10 reasons to visit Utah this winter

Jan 2, 2022

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Utah is home to some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes in the United States, and there’s a reason outdoor enthusiasts are so invested in the otherworldly terrain. Simply put: it’s stunning.

Biblical, billion-plus-year-old rock formations line the highways. Hoodoos rise out of the desert canyons like ancient abstract sculptures. And mountains loom over the horizon like holograms throughout the state. Plus, there’s world-class skiing, horse-drawn sleigh rides to mountain cabins for dinner, ice slides to fly down, and snow tubing down mountainsides plus one of the coolest animal rescue centers in the entire country. And everything looks especially pristine and pretty under a fresh layer of snow.

With five national parks within its borders, the state’s tourism industry brought in $1 billion in 2019. And the 2020/2021 ski season in Utah was a record-breaking one, with over 5.3 million skier days recorded at the state’s many mountain resorts.

If you’re thinking about checking out Utah this winter, you can rest assured that there’s more to do here than ski or snowboard. And the bonus? Away from the major resort areas, you’ll hardly have to contend with the road-tripping crowds of summertime.

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Read on for 10 of the best wintertime adventures to put on your radar for an epic trip to Utah in the snowy season.

The mighty five are (relatively) empty

Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park. (Photo by Noppawat Tom Charoensinphon/Getty Images)

According to National Park Service data, 2021’s summer season saw visitation to Utah’s mighty Five national parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef) return to nearly pre-pandemic numbers, even with visitation from international travelers down compared to previous years due to travel restrictions.

Last summer, on far more than one occasion, the most popular parks, including Arches National Park, had to close their gates entirely due to overcrowding, turning disappointed visitors away at the door. When you visit Utah’s national parks during the winter months, however, you hardly have to contend with those kinds of issues.

And while ranger-led hikes and other offerings are off the table during the slower winter season at spots like Arches, you can still go camping at Devil’s Garden Campground here, which is open year-round, as well as hike the many park trails that remain open all the year. Just don’t forget the hand warmers and GORE-TEX boots.

Most of the hiking trails at Zion National Park also stay open during the winter, where the relatively low altitude of Zion Canyon’s floor means you’ll rarely have to contend with much snow when taking in the spectacular red rock and snow-dusted views up above during a hike or drive up the canyon.

The powder can be top-notch

Utah claims to have the “greatest snow on earth.” It falls light and fluffy from the sky, like tiny cotton balls, thanks to the frequent snowstorms that churn over the Wasatch Mountains. And while there’s no guarantee it will dump as much as skiers and snowboarders might like it to every season (recent winter seasons have seen some of the most anemic snowfall of the past 30 years), when Utah’s snow is good it’s truly great.

And what really sets Utah’s ski resorts apart from ski destinations in other states is their proximity to the Salt Lake City airport. Within a one-hour drive of the airport, powder hounds can be flying down the mountains at 10 of 15 Utah ski resorts, including places like Park City, Solitude, Alta and other resorts (mark your calendar for December 2024, too, when Utah’s first all-inclusive Club Med ski property is slated to open at Snowbasin Resort, also just a 45-minute drive from the international airport).

While well-known ski resorts like Deer Valley and Sundance Mountain Resort might be among those with the biggest name recognition, it’s worth seeking out lesser-known (and less crowded) mountains like Bryan Head (home to Utah’s highest base elevation) and Cherry Peak, in northern Utah’s beautiful Bear River Mountains.

You can speed down a bobsled run…

Utah’s Olympic Park bobsledding. (Photo by Ryan McVay/Getty Images)

There are only two bobsleigh, luge and skeleton tracks in the entire United States. One is in Lake Placid, New York. The other: Park City’s Utah Olympic Park built for the 2002 winter games. From late December through early April, riders over the age of 16 who weigh more than 100 pounds can jump on the Comet Bobsled with the pros. Pseudo Olympians fly down a tube of ice at 80-plus miles-per-hour with four to five times the force of gravity. Obviously, you’ll want to rewatch Cool Runnings before you go.

Note that 2022 marks the 20 year anniversary of the 2002 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games in Utah when 2,500 Olympians from 77 nations attracted the largest crowds ever at any Olympic Winter Games (a record that still stands today).

Look for local celebrations and reunions this year across Utah’s mountain areas marking the anniversary and bask in the growing buzz as the bid to bring the winter games back to Utah in 2030 gains momentum.

…Or cross-country ski at a national park

Cross-country skiing is hard work. It pretty much uses every muscle in the body, even if you might not feel it until the next day. For those just starting out, it’s easier (or at least more enjoyable) if there’s something pretty to look at while you’re moving those arms and legs. And Bryce Canyon National Park is the perfect place to get you cross-country ski legs.

