In my early days of exploring Utah canyon country back in the 1990s, like most people I typically went during spring, summer, and fall. But one winter I found myself with some time off in late December, so on a whim I decided to rent a cabin near Moab and see what the area was like during the quiet season. As luck would have it, I ended up with brilliant sunny weather while I was there. In fact, I have photos of myself hiking to Corona Arch in a long-sleeved shirt—no coat or jacket. I was also pleasantly surprised to find that my lodging costs were about half what I paid during summer and fall. Since that first December trip to Moab, winter has become one of my favorite times to visit. Here are five reasons why you should give Utah canyon country a try between November and February:
You Can Hike in Peace
I certainly understand why many people visit Utah’s national parks during summer. The kids are out of school, and for many families that’s the only time they can travel. That said, arriving at Delicate Arch and finding out that 150 other hikers are joining me there for sunset is not my idea of a wilderness experience. But the word is out now about Utah canyon country, and during spring, summer, and fall you’re gonna have to share the scenery with lots of people. Starting in early November, the crowds thin out dramatically. From then until the start of the spring season in March, you ’ll get to experience the beauty of Utah canyon country in a peaceful way that’s usually not possible now during the busy season. Ah, the joy of getting to Delicate Arch and finding only three other people there.
Your Hotel Bill won’t Deplete your 401K
Just 10 years ago, a nice motel room could be had for less than $75 in Moab during the height of busy season. Now you can expect to pay twice that amount or more, even for very basic accommodations. During the winter season, room prices drop significantly—by 50% or more. A recent price check online showed several 3-star hotels in the $60-85 price range, and these same hotels go for around $200-250 per night during high season. Just be sure to go before March 1, which is the magic date when most hotels start to hike up their prices.
You Won’t Fry in the Desert Heat
Having grown up in the tropics, I’m a bit more heat-tolerant than a lot of people I know in the West. Even so, I’ve had my share of July hiking days in Canyonlands or Arches where it was so hot, I questioned my sanity for even being outside. High temperatures in the Moab area during July and August are typically in the upper 90s to above 100, and it’s extremely important (read: life-saving) to carry adequate water with you during those months. Daytime temperatures during winter are typically in the 30s and 40s, but the bright sunny days that are common make it feel comfortable. Don’t forget to bring the proper winter clothing, as occasionally the region does get some chilly cold spells.
You’ll Get Gorgeous Photos
Let’s face it, you can come home from southeast Utah with gorgeous photos at any time of year. But the big advantage during winter is that the sun is at a lower angle all day—similar to its position at sunset and sunrise. And if you’ve done any photography at all, you know that this is when the lighting is best. One photo op you shouldn’t miss in winter is Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park. Because the winter sun rises to the right of the mountains, you’ll get lots of prime lighting that makes the underside of the arch glow. And without the crowds, you’ll be able to get shots of all those famous arches without loads of people standing under them.
You Might See Snow on the Redrock
The dramatic contrast of white snow on vibrant redrock is probably one of the most dramatic scenes I’ve ever seen. Of course, there’s no guarantee that it will snow while you’re there, but if you live close enough to Utah to be able to plan a last-minute trip, you should try to go soon after a snowstorm. The rock formations in Arches National Park are particularly stunning when dusted with snow—try the arches in the Windows section and the sandstone fins in the Devils Garden.