Is it worth visiting Bryce Canyon in winter?

We had such an amazing time visiting Zion in winter and were hoping that things in Bryce would work out just as well. However, we weren’t quite so lucky as Bryce sits at a much higher elevation than Zion and this made things a lot more difficult. The winter weather hits harder here, so it is much more of a gamble as to how much of the park will be open.

It can’t be denied that Bryce is utterly spectacular in winter though, the snow on the hoodoos makes the whole scene feel even more like a fairytale. However, all that snow can lead to severe avalanche risk and this can mean that all hiking trails below the rim can be closed (which happened to us). This led to a serious case of FOMO and all the trails we’d read about would have to wait.

We’ll take you through exactly what we were still able to do in the park as well as some tips for visiting Bryce in winter.


Weather in Bryce Canyon in winter

The weather in Bryce can drastically vary year to year (and even week to week), so we’d say that Bryce more than anywhere else in Utah is somewhere that would benefit from being booked last minute. I’ve read forums online where people had barely any snow during a winter visit, whereas we had several feet, with more falling every day.

If you can possibly wait to book your trip until the last minute then you will have the flexibility to wait for a good weather window and benefit from knowing exactly what you are in for.

The snow at Mossy Cave

You might think that you can easily hike in a bit of snow but the main risk in Bryce is that the snow causes avalanche risk and deadly rockfalls on the trails. This can affect all trails below the rim and can lead to the National Park Service closing them and issuing fines to anyone they see who ignore it.

We strongly advise taking this advice as even if the snowfall doesn’t look too bad, you can’t account for the rockfall. A ranger explained to us that in certain places where rockfall occurs there is no escape or room to get out the way.

Many roads will also be closed.

Bryce can also get severely cold in winter. The lowest temperature we experienced was -12C but temperatures have been as low as -30C!!! The cold shouldn’t be underestimated, and unless you have specialist gear it will mean that you might not be able to stay outside as long as you normally would. We recommend bringing thermal clothing, even if the weather isn’t forecasted to be as cold as -12C.

Sunset nearby Bryce Canyon


Trails that should be open on a winter visit

Now again this is based on the weather we had so you should view this as a worst case scenario as we had a lot of snow. You could get lucky and have many of the trails open as normal.

The map below shows all the park’s trails so you will quickly see that almost the entire park was closed on our visit!

The Rim Trail between Sunrise and Sunset Point

You can see we are clutching at straws already because this trail is a grand total of 1.1 miles (return)! Still we were happy to be able to get out and at least see a bit of the park.

The rim trail

The trail is completely flat and takes you between two of the most famous lookouts in the park. The spectacular views of the hoodoos stay with you throughout the walk and the snow does add an extra something special to the scene.

Read next: The best hikes in Joshua Tree National Park and Devil’s Bridge - one of the best spots in Sedona



Mossy Cave Trail

Again it’s another short walk at just 0.9 miles but we have to say that it far exceeded our expectations. It’s another easy walk and takes you past some pretty hoodoos and along a short tree lined path.

The bit that makes it really spectacular though is the cave at the end which was full of the biggest icicles we have ever seen. This is a trail that definitely has more wow factor in winter.

The icicles in the Mossy Cave

The icicles in the Mossy Cave

They were so dramatic that they got a ‘woah’ from everyone who saw them. There is also a small waterfall along this trail too but it was closed due to snow on our visit.

The Mossy Cave Trail



Paria Viewpoint

You can normally drive to this viewpoint but during the winter the road is often completely covered in snow. It then becomes a short walking track. I normally hate walking on roads but this was actually really fun, you can’t tell it’s a road anymore and it feels like walking in a forest.

The Paria Viewpoint Trail in Winter

We didn’t have much of a view at the end due to low hanging cloud but what we could see of it was extremely beautiful. We managed this walk with just traction devices on our normal shoes although a couple of times we did sink through several feet of snow!

It made every step you took just that little bit more exciting! You could also rent snowshoes (from Ruby’s Inn) to get there which would be a lot easier. If you sign up in advance you could also join a free ranger led walk too.

The snow being halfway up road signs!


Viewpoints that are open in winter

Sunrise Point

Needless to say this a great spot in the early morning, if you can brave those sub zero temperatures. The railed viewpoint has expansive views of the hoodoos.



Sunset Point

Just down the track from Sunrise Point, Sunset is another beauty. You can also see the Navajo Loop track from here which is a famous spot in the park.

