Explore Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Park in the Winter

The global popularity of Utah’s National Parks has created a dependable summertime mob. At least once a summer, Arches National Park makes the news as crowds clamoring to get a glimpse of Delicate Arch shut down Utah Highway 191, just outside park gates near Moab. Even on the least busy warm-season days, the lines of cars cruising popular sections of each park fulfill Edward Abbey’s 1960s prescient lines from Desert Solitaire predicting the “serpentine streams of baroque automobiles pouring in and out, all through spring and summer, in numbers that would have seemed fantastic when I worked there…the ‘visitation,’ as they call it, mounts ever upward.” 

Is this the great outdoors? Or a parking lot? Plus, it’s hot in all but the highest elevations, with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees for most of the summer season. But in the off-season? The parks are yours. Open roads and open trails, comfortably cool daytime temperatures and blessed quiet offer a rare solitary view of the overly viewed vistas. Of course, there are some hurdles to wintertime adventures, like weather. The second obstacle to traveling in Southern Utah is a dearth of lodging and restaurants, a downside to solitude. But amid seasonal closures, we found a pleasant selection of year-round places to stay in each of the communities near the park areas and some surprisingly good eats along the way.

Capitol Reef — National Park

One of the most under-appreciated national parks, Capitol Reef should not be. So appreciate it already. Its winding canyons and Parisian boulevard-like washes offer stunning displays of the power of wind and water to shape the land. The park was essentially empty last February and perhaps the best and loneliest of the parks in winter. 

Utah National Parks

Photo Credit Adobe Stock

The Big Hike 

The Frying Pan Trail — Distance: 7 miles

This hike will take you into the heart of the Reef, and along the way, you’ll get stunning views from both below and above the underrated Cassidy Arch (named after Butch Cassidy of “and the Sundance Kid” fame, who hid out in the area). The trail starts at the Grand Wash, a ramble up a wide avenue of the former riverbed. The Cassidy Arch trail starts at 3/4 of a mile in on the right and is a strenuous climb up to the top of the Waterpocket Fold. Once you’re up there, however, the going is pretty easy. Cassidy Arch is a spur off the main trail and worth the detour, but in snowy or wet weather, stay well away from the edge. You’ll follow the Frying Pan Trail out, through the goblin-filled Cohab Canyon. Unless you have two cars, you’ll need to ply your hitchhiking skills on Utah Highway 24 back to the Grand Wash trailhead, which in an empty park can take a while. 

Off-season Eats

Red Cliffs Restaurant 

Pickings were slim last February as far as restaurants in Torrey go, but Red Cliffs Restaurant served up a decent take-out pizza during a winter storm that had pretty well shut the rest of town down. 56 E. Main St., Torrey, 435-425-3797

Off-season Stay

Broken Spur Inn

The Broken Spur is the only lodging open off-season in Torrey, just outside Capitol Reef. The homey, family-run establishment is the type of place that has Zane Grey books
in the lobby and a hearty western breakfast included in the cowboy-comfortable dining room. 955 E. Utah Highway 24, Torrey, brokenspurinn.com, 435-425-3775

Canyonlands — National Park

Perhaps one of the park system’s most disjointed areas of majesty, Canyonlands is truly a puzzle. Divided by the rugged topography of the landscape into three districts—Needles, Island in the Sky and the honestly named Maze—the park befuddles. The Islands in the Sky area is the most easily accessible, while Needles and the rugged Maze offer more backcountry than many national parkgoers expect. Regardless of the district, every trek into Canyonlands is marked by a steep descent into and a rugged climb out of the deep canyons carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries. 

Utah National Parks

Photo Credit Adobe Stock

The Big Hike 

Murphy Loop (Island in the Sky District)—Distance: 10 miles

From the rim, the trail seems to disappear right into the cliffside. The steep 1,400-foot descent is a real thrill—remember that secret trail Frodo and Sam climbed in Lord of the Rings’ Mordor? The precarious perch on the cliffside offers stunning vistas at every turn. At the bottom, you’ll hike through a sandy wash in a loop that returns you to the cliff base for a tough climb out. 

