Here's a trip guide for a winter visit to Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon National Park for hiking, camping, and exploring!
Overview of the trip
Since we live in South Texas, the West is always on our mind. The beautiful canyons, big mountains, tall trees, and cool mornings are very appealing! It's a big commitment to head West since it takes so long just to get out there.
Because it takes so much time to get there, our plan is to do as much as we can while we're there! That means camping, hiking, skiing, and hitting as many National Parks as possible.
Here's a recap of our trip itinerary for camping and hiking in Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon National Parks, along with stops for camping in New Mexico and skiing in Utah.
Overview of our trip
- Day 1: Rocksprings, TX to Glenwood, NM
- Day 2: Glenwood, NM to Grand Canyon National Park, AZ
- Day 3: Grand Canyon National Park, AZ to Zion National Park, UT
- Day 4: Zion National Park, UT to Bryce Canyon National Park, UT
- Day 5: Bryce Canyon National Park, UT to Brian Head, UT
- Day 6: Brian Head, UT
- Day 7: Brian Head, UT
- Day 8: Brian Head, UT to Glorieta, NM
- Day 9: Glorieta, NM to Rocksprings, TX
Resources for trip planning
Here are some helpful resources to plan trips!
- AllTrails app - An app with the largest collection of detailed trail maps that you can use to search hikes in areas you're visiting. You can filter by distance, difficulty, elevation gain, rating, route type, traffic, and suitability. It's so helpful to see recent reviews for trail conditions and time estimates as well!
- State Road updates app - If you're traveling in the winter, I would recommend checking road updates via an app from the state's Department of Transportation. The routes that will auto-populate on your phone GPS likely will take you through mountains with icy road conditions. It is worthwhile to check the route.
- National Parks Website - Information about camping reservations, park conditions, entrance fees, and any questions you have can be found on the National Parks website. Each park has several pages with detailed information.
- National Parks Pass - Depending on how many parks you plan to visit in a year, it might be worth considering getting a National Parks Pass. Each Annual Pass admits the pass owner and passengers in a non-commercial vehicle at per-vehicle fee areas (see website for more details).
- Free Campsites Locator - This is a website with information on free campsites.
- Camping Gear List
- Hiking Gear List - A printable list of items to bring while hiking. These are helpful for day hikes, especially in remote areas.
- Hiking Snacks - A list of healthy, travel-friend, and healthy snacks to bring hiking!
Weather during the trip
Our trip took place during the middle of January. While the temperatures were cold for camping, mostly averaging from low 20s to upper 40s, it was as we expected. By preparing with the right camping gear (zero degree sleeping bags, layers, and warm drinks), it was totally manageable! There was sunshine every day so the hiking was perfect, even with colder temperatures. We ran into quite a bit of snow in Utah and New Mexico, which made the scenery beautiful but the driving a little more complicated. I would recommend visiting the parks this time of year because there are fewer crowds, plenty of campsites, awesome hiking, and picturesque views.
Getting to the West
We live in South Texas and knew it would be unrealistic to get out West in one day. Our Day 1 was heading in the direction of the Grand Canyon. Here's what that looked like:
- Drove from Texas to Glenwood, NM
- Camped at Cosmic Campground (Glenwood, NM)
Cosmic Campground was about ⅔ of the way from our home in Texas to Grand Canyon National Park. This campground is in Gila National Forest (western New Mexico). We chose this campground because it is an International Dark Sky Sanctuary (IDSS) and was the very first in the United States! It was a very basic campground with tent pads, picnic tables, a pit toilet, and the perk of an unobstructed 360-degree view of the night sky.
Grand Canyon National Park
Our first big stop of the trip was Grand Canyon National Park, where we spent about 24 hours. Here's what our time looked like:
- Arrived in the afternoon and headed to the campground to set up camp (the campsites were operating at about ½ capacity and on a first-come, first-served basis so make sure you arrive with plenty of time to claim one)
- I visited in December and arrived at the campground around 7 p.m. and it was FULL. We arrived in the early afternoon on this trip in January and there weren't as many people so we probably could have gotten there later and easily found a spot.
- Walked around, stopped at the Visitor Center, and did some exploring
- Made dinner, had bible study, hung out, and went to bed early
- If you only have some time in the day but don't want to do any big hikes, there are several overlooks, easy walks along the Rim Trail (great views), or hit the Visitor Center
We planned on waking up bright and early to do our big hike in the Grand Canyon. Here's my recommendation for hiking the Grand Canyon in January:
- There's a free shuttle at Gand Canyon National Park which is awesome if you just want to park at the Visitor Center and not worry about finding a parking spot. It's easy to look online and figure out which shuttle you need and what time it can pick you up.
- We hiked South Kaibab Trail
- I love this trail because it's an "out and back" hike that allows you to turn around at any time. There are really great views along the way such as: Ooh Ahh Point at a 1.5 mile trip, Cedar Ridge at a 3 mile trip, and Skeleton Point at 1 6 mile trip. These are great day or morning hikes when you only have a few hours available.
- I HIGHLY recommend hiking down into the canyon as the sun rises -- it’s beautiful!
