Visitor Center to the east entrance of the park.
There are several switchbacks on the road. And between the Canyon Junction and the tunnel there are amazing views of Zion National Park. If you want to include a rest day into your trip, this would be a great opportunity to see the park while resting your legs!
Day 4: Brian Head Ski Resort
Are you a skier or snowboarder? Right outside of Zion, about 1.5 hours away is Brian Head Ski Resort. If you’re like me and from the East coast, where we “scrape the East” rather than “ski the East,” then you can understand why I was so excited to have the opportunity to ski out West. The mountains on the East coast really can’t even compare with the mountains out here. The snow is so fluffy and the views are spectacular!
I ended up renting equipment rather than bringing my own, since it was too much to check at the airport. The mountain also has spring and summer activities to enjoy, such as hiking, mountain biking, tubing, zip-lining, and so much more! I recommend checking it out if you make it here in the winter!
Day 5: Zion National Park (The Narrows)
Today we set out to conquer the most popular hike in Zion, The Narrows. The Narrows gets its name because it is the narrowest part of Zion Canyon. You have a few options when hiking here. You can hike on the paved path, Riverside Walk, for one mile from the Temple of Sinawava. Or, you can hike in the Virgin River, which is what we opted to do!
If you are interested in hiking within The Narrows and into the Virgin River, you have two additional options. You can hike from the bottom-up from the Temple of Sinawava (this what we did). You do not need a permit for this hike. The other option is a 16-mile through hike, which requires a wilderness permit.
Bottom-Up Hike from Temple of Sinawava (Wildnerness Permit not required)
The majority of the hike in The Narrows will be spent wading, walking, and potentially swimming in the Virgin River. Traveling through the river can be rough, slippery, wet, and cold! There is no specific “viewpoint”, but the entire hike itself is spectacular. You can hike for a few minutes or hours, and then turn around at any point. Hiking all the way to Big Spring is allowed without a permit, but will be a 9.4 RT hike.
There are no bathrooms on the hike, so use the one on the trailhead. Bring some water, a hot beverage in a Hydroflask, and snacks if you plan to be out there for a few hours. To find out more information, visit their website.
16-Mile through hike from Chamberlain’s Ranch (Wilderness Permit required)
This route begins at Chamberlain’s Ranch and ends at the Temple of Sinawava. It’s a 16 mile hike, which you should expect to take 10 to 14 hours depending on your skill level. You can split the hike into a two days with an overnight permit. Permits are ALWAYS requited for this hike. To find out more information, visit their website.
What to wear
Depending on the time of year you go, you may need to rent the proper gear to hike. Since we were there in the winter and the water was COLD, we needed to rent waterproof drysuit bibs to put over our warm clothes, proper hiking shoes, and neoprene socks. There are two locations you can rent gear from in Springdale: Zion Outfitters or Zion Adventure Company. Both companies rent drysuit packages. The bibs have a rubber gasket that cover and protect your ankles, so water doesn’t go up the suit. And, the boots and neoprene socks definitely keep your feet warm. However, you will feel water enter your boots, but the socks keep you warm, as long you keep moving.
I don’t recommend just wearing a wetsuit, since the water depth varies throughout the hike and any area of your body that is not covered will freeze! In terms of layering under your clothes, they recommend wearing whatever you would normally wear during a winter hike. I get cold very easily, so I had on long underwear tights, light pair of hiking pants, long underwear long-sleeve shirt, light sweatshirt, and a winter coat with a hood. I’d rather remove layers than not have enough to keep me warm. I also wore a winter hat and winter ski gloves.
Hiking The Narrows in the winter is unforgettable! I’m sure hiking in the warmer months is a much more pleasant experience in regards to temperature, but you will be fighting crowds! I’ve looked up pictures of this hike in the spring and summer and…. dang, there are A TON of people to be hiking with all day. During our winter hike in The Narrows, there were several stretches and hours at a time when we were alone on the trail…..all by ourselves in one of the most popular hikes in the United States!! The cold wasn’t much of an issue since we had the proper gear, so yes, hiking is chilly in the winter, but the trade-off of having minimal crowds was worth it to me!
Day 6: Back to Vegas!
We made our way back to Las Vegas! We spent our day exploring the city; grabbing food at the famous, West coast burger joint, In-an-Out, and then made our way to the Vegas welcome sign. If I were you, I would skip the wait to park and take pictures here, but that’s totally up to you!
We spent our night at the Strat Hotel, which had the best prices for this time of year. We enjoyed an evening of gambling, eating, and drinking! What else would you want to do in Vegas?
For more suggestions on Western National Park trip, visit our post: The Best One Week Itinerary for a Western National Parks Road Trip.