Off-season Stay

Dead Horse Point

The road into Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District passes by Dead Horse Point State Park, a worthy side trip in and of itself. Last year the state park installed three yurts on the edge of its famous overlook. The yurts are open year-round, with a toasty heater. The yurt deck is a prime seat for stunning sunsets and sunrises, and on a moonless night, you’ll lose count of stars and feel super insignificant under the twinkling blanket above. Reservations in the off-season are easy and can be made up to four months in advance at stateparks.utah.gov.

By the Way — Kanab

Kanab is a popular destination with a bus-touring set. Located in the center of the Grand Circle, a set of byways that includes stops at Bryce, Zion, Lake Powell and Arches and the Northern Rim of the Grand Canyon, Kanab is an excellent way station open in wintertime. Many Hollywood westerns were filmed in the area, including John Ford’s classic starring John Wayne, The Searchers. The town pays homage to that legacy with kitschy western gear shops and tourist traps complete with old movie sets.

Off-season eats

The Rocking V Cafe

Kanab’s Center Street mainstay, the Rocking V. is a solid bet for a good meal and offers the gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options often missing on southern Utah menus. 97 W. Center St., Kanab, rockingvcafe.com, 435-644-8001

Off-season stay

Quail Park Lodge

This classic mid-century motor lodge has been upgraded into a campy mid-century modern boutique hotel. The rooms are retro chic, with big comfy beds and well-appointed bathrooms. Free breakfast is across the street at The Victorian Inn, which features an equally hip lobby filled with the owner’s collection of Dale Chihuly’s sculptural glass works. 125 N. 300 West, Kanab, quailparklodge.com, 435-215-1447

Arches – National Park

The most popular park in Utah lives up to its name, with a vast array of mind-boggling sandstone arches around every corner. The park is packed in summertime, mainly because of the easy hike to its show pony: Delicate Arch. But like every park in winter, it’s blissfully deserted come February. The park is near Moab, which provides an excellent base of operations for exploring Southeastern Utah.

Utah National Parks

photo credit venti views

The Big Hike 

Double O Arch (via the Devil’s Garden Primitive Loop) — Distance: 7.2 miles

If you’ve bagged Delicate Arch, head to the back of the park and take the trip to Double O Arch. Along the way, you’ll see other marquee arches like Landscape, as well as the ominous Dark Angel tower. The hike will have you scrambling over slick rock fins back to the trail’s namesake arch. Instead of heading back the way you came, take the primitive loop back to the parking area. The trail marches you through Devil’s Garden, over even more slick rock obstacles and again with the stunning scenery. 

Off-season Eats

Moab’s Winter Offerings

More than most park-adjacent towns in Southern Utah, Moab has more year-round offerings for the winter traveler. Find unexpected Southeast Asian fare at Arches Thai (archesthai.com) or Bangkok House Too (bangkokhousetoo.com). For meat and potatoes (with a view) try Sunset Grill (moabsunsetgrill.com). Finally, one of Moab’s best restaurants isn’t anything fancy but the family-owned El Tapatio (tapatiorestaurants.com) offers warm, comforting Mexican fare, perfect for warming up after a day of winter hiking. 

Off-season Stay

Fairfield Inn

The Fairfield Inn on the edge of Moab is a clean, breakfast-included base with comfortable, business-class rooms. Predictable and easy, it was ideal after seven days on the road. 1863 N. Highway 191 Moab, marriott.com, 435-­259-­5350

We have more off-season tips and tricks to explore more of Utah’s famed National Parks— Bryce Canyon and Zion.

Jeremy Pugh
Jeremy Pughhttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Jeremy Pugh is Salt Lake magazine's Editor. He covers culture, history, the outdoors and whatever needs a look. Jeremy is also the author of the book "100 Things to Do in Salt Lake City Before You Die" and the co-author of the history, culture and urban legend guidebook "Secret Salt Lake."

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