Bryce Canyon National Park in the Winter: Family-friendly Places to Play, Stay and Eat
posted by: Amber Johnson
Bryce Canyon National Park. Famous for its expansive Bryce Amphitheater and a swirling red-rock world of pillars, hoodoos, and fin-like ridges that are stunning enough during the summer months but in winter, they erupt from the rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau in a fiery display set against the cold white snow. This high-elevation park is also Utah’s smallest with an area of only 56-square miles.
I have only been to Bryce Canyon in the “off-season” so I have come to expect a pristine, uncrowded winter wonderland with the absence of the tourists who flood the park every May through October. My first visit was when I was a single gal working as a travel writer. I was invited to cover the Bryce Canyon Winter Festival that still lives on every President’s Day weekend with free clinics, demos, and tours in cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, ice skating, archery, photography, ski waxing and good ol’ competitions.
Two decades later, I brought my family for the first time and we have vowed to make it an annual tradition.
Hike, snowshoe, ski, wash, repeat.
Unlike many red-rock destinations in Utah, Bryce Canyon soars between 6,600-9,1000 feet so expect a lot of chillier temperatures and snow. The National Park is teeming with trails and photo opps while just outside of the park, you’ll find one of the most expansive trail systems for Nordic skiing and snowshoeing in all of Utah.
Pro Tip: Your best friends out there will be Yaktrax (affordable walk-traction cleats that fit over your shoes), adjustable trekking poles and waterproof leg gaiters (I keep a set of Yaktracks in my backpack all winter in case I encounter icy conditions). If you prefer renting, the Ruby’s Inn Winter Adventure Center is your one-stop-shop for snowshoes, Nordic skis, ice skates and Yaktrax.
If you’re more of a point-and-shoot explorer, Inspiration Point provides easy walks along the rim and a steeper (often icy) walk south to a higher overlook. The Junior Ranger Program also leads some fun and easy Ranger-led snowshoe hikes.
Our family wanted to do a deeper dive so we parked at Sunset Point and hiked the Navajo Loop down down down the icy switchbacks into the amphitheater past towering walls and hoodoos baked in dramatic white and silence. It was an awe-inspiring scene but not too inspirational was forgetting my son’s boots and loaning him my Yaktrax for traction, resulting in more than one wipeout (by yours truly) on the icy trail.
We wound through the Ponderosa Pine forest on the canyon floor before looping back to connect with the Queen’s Garden Trails which offered us some of the best views of the Park. We hiked up to Sunrise Point and then the 1/2 mile along the rim back to the car. Total distance: 3 miles, non-stop smiles and one of our favorite winter hikes ever.
Sure, you can snowshoe but why snowshoe when you can ski? And why pay the National Park entrance fee when you can ski for free on 40+ km of groomed trails just outside of the entrance? In the winter, many roads to the lookout points aren’t plowed which means they’re fantastic for skiing or snowshoeing.
We started our ski adventures at Fairyland Canyon, a popular overlook in the summer about a mile before the National Park entrance station. We parked off Highway 12 and skied the easy 1-mile trek to Fairyland Point (perfect for beginners!) If you’re super ambitious, ditch your skis once you reach Fairyland Point and hike down into the amphitheater (the Fairyland Loop Trail is a strenuous 8-mile jaunt).
That afternoon, my friend Kristine and I explored the nearly 40 kilometers of cross-country ski track that the Ruby’s Inn Adventure Center grooms for classical and skating techniques. The trail winds through meadows and forests to the rim of Bryce Canyon and another network behind the hotel keeps going for forever (at least that was my fear when we got lost). Some of the trails interconnect with ski-set trails inside the national park. The scenery was stunning and best of all, there was no track fee at Ruby’s Inn and I’m happy to say we actually found our way back, though there are worse places and ways to die.
Dining options are limited in the area and my foodie expectations are always lowered in small towns. However, there are a handful of solid options. If you’re staying at Ruby’s Inn, the Cowboy’s Buffet & Steak Room is an easy choice for breakfast, lunch or dinner. If carb-loading is your jam, the Pizza Place in Tropic, Utah does a good job. We vacillated between i.d.k barbecue and Bryce Canyon Pines for my birthday dinner, eventually settling upon the latter because their 10 choices of pie are always better than birthday cake.
Whenever I have visited Bryce Canyon, I have always stayed at the 386-room Best Western Plus Ruby’s Inn, an affordable resort with an indoor pool, expansive general store, dining, an art and fossil gallery and Old Time Photos–perfect for families and large groups. In the summertime, Ruby’s Inn is the adventure hub of the whole area where you can stroll through the Old West at Bryce Town or camp at the Ruby’s Inn RV Park and Campground nestled in the pines.
The pandemic wreaked havoc on so much for one good thing to come out of is that last year’s fourth-graders may have been unable to make full use of their Every Kid Outdoors Annual Fourth Grade Pass. Translation: 4th- and 5th-grade students can have free access to our National Parks now through August 31, 2021.
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