As with Sunrise point the lookout is railed but in between these two points the walkway is natural, without railings.

Sunset Point



Inspiration Point

This is another great lookout for sunrise. The first time we tried to visit it was way too overcast but the second time we got lucky with some lovely golden light.

Inspiration Point when the sun comes out


Bryce Point

This viewpoint was partially closed on our visit but you could still get a gorgeous view with what was left open. It’s another good sunrise spot if you like making early starts.

Bryce Point on a rare sunny morning



Nearby hiking trails that will be open

If you are keen to hike and find that everything is closed at Bryce you can visit nearby Kodachrome Basin State Park. Whilst not as spectacular as Bryce the park is still extremely scenic and even when Bryce is under several feet of snow, Kodachrome had little to none.

You can also go a little further afield to either Grand Staircase Escalante which is at a much lower elevation or Zion National Park which has weather in between the two.

Kodachrome Basin State Park

Distance from Bryce Visitor Centre: 24 miles, 40 minutes

Kodachrome is a relatively small park, but there are a variety of different hiking trails on offer, we decided to try out two of them.

Panorama Trail

We hiked the 3.8 mile Panorama Trail which was very pretty with plenty of hoodoos and of course panoramic views. It’s an easy track which can be extended to a length of six miles if you want a longer hike.

Whilst we doubt it rivals the trails in Bryce it was still very enjoyable and we loved that it was t shirt weather (I was seriously overdressed in the above photo!) when Bryce had required five layers!

Angel’s Palace Trail

We also walked the 1.4 mile Angel’s Palace Trail which we liked even more than the Panorama. It’s a fun trail which takes you up and down some small hills and around a cliff edge for excellent and up close hoodoo views. It’s also fairly easy so doing several trails in this one park in a day is very doable.

Kodachrome is a state park so your America The Beautiful Pass won’t work here. Entry is $8 per car.

Getting to Kodachrome Basin State Park

Kodachrome is 25 miles away from Bryce and should take about 40 minutes to drive to.

 

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

Distance from Bryce Visitor Centre to Escalante town: 50 miles, one hour

We really enjoyed Grand Staircase Escalante which we visited after Bryce but makes an easy day trip too. There are a multitude of walks in this area, some such as Willis Creek will likely be impassable if Bryce is under a lot of snow, but there are many more that will be open.

Peek-a-boo Canyon in Escalante

If you love slot canyons then a great place to start will be Spooky and Peek-a-boo canyons. Whilst these are rated as easy we’d actually say they are moderate. Just a few minutes from them is the very easy Dry Fork canyon. The regions most beautiful slot canyon Zebra is also very near the town of Escalante but on our visit was in waist deep water (Spooky, Peek-a-boo and Dry Fork were all bone dry on the same day).

Dry Fork in Escalante

We’d recommend popping in for a coffee and a chat at Escalante Outfitters in town, they have a wealth of knowledge on the area and will happily fill you in on the latest trail conditions (the official visitor centre closes for winter).

For non canyon trails Escalante also has you well covered with Calf Creek Falls and the Devil’s Garden. It’s a fabulous area that warrants a visit in its own right but its proximity to Bryce also makes it the perfect hiking alternative if needed.

There is no fee for entering the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, yay!

Getting to Escalante

Escalante is 51 miles away from Bryce and should take about an hour. Then to get to most of the canyons or hikes you will have to drive down Hole in the Rock Road which can take up to an hour extra.

 

Zion National Park

Distance from Bryce Visitor Centre to Zion Visitor Centre: 85 miles, 1 hour 50

Ah Zion, a place of indescribable beauty which stole our hearts and has us planning a return trip as we are writing this.

The classic view at Zion

There isn’t a lot to say about Zion that we haven’t mentioned in our blog already, so here’s why Zion makes the perfect winter trip. And as mentioned it sits at a lower elevation than Bryce and there is plenty of hiking to be done even if you have snow there.

The entrance fee for Zion National Park is $35 and is covered by the America The Beautiful Pass.

Getting to Zion

Zion National Park is 86 miles away from Bryce and should take just under two hours to drive to. In winter, you can drive up to the car parks for the trail which is a bonus (from February 16th the shuttle begins operating on weekends).

 

Advantages of visiting Bryce Canyon in winter

Whilst it may seem like doom and gloom, there are actually quite a few advantages to visiting Bryce in the winter. If the weather gods are on your side, you are in for an incredible experience.