From just $15 a day ($10 if you start after 1 p.m.), visitors can rent a cross-country ski kit from Ruby’s Inn right outside the park entrance. The area offers more than 30-miles of groomed trails that wind through Ponderosa Pine forests, and pass by jaw-dropping overlooks of the red canyon walls.

Slide down ice chutes at Ice Castles

The Midway Ice Castles in Utah. (Photo by sam_/Getty Images)

Let the kids play Elsa, Anna and Sven from Frozen when you visit this wrought-from-ice wonderland in Midway, Utah, some 28 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, that opens January 2022 for the season.

Built from hundreds of thousands of icicles meticulously inserted in place by professional “ice artists” (where can we apply for that job?), Ice Castles plays out in five U.S states this winter, including New York, Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Minnesota.

The Utah version has tunnels, slides, fountains and an ice maze, all carved from ice,  as well as sleigh rides and a special alcove within the ice castle should you want to pop the question or do something else similarly celebratory. 

Come nightfall, the setting is especially magical, with LED lights casting a colorful glow from within the ice creations that just adds to the atmospheric vibes.

Catch a horse-drawn sleigh to a Western dinner

There’s on-mountain dining. Then there’s on-mountain dining where you travel by horse-drawn sleigh to and from a cozy mountain cabin, with a cowboy leading two noble draft horses as snow drifts down from above. Snuggled up under a cozy blanket, it’s all pretty romantic. And that’s the transportation experience that awaits when you venture out for a winter’s meal with Snowed Inn Sleigh Company at Park City Mountain Resort.

Once you arrive at the Snowed Inn Lodge, you’re welcomed with a crackling fire, live music and a Western-inspired meal that might include trout or roasted prime rib before the sleigh bells jingle and it’s time to plod back down the mountain under a snowy or star-filled sky. Kids under two ride and eat for free and there are discounts for the age three to 12 crowd, too.

Test your powder skills during a cat skiing

(Photo by ZaragonDesign/Getty Images)

No, we don’t mean skiing with your cat. If you’re up to the challenge, catching a ride on a snowcat — a powerful vehicle that looks like a snow groomer and uses belt-like mechanisms to access steep, often-ungroomed and powder-rich terrain where chair lifts don’t go–is a fun way to foray off-piste into some of Utah’s snowiest places.

Cat skiing in Utah is particularly good at Powder Mountain, where new open-air snowcats purchased last year by the resort provide more uphill capacity than ever.

Powder Mountain’s Lightning Ridge is one of three single-ride cat areas you can access at the resort to find yourself waist-deep in 1,300 skiable acres of powder that are mostly just for you and the other 14 passengers who’ve ridden the cat to reach them.

On a powder day — and when you’ve got the skiing or riding skills to stand up to the task — there’s no mountain magic like this.

Scream down a tube run at Woodward Park City

The “first all-in-one action sports and ski resort” in the United States, Woodward Park City opened in December. 2019 about 10 miles from Park City Mountain Resort and has quickly become a favorite destination for families who are looking to do more than just schuss the limited freestyle skiing and snowboarding runs offered on site.

Open 365 days a year, indoor action sports and games include trampolines, an indoor skate park, a micro gym and tumble area for kids ages one to three. Outdoors you’ll find training areas for BMX, mountain biking, skateboarding and more. Plus the park also has an awesome snow-tubing park (with Utah’s longest runs!) accessed by two conveyor belts (and open to everyone four years and up).

The hot chocolate game is on point

(Photo by Linda Raymond/Getty Images)

You might be surprised by this, but Utah is home to some of the best bean-to-bar chocolate makers in the country. Local Mormons have taken a huge interest in adopting a discerning culinary experience through chocolate. In Salt Lake City, Hatch Family Chocolates, which took a turn in the national spotlight on TLC’s Little Chocolatiers, offers a fully-customizable drink, with a choice of milk or dark chocolate and a dairy or vegan base. Ritual Chocolate in Park City serves several hot and cold chocolate-based drinks, including a simple hot chocolate and sipping chocolates from single-origin beans from Ecuador, Belize, Madagascar and Peru.

Skip the lines at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

Dogs? Check. Cats? Yep. Bunnies? You bet. Best Friends Animal Sanctuary houses 1,600 rescue animals ranging from puppies and kittens to horses, pigs and goats on the sprawling 3,700-acre facility. To get on one of the peak season (May through September) Grand Sanctuary tours, the Best Friends teams suggest booking six months in advance. These two-hour excursions bring guests inside one cat and one dog building, then pass by the other rescue facilities that are dotted throughout Angel Canyon. In the winter and shoulder season, it’s easier to rock up the same day for one of the four scheduled tours. Plus, the nearby Kanab hotels are significantly cheaper from October through March.

Additional reporting by Terry Ward.

Featured photo by Erik Isakson/Getty Images.

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