Ask anyone who’s visited the southern Utah National Parks and they’ll tell you the the best times to go are fall and spring. That’s made the trip impossible for us with Sukkot in the fall and Pesach in the spring.

Turns out winter’s a pretty perfect time to visit these magnificent parks too. And, bonus, we avoided the crowds.

The best hikes are usually the most unexpected ones

Zion and Bryce Canyon have been on my bucket list for years. Seeing those parks in the winter dusted in snow was a dream. But none of our family’s favorite hikes happened in the National Parks. Instead, the best hikes turned out to be short excursions we found on a local blog from St. George, Utah. 

Our first stop in Utah was a fantastic hike through Pioneer Falls Narrows. The aptly named Narrows featured a short slot canyon with a slight incline. We had to squeeze through sideways and pull ourselves up with our arms at parts to ascend. It was tight enough to be challenging and thrilling, but short enough to manage without panicking. The whole journey took under 10 minutes. Once we reached the top, we slid down tunnels and had a blast clamoring all over the rock formations there. 

At the end of our trip, our last stop on the way out of town was meant to just be a short lark before we headed to the airport. Instead it was a highlight of the trip. We stopped back in St. George to explore the Red Cliffs Conservation Area. The trailhead instructions directed us to campground #2, which sounded super sketchy. What we found was a dusty red trail that looked a lot like Sedona, and miles of red stone cliffs to explore. The trail led to a canyon with boulders and ropes to traverse them. We could have spent hours exploring there if we hadn’t had a flight to catch. The route to the ropes was only 2 miles out and back, which was perfect. 

These two St. George hikes were the perfect capstones to our trip.

Splurge on the expensive YakTrax with the strap

Hiking up the Emerald Pools trail and passing under an icy waterfall, I was pretty proud to have outfitted my family in YakTrax. The chains that attach to your shoes mean that you can hike over ice without the fear of falling. I was patting my back all the way up and down the mountain trail every time we passed hikers sliding around (and falling!) in sneakers. That was until we got to the bottom and realized two kids lost their YakTrax along the hike. We doubled back to no avail.

Turns out the extra $5 to get the nicer set with the velcro straps was well worth it. We ended up having to buy two more pairs at an Ace Hardware the next day. Lesson learned.

Some of the best adventures are off the beaten path

My list of Zion hikes included all the usual suspects. We hit all three Emerald Pools and the Canyon Overlook trail. We managed to do most of the scenic drive too. The most famous hike there, Angels Landing, was a no-go in the ice. And the most fun hike, the Narrows, required waders. Um…no thanks. We’ll have to go back in warmer weather.

Instead, we headed over to Cascade Falls to explore what sounded like a fun winter hike. Instead, we found a snowy steep incline that may or may not have been a path. We gave up and ate lunch there by the side of the road below a pair of grazing big horn sheep. 

But, after staring at that path through lunch, I decided to head down it just to see what was at the bottom. I grabbed one of the kids and slithered down to find a tunnel and a shallow frozen river. The ice was cracking at spots, but underneath it was only sand and rocks. We called the others down and spent the next hour walking on ice and laughing hysterically every time someone fell through it.

If I was Moses, I would’ve hit more than just the rock

If you’ve ever wondered how the greatest Jewish leader of all time could have messed up so badly that he wasn’t able to enter into the Land of Israel, all you have to do is wander through the wilderness for a couple of hours with kids. Mine are relatively good hikers, and we’ve trained them (read bribed them with ice cream) for years to be good hikers. Still, they have their moments. A particularly dark one occurred on our Kolob Canyon hike in Zion. The ground was all mud, it was about to rain and the kids had already hiked for four days prior. One gave up and headed back to wait in the car. Two others trudged along but weren’t happy about it. The trail featured several creek crossings, and I couldn’t help but think of Moses managing to cross the sea and desert with all the doubters and naysayers trailing behind him. It’s no wonder he got fed up.

Byrce is worth seeing…once

I could be mistaken, but seeing Bryce Canyon in all its glory once is enough. We were blown away by the view of the hoodoos lined up in rows of perfect formation like soldiers. And our hike down into them and through them was unlike any hike we’ve ever done before. The towering rock formations look like Turkish architecture, and the amphitheter of hoodoos from afar look like a scene from Star Wars. But once we saw it, we saw it. We did the scenic drive through the whole park and every stop looked a little, well, the same. We’re so glad we made the drive up there, but check! One and done.

Some sights are worth the drive

I knew I was pushing it to make my family drive four hours round trip after a big day of driving to Bryce and back. But hiking through the longest slot canyon in the world was not a site I was willing to miss. My gang agreed to come along once I tempted them with photos. (I failed to also mention that the last eight miles of the trip was down a dirt road.)

The canyon proved just as magnificent as I hoped. A one-mile hike through stunning red stone led to the opening of the slot canyon with walls that reach 200-feet high at points.The parts we did, starting from Wire Pass Trailhead, were easy to traverse and wide enough for anyone to explore comfortably. We even saw ancient Native Americans drawings in the rock face.

We turned around after 2.5 miles once we reached water too deep to walk through. I’d love to complete the whole 14 miles one day…without kids along.

Our list of hikes:

Day 1
Pioneer Falls Narrows

Snow Canyon State Park: 

  • Jenny’s Canyon Trail featured a short hike up to a canyon
  • Hidden Pinyon featured clamoring around giant rock structures, like God’s playground
  • Petrified Sand Dunes was an easy walk over exactly what it sound like–sand dunes that were petrified to stone

Day 2: Zion National Park!

  • Emerald Pools
  • Cascade Falls
  • Canyon Overlook Hike

Day 3: Bryce Canyon National Park!

Sunset Trail and Navajo Trail loop

Day 4: Kanab

Wire Pass Trailhead to Buckskin Gulch

Day 5: Zion and St. George

Kolob Canyon

Red Cliffs Conservation Area Red Reef trail

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