- Bring water, headlamp, snacks, hand sanitizer, and sturdy shoes!
- The trail was a little icy at the top, but we didn’t have any crampons and were fine.
- I love being at the Grand Canyon in the winter because it’s not as crowded, there's great hiking weather, and the view is incredibly beautiful with the white snow, green trees and red rocks!
How far is Zion National Park from Grand Canyon?
It took us about 5.5 hours to get from the Grand Canyon to Zion National Park. In the winter, the East exit in Grand Canyon National Park is usually closed, forcing you to go South back through Flagstaff and then North around the entire Canyon, which adds extra time.
Zion National Park
We went from Grand Canyon to Zion National Park! Both parks are so beautiful this time of year. Here's our experience in Zion in January:
- Unlike Grand Canyon at this time of the year, you can make reservations for the campground at Zion National Park in January. There are also a few spots that are first-come, first-served but they are limited.
- I visited Zion in December and the park was running at a smaller capacity because of COVID, but it was totally full. All of the campsites were reserved and the first-come, first-served sites were full. However, there were plenty of spots available in January.
- We arrived in the evening, set up camp, made dinner, and watched the sunset
- We're bright and early, start when it's pitch black kind of hikers so that is the same thing we did in Zion. We woke up very early to start hiking to catch the sunrise.
- Our hiking plan was to Angel's Landing! Even if you aren't able to make it to the very top of Angel's Landing, there's a great overlook that is still worthwhile. There was no ice or snow while we were there, but the full hike might have been closed if that were the case. You can call and check with the Visitor Center if you are unsure if it's open or not.
- A great option for the summer would be to explore the Narrows!
How far is Bryce Canyon from Zion National Park?
It took us 2.5 hours to go from Zion to Bryce Canyon National Park. There is a more direct route, but it goes through the mountains and we wanted to stick on bigger highways as much as possible with our van and trailer. We left Zion and took Interstate 15 North all the way to Utah State Route 20. The road conditions that route were better than directly cutting through US-89 North.
Bryce Canyon National Park
If you're going to Zion National Park, you should definitely stop at Bryce Canyon National Park because you're so close! Bryce Canyon is a reserve in southern Utah, known for its crimson-colored hoodoos (spire-shaped rock formations) and they are INCREDIBLE. It's especially beautiful when the rocks are covered in crisp, white snow! Here's our January experience in Bryce:
- The North Campground is the only campground open year-round. Campsites there are available on first-come, first served basis.
- There were plenty of campsites available on my visits in December and January.
- The campsites were very snow-covered in January so definitely bring gear for snow camping.
- If you only have a short amount of time, or don't want to go all the way into the reserve, you could do a hike from Sunset to Sunrise point (along the rim). It's a paved trail that is quick and easy.
- With a longer amount of time, you should definitely hike down and do one of the loops! We did Peekaboo loop and it was so awesome! It's more strenuous than sticking on the rim as there are more elevation changes. If it's icy or covered in snow, you'll need crampons.
- The views are absolutely beautiful in the winter! Make sure your vehicles are prepared to drive on snow.
Is Zion or Bryce Canyon better?
This is a question people ask so often and it's like comparing apples to oranges because they are both so different! Zion and Bryce Canyon are both BEAUTIFUL National Parks that have very unique experiences specific to them. I love the views of the canyons in Zion, but the hoodoos of Bryce are something so special. I do think Bryce is underrated and people miss out by not visiting. Both places provide stunning views and because they're so close together, why not both!?
Brian Head, Utah
We went from Bryce Canyon National Park to Brian Head, Utah. Brian Head is a mountain town in Southwest Utah. It's the home of Brian Head Resort, which is where we spent two days skiing! Why we chose to ski at Brian Head Resort:
- There are very affordable prices during the week, barely any lines, and so few people. It's amazing!
- Much cheaper compared to the ski resorts in Colorado
- Awesome powered-covered slopes (if it snows while you're there) and great services
- Free shuttle service that runs from mountain to mountain and will even pick you up where you're lodging!
- Two mountains of lifts which is great for a mix of skills (there's a separate mountain full of green hills, which is great for beginners)
- SO BEAUTIFUL
- Close to Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park!
If you're in the Arizona and Utah area and have some extra time, there are several other areas you should consider visiting! Here are some ideas:
- Arches National Park (part of the Mighty 5 National Parks in Utah)
- Canyonlands National Park (part of the Mighty 5 National Parks in Utah)
- Capitol Reef National Park (part of the Mighty 5 National Parks in Utah)
- Echo Lake (Echo State Park, UT)
- Peek-a-Boo Gulch
- Horseshoe Bend (Page, AZ)
- Lake Powell, Arizona
- Sedona, Arizona
The biggest considerations when planning a trip to these areas of time of year. The time of year will impact:
- Road conditions
- Amount of people
- Camping options
I absolutely love this trip. I did the same trip in December and January, and both were incredible. The views are incredible, the camping is fun, the hiking is awesome, and the parks are more peaceful than the summer. If you're going to plan a trip to these areas, I highly recommend making more than just one stop because there's so much beauty to experience! It is absolutely worth planning a visit to Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon National Parks for hiking, camping, and exploring.