The season of solitude
ZION NATIONAL PARK - Walking the Riverside Trail at the end of Zion Canyon can be delightful any time of year, but a stroll along the one-mile paved trail can be especially invigorating in the dead of winter.
Since the average high temperature in Zion Park is in the mid-50s in January and February, it's possible to find blue-sky days when the air is crisp and the trails relatively uncrowded.
Just ask 2-year-old Hayden Gines of Herriman, who took his first hike in early January along the Riverside Walk. He felt the cold water that seemed to drip out of the red rocks along the Virgin River and examined the sandstone with his hands.
"Rock!" he exclaimed, followed by "Water!"
His older sister, 6-year-old Ryley, loved seeing mule deer near the start of the trail and was convinced a beaver must have cut down trees creating a tiny pool along the river.
The children's parents, Kristy and Doug Gines, seemed delighted their children enjoyed the short walk on a near-empty trail.
"It wasn't as cold as I thought it would be," Kristy said. "The climate is nice. It was great watching them explore new things. We have never taken a trail before. We've just driven in the past. The kids didn't know you could hike."
Doug thought the paved trail might be a bit boring, but left plenty impressed with its beauty and the way his young children took to the outdoor experience.
There are many reasons to visit Zion in January and February, when Utah's most-visited national park gets a reprieve from summer crowds that can overwhelm the trails and the canyon.
Many motels in the gateway community of Springdale, and the Zion Lodge inside the park, offer winter rates. Year-round commercial facilities have a decidedly more laidback feel.
"It's like a vacation," said Stephen Foltz, who stays on through the winter as a waiter at the Zion Lodge restaurant. "Things are a whole lot slower. I like it better from a guest perspective. You can relax and not be surrounded by people."
David Johnson, who works at the Zion Lodge, said winter is a good time for people who like to drive a car into the canyon because the shuttle system doesn't run. Zion doesn't usually start to get crowded again until the first part of April, Johnson said.
It will cost more to enter the park this year. Entrance fees to Zion National Park increased from $20 to $25 for a seven-day noncommercial vehicle pass starting in January.
Zion National Park superintendent Jock Whitworth said visitors will benefit from the increase through improved services and facilities. The last fee increase at Zion was in 2000.
Park officials said fee revenues collected in the past have financed projects to rehabilitate the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive and Nature Center as well as replace outdated park exhibits.
If there is one challenge to visiting Zion in the winter, it comes in the form of an occasional snowstorm. Portions of popular trails such as Emerald Pools, Weeping Rock, Riverside, Observation Point, Angels Landing and Hidden Canyon can close due to icy patches or snow and ice falling from above. The National Park Service said trails in the Kolob Canyons area are snow-covered much of the winter.
"Hikers should be flexible and plan to turn back if trail conditions are unsafe or falling ice is a hazard," a winter park newspaper warned.
The Watchman Campground is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis, and hookups are available at some sites. In early January, the campground was nearly empty.
Visitor centers at Zion and Kolob Canyons are open daily, though winter hours are shortened. The Zion Center is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Kolob Canyon is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Zion National Park
* WHY GO? There are fewer visitors and lower hiking temperatures during winter in Utah's most popular national park. Plus, prices at area motels and the Zion Lodge are reduced during the winter.
* HOW TO GET THERE: I-15 passes west of the park and connects with Utah Highway 9. Take exit 16, and then Utah Highway 17, exit 27. U.S. Highway 89 passes east of the park and connects with Utah Highway 9 at the Mt. Carmel Junction.
* WHAT IT WILL COST: The entry fee to get into Zion National Park is $25 for one vehicle for seven days.
* NOT TO MISS: Get out of your car and take a walk on short paved trails such as Riverside, Weeping Rock or the Emerald Pools, which offer a relatively easy way for visitors to get a feel for the uncrowded beauty of Zion National Park in the winter.
* WHERE TO EAT: The Zion Lodge offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, with great views of the canyon. In nearby Springdale, locals enjoy Mexican food and occasional live music at the Bit and Spur.
* WEATHER: Winter temperatures in Zion are mild, with an average high of 52 degrees in January, 57 in February and 63 in March. However, the temperature can fall as low as as 29 in January. Snow isn't unusual.
* MORE INFORMATION: Log on to http://www.nps.gov and go to the Zion National Park section or phone 435-772-3256. For information on Zion Lodge, call 888-297-2757 or log on to http://www.zionlodge.com.