Best Time To Visit Our National Parks? In Winter

Mesa Arch

As I sat alone, high above the Virgin River looking out over Zion Canyon, I thought to myself what a rare and wonderful experience to have such a beautiful place all to myself. Even if only for a morning. I promised to seek out more moments like these.

During my annual pilgrimage to Ouray, CO and Salt Lake City, UT, I went on what could be called a national park binge. Instead of taking my usual “get there as quick as possible” route through northern Nevada, I hit Hwy 5 and headed south toward the Mojave Desert.

Rolling on by the glittering lights of Las Vegas, engrossed in the Serial podcast, Zion was to be my first destination.

Historically, January is the least visited month for our national parks, at least in the western half of the United States. Yosemite, for instance, sees just 3% of their annual visitors during the first month of the year, versus 17% in August alone. If you want a small slice of a national park to yourself–January is a great bet.

Trail to Angels Landing

That is how I found myself alone on top of Angels Landing in Zion National Park, bathing in the early morning sun and enjoying a cup of coffee that I had just whipped up in my Jetboil MiniMo. As one of the first to arrive to the park that morning, I hadn’t seen more than a couple of people until I returned back to my car around lunchtime.

A few tradeoffs come with visiting a national park in winter. Many facilities are closed, including campgrounds, and even some trails shut to the public. If you are the adventurous type, however, you always have the option of winter camping in the backcountry (with permits of course), and snowshoeing or skiing into otherwise inaccessible places.

Mesa Verde

When I hit up Mesa Verde National Park, the Cliff Palace Road and Loop was closed. But with a pair of snowshoes and a 7-mile round trip trek, I was guaranteed a solitary morning amongst the Ancient Pueblo ruins.

The one park where I did encounter numerous people (albeit not even near what you would call crowded) was Arches National Park, but only because I arrived at lunchtime. Even so, apart from the popular Delicate Arch trail, I found quiet places all to myself. Rare is the ability to enjoy a sandstone arch all to yourself in summer, but in winter, it’s quite easy.

Delicate Arch

Much like Zion, I ran into only a handful of tourists at Canyonlands National Park, this on Martin Luther King Day, where the park entrance fee was waived. I sat quietly watching the sun rise up over Shafer Canyon, hiked to Mesa Arch to find it empty bar one lonely, cold photographer, and enjoyed only the soaring birds for company as I hit the trail to the Grand View Point Overlook past Monument Basin.

Shafer Canyon

Compounded by the general stillness of winter, for me it was the quiet and peacefulness I will most treasure. No sound apart from my footsteps, left alone with my thoughts as I stared out onto vast landscapes.

Thank you to those that came before us who had the foresight to save these lands for us to enjoy. As I watched the sun set behind the South Window, I made a vow to play a part in continuing to preserve these vistas for those who come after.

There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children's children forever, with their majestic beauty all unmarred. Theodore Roosevelt

The Gear

arcteryx alpha2 fl
Arc’teryx Alpha2 FL ($270): If I could use one word to describe the new Arc’teryx hiking shoes, it would be comfortable. The dual construction lends itself to an inner bootie that fits your foot like a glove, with a protective outer shell that provides durability and exceptional grip. In most models the inner bootie is removable for washing and faster dry times.

Cotopaxi Luzon
Daypack: You need water, snacks, and extra layers–yes, this is the desert but it gets really cold. If you plan to hike in order to catch the sunrise, a headlamp is essential as well.

Hillsound Trail Crampon
Hillsound Trail Crampons ($60): The hike to Angles Landing in Zion and even parts of the trail to Delicate Arch in Arches were mega icy. A slip on Angels Landing trail will most certainly end in death so by all means bring trail crampons. Snow coated sandstone becomes beyond slippery.

Revo Raconteur
Sunglasses (and sunscreen!): Even in winter, the desert sun shines bright. My current favorite pair of sunglasses, especially for winter light, is the Revo Raconteur ($249). A classic aviator style with anti-slip textured rubber temple tips, the Raconteur is so lightweight and comfortable that you’ll almost forget it’s there. Revo’s visual clarity is one of the best in the industry–the Terra Lens works well for hiking and even climbing.

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