  1. It’s much less crowded

    This means that if you get lucky with the weather there will be far less people on the hiking trails and just around generally. For us it meant that we were the only ones watching sunrise at one of the most famous spots in Bryce (it was pure dedication to be out there in -12C!!)

  2. It is much cheaper

    Whilst much of the accommodation closes for winter you’ll find that the ones that stay open have fantastic deals. In fact we thought Bryce was the best value accommodation we had during our two month trip. You only pay a little more for a really nice quality motel five minutes from the visitor centre than you normally do for a camp spot! We booked a matter of days ahead and had no trouble, so again if you aren’t sure about whether you’ll be happy to be in Bryce when trails are closed then hang on until you get an up to date forecast for your dates.

  3. You will probably see snow

    Seeing snow is always pretty exciting if you come from a country that doesn’t see much of it! But even assuming you see snow often, seeing it on top of the hoodoos is something very special.


Disadvantages of visiting Bryce in winter

The main disadvantages about visiting Bryce in the winter centres around the weather. If it is a cold or wet winter, Bryce is the place in Utah that feels it more than anywhere else.

  1. Many hiking trails can be closed

    When the trails are closed you’ll find that almost all the hiking trails are closed (we had those couple of little ones open but they are so short it’s hard to even call them hikes). If it is likely to be your only visit to Bryce this will be very disappointing. Of course there are nearby hiking opportunities that will be open, but they aren’t quite as special as those in Bryce are meant to be.


  2. It will be very cold

    The temperatures in Bryce were definitely the coldest we have ever been in our lives! Whilst it only got down to -12C for a couple of days, every day was well below zero. When it was windy, it was unbearable! You need really good gear to visit Bryce in winter, if you don’t own it already having to get good enough quality clothes to keep you warm in these temperatures can be very expensive.


  3. It can get very foggy

    If you are keen on photography this one is a bit tricky. We had several days where you couldn’t really see anything at all, we stayed long enough to also have times where we could but if you are stopping by for a day or two this could be an issue.


  4. Certain parts of the park will likely be closed

    Depending on the weather large parts of the park can be closed as the roads will not be ploughed. Parks keep certain roads ploughed all year and we found that the roads were fantastic given the amount of snow. Some however will not be ploughed and therefore parts of the park will be inaccessible.


What to buy before visiting Bryce in Winter


Merino Thermals

 


Thermals are a must and are best used as a base layer. We recommend merino wool top and bottoms, and we always buy Icebreaker as they are high-quality and renowned as the best.



Traction devices

 

Traction devices go over your shoes and provide grip in snowy and icy conditions. They make a huge difference as we were able to walk completely normally when others were slipping around. We used Yak Tracks on our whole trip to the USA and they made a huge difference.



Down winter jacket

 

A down jacket in combination with a high quality thermal base layer will keep you nice and warm in the freezing cold conditions. Cat uses the Jack Wolfskin jacket above which has kept her warm through the sub-zero temperatures at Bryce. This coat would be nowhere near warm enough without an excellent base layer though!


Final thoughts on visiting Bryce in winter

I think Bryce in winter is a tricky one to sum up. If you aren’t a hiker, then you should definitely go for it. You’ll be able to see all the main viewpoints with very little crowds and stay in a nice hotel for a fraction of the price it would normally be.

If you’re a hiker and it is likely to be your only visit to Bryce then I would say hold on and avoid winter (or book very last minute with a good forecast). We definitely feel like we haven’t really seen Bryce despite being there five days. I had serious bouts of FOMO about missing all the amazing trails I had dreamed of walking for years. It was still beautiful but if you love hiking it probably won’t be enough. If you think you can visit again in a warmer time of year then go for it in winter too, it’s definitely a special time of year to be there.

Entrance Fee for Bryce National Park

The entrance fee for Bryce is $35 for vehicles, $30 for motorbikes and $20 for pedestrians or cyclists. As with all national parks, if you plan on visiting more than three in one year then buy the $80 America The Beautiful Pass.


Where to stay in Bryce Canyon

Ruby’s Inn

Ruby’s was our little haven in Bryce. The room was really warm (we had seriously feared being freezing in -12C), comfortable, clean and a real bargain. As we mentioned we think this was the best value accommodation we had during this two month trip.

The brekkie was also decent and allowed us to fill up so we could skip lunch! The shop also sold microwave meals which allowed us to eat really cheaply (this is one of our big tips for travelling America on a budget, gross as non stop microwave meals may be!).

Booking.com
Booking.com

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