Sweeping vistas and breathtaking views abound in Zion National Park, making it a bucket list destination for many. Located in southern Utah, Zion is about an hour north of gorgeous St. George, Utah.
While not the largest national park in Utah — Canyonlands is the largest — Zion is still massive. At over 148,000 acres, Zion National Park offers plenty to see and do and is a super popular destination in Utah. Not only is it one of Utah’s Mighty 5 National Parks but it’s also known for being one of the premier canyoneering spots in the world. If you’re not familiar with the sport of canyoneering, it involves using ropes and pulleys to descend into natural canyons. I prefer to have my feet on the ground but no matter what you’re interested in, Zion offers all kinds of outdoor adventures that will appeal to everyone
Summers have traditionally been the busiest time of year at most National Parks, including Zion. According to one Zion National Park ranger we talked to, the park is extremely busy in summer and with spring and fall not far behind. When I spoke to the folks at Zion Lodge, they said their high seasons are actually spring and fall months because visitors like to beat the heat. The temperature can typically be over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in summer months vs. the average high in December being 54. According to the 2021 statistics from the Zion National Park website, almost 700,000 people visited in June, with numbers in spring and fall at almost 450,000 per month. Whereas in December, the park gets roughly 170,000 visitors. So the winter months see a lot fewer visitors.
We were planning a trip for December and wanted to do something different other than a typical beachy vacation. Southern Utah appealed to me because I had never been there but always heard how beautiful the desert landscape is. And with its moderate climate, December can be a perfect month to visit. Plus, it’s fairly easy to get to. We flew into Las Vegas and drove about 2 hours to Zion National Park.
A trip to Zion National Park in winter can be a great choice. During our December trip, the weather was mild, but a storm was expected on our last day, so rather than drive the canyon road back to Las Vegas in less than perfect conditions, we chose to drive back to Las Vegas a day early and it worked out great. So just make sure you’re prepared and be flexible because the weather can change very quickly.
Here are the reasons I loved visiting Zion National Park in the winter.
1. Fewer People In The Park
A visit in the winter months will mean far fewer people. In my opinion, this is the number one reason to visit in winter. The rangers we talked to said the park can get absolutely packed in the high season months, and 20,000 visitors a day is not uncommon in June and July. That is a lot of people! I’d much rather visit when there aren’t other people at every turn. As a bonus, with fewer people also comes more parking availability. And, in summer, you have to get to Zion early in order to get a parking spot because all the lots are usually full by 9 a.m. If you arrive later, you’ll most likely need to park in nearby Springdale and take the Springdale shuttle into the park. In December, we had no problem finding great parking all throughout the park.
2. Lower Costs For Accommodations
It’s cheaper to go during the off-season. The main reason is that your accommodations will cost less. Hotels offer steep discounts in the winter. For instance, we stayed at a very nice Marriott property in Springdale which was around $200 per night. In June, that same property is priced at more than $400 per night! So, by taking your trip in an off-season month, you can save big.
3. Cooler Weather
Summer in Zion is hot. It’s normal for the temperature to be over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Hiking in that extreme heat can be quite difficult. In fact, the folks at Zion said they treat a lot of people for heat exhaustion during the summer. I like to stay hydrated so I don’t know that I’d have heat exhaustion issues but still, hiking in extremely hot weather just doesn’t appeal to me. There’s no way I’d want to do some of the hikes we did in the heat and hot sun! Winter temperatures can be quite mild in Zion. When we were there in December, the temperature was around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. It was perfect hiking weather. We wore layers so we could take off clothes or put more on as the temperatures fluctuated.
4. You’ll Get A Different Perspective
Going to Zion in the winter months will allow you to experience the park in a different way. With the sun lower in the sky, the sunlight gives a beautiful soft glow to the red rocks. We noticed the lichen on the boulders and rocks is a brilliant, bright green this time of year, since it’s not washed out from baking in the summer sun. The patina on the rocks also looks different in the winter months. We noticed the colors were more layered, offering tinges of blues, browns, greens, and blacks. In the winter months, you’ll get to experience the stillness and quiet of nature and really appreciate the remoteness of your surroundings.
5. Great Photo Opportunities
If you like to take photos, winter in Zion will give you many opportunities to take unique shots. And, what’s really cool is that you can pretty much take your pick of where to shoot and not have to worry about getting photobombed! The natural landscape makes for great photos and I was surprised that all the leaves hadn’t all fallen. Keep in mind that the sun sets early in Winter so the “golden hour” for best light will be earlier. Make sure you take time to shoot some photos at sunrise and sunset!
6. Freedom To Drive Yourself
The shuttle system within Zion and in Springdale normally runs most of the year. The exception is during most of December when the shuttles are completely shut down. This is good news for winter visitors because it means you get to drive yourself through the park. I loved this because we didn’t have to wait for the shuttle with throngs of other people. Plus, there’s so much more freedom in driving your own vehicle through the park, making stops at your leisure. No worries about making sure you catch the next shuttle! We loved the freedom of driving ourselves.
7. Trails Are Less Populated
Some of the more popular trails are bumper to bumper in the summer season. While you can still hike the trails, you just have to be prepared to be around quite a lot of people going the same places you are. When we were in Zion during December, there were very few people that we had to share trails with. It was great having room to roam. I don’t think hiking with tons of other people would be quite the same. I personally like the solitude of being alone in the vastness of the park. Some of that experience is lost during the peak summer season. Keep in mind that in winter there could be snow and ice on some trails so they could be a little more difficult to navigate. Hiking boots are a definite must.
8. More Wildlife Viewing
As the temperatures cool down and the crowds thin out, the wildlife will be more active. We saw quite a few deer and bighorn sheep during our visit! Keep your eyes open for deer, elk, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, the Mojave desert tortoise, and many different kinds of lizards. All of these animals call Zion home. And beware — cougars have also been spotted in Zion. If you’re a bird lover, you’re in luck. Birdwatchers love Zion for its abundance of birds, some of which are very rare, like the California condor, peregrine falcon, and bald eagles.
9. Restaurants Aren’t Crowded
Another nice thing about going to Zion in winter is that you will be able to go to a restaurant without making a reservation! We walked right into the Springdale restaurants we wanted to try and were seated immediately. This doesn’t usually happen in the busy months. One thing to note is that not all restaurants are open year-round. We noticed more than a few that were closed for the season, although there were still plenty of places open. Our Springdale hotel front desk person gave us a list of all the open restaurants in the area which was super helpful.
National parks are a great vacation option, and there are many to choose from: