Utah in winter? What a great idea! We came to Utah for a mini winter road trip during Christmas holiday. With a rented campervan, we headed south to St. George and nearby Snow Canyon State Park where winter is mild enough for some sandstone scramble and desert hiking.
Related: A Southwest Roadtrip Story, that one time I went on a roadtrip with people I met on the Internet (sorry, mom).
Utah in Winter
Salt Lake City with its world-class ski resorts makes a great skiing destination. This was our main reason to visit Utah this past winter. Unfortunately Jack was still recovering from broken ribs due a climbing incident a few months earlier. He had already re-broken his ribs once during recovery from climbing too much too soon. So even though he’s an excellent snowboarder who rarely falls, we thought… maybe we’ll sit out this season?
Instead we went on a whiskey tasting tour (this one) – for a state known for its Mormon population, Salt Lake City actually has a thriving craft whisky scene. Who’d have guessed? (Fun fact: Our favorite whiskey distillery, High West, is Utah-based.)
Then we picked up a camper van and headed south where winter is milder and hiking opportunities abound. Our final destination: St. George and Snow Canyon State Park.
After some detours through Bryce and Zion, we arrived at Snow Canyon State Park. Despite the name, this state park seldom receives snow. (The park is actually named after an early Mormon settler: Lorenzo Snow, and not the fluffy, cold, stuff.)
Don’t get me wrong, I love myself some desert snow. Southwest desert is beautiful any time of the year, but winter is my favorite time. I especially love the color palette of southwest post-winter storm: sky blue, snow white, sandstone red, and sage green.
Winter + desert goes so well together in my world.
Snow Canyon State Park
Snow Canyon State Park is a 7400-acre scenic park located in Utah’s south west corner, a stone throw distance from St. George. The landscape is dominated by fragile desert environment, along with canyons and valleys carved out of creamy white and orange Navajo sandstone cliffs.
An avid hiker can see the park’s highlight in one busy day, but why rush? We stayed here in our rented campervan for 3 days and we loved it! It got below freezing once the winter sun dips below the horizon, but the day bring crips, cool air and bluebird sky that contrasts beautifully against the red sandstone. In the morning, I’d cross the road from the campground to walk half a mile to an overlook. The view that greeted me was so gorgeous my heart always skipped a beat.
Recommended Hiking Trails
Snow Canyon Overlook Trail
If you’re only going to do one hike in St. George (in winter or any other time really), make it the Snow Canyon Overlook trail. The ranger we spoke to at the campground office highly recommended this hike and we agree! The trail is part of a much longer trail, but most people turn around at the overlook which provides a view through the length of Snow Canyon to St. George and beyond. It is easy-moderate, not particularly steep, about 5 mile round trip in length, and worth every step.
The trailhead is located north of the park on Highway 18 and it’s not on the park’s official map. The trail is called “Red Mountain Trail”. Drive north out of the park until you meet Highway 18. Turn left. The trailhead’s parking lot is about 4.3 miles form the junction (or 6.6 miles from the campground).
Hidden Pinyon Overlook and West Canyon Overlook
These two overlooks can be done separately or as one longer hike. They’re marked on the map below and you can park at either end and make a loop if you wish. They both provide a scenic view of Snow Canyon and plenty of scrambling opportunities. On the way to West Canyon, you’ll get to see some ancient lava tubes. If you bring a headlamp, you can explore inside these tubes but watch out for sharp rocks and uneven terrain.
Know Before You Go
- Entrance fee is $10 (December 2018)
- $20/night non-hookup camping fee
- The park makes for a perfect day trip or a short weekend getaway from St. George
- There’s plenty of rock climbing opportunity at the park as well as around St. George
- There is little to no shade on all the trail. Be sure to put on sunscreen (I love this mineral-based, reef-safe
sunscreen from Bare Republic.)
- Food and grocery stores can be found in the town of St. George.
Where to Stay in Snow Canyon
The campground at Snow Canyon State Park is really well maintained and easily accessible from the main road. All tent-only sites come with a fire pit and a picnic table. Some sites are tucked in-between colorful cliffs, providing more privacy, some have shades, and some have both. The fee is $20/night (non hookup).
If you’re camping in Snow Canyon in winter, be prepared for sub-zero nights. We had a duvet and a campervan, but we still slept with hot water bottles and all of our layers.
Accommodation in St. George
If you don’t feel like camping in the middle of winter (totally get it), there are lots of accommodation options in nearby St. George.
Red Mountain Resort has a superb location at the base of Snow Canyon State Park. They run guided hikes and biking tours to the park. The view from the property is phenomenal.
Anywhere else in the world, people would flock to Snow Canyon and love it to death. It’s just unfortunate that its neighbors include household name national parks such as Zion and Bryce. Or maybe it’s a good thing… we’re so lucky to have state parks that are just as beautiful as our national parks with a fraction of the crowd. Let’s keep it that way.
Psst. Another underrated state park nearby is Cathedral Gorge SP, a 2 hr drive from St. George.