Post Summary: Everything you need to know about visiting Canyonlands in winter.
A visit to Canyonlands in winter is perfect for anyone who craves the quiet bliss of the desolate desert. With zero crowds and miles of rugged canyons and staggering drop-offs, Canyonlands in winter calls to the adventure traveler.
We visited Canyonlands National Park in winter and loved every second of our time there. Located a 30-minute drive from Arches National Park, it’s an easy add-on to a Utah National Parks road trip.
Here’s our massive guide to everything you could possibly need to know about visiting Canyonlands in winter. We’ll cover what to do in Canyonlands in winter, where to stay, what to pack, how to avoid crowds, winter weather in Canyonlands, and tips for your time there.
Use the table of contents below if you want to skip down to specific topics.
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CANYONLANDS IN WINTER: THE PROS AND CONS
- You’ll have the park to yourself. When we visited Canyonlands in January, there were a few small groups of people but for the most part, the hiking trails and parking lots were virtually empty.
- The beauty of a red rock desert with powdery snow is unparalleled. I’d argue that seeing Utah’s national parks in the winter is just as gorgeous than seeing it in the high season. The dusting of white snow creates a beautiful contrast to the technicolor red rocks.
- The weather is better. What? I know not everyone loves cold weather, but Utah in the summer and late spring is outrageously hot. Temperatures can sit in the high 90’s to 100’s. Often, hiking mid day in the summer is too excrutiating meaning you’ll have to take a break and wait for the hottest part of the day to pass. In the winter, you’ll have all day to explore.
- No people in your photos. If you want to take nature photos, you’ll love being able to take shots with no one in your frame.
- You can secure a hotel or house rental at a reduced rate. In the high season, everything books out months in advance and prices are significantly higher. Not a problem in the winter. You can even be like us and roll up to a hotel at 11PM at night and still get a room.
- Limited facilities. From January to early March, the Visitor Center is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Canyonlands in winter is best suited for independent travelers who are well prepared before they come. Make sure to read our what to bring section so you have everything you need.
- Hazardous conditons like ice could cause the National Park Service to close certain trails and roads. Even if the park doesn’t officially close a trail or road, you still might not be able to access the entire park because of ice or snow.
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK EXPLAINED
Before we break down everything you need to know about visiting Canyonlands in the winter, it’s important to understand the different sections of the park. While Canyonlands is the biggest National Park in Utah, the area that most people visit is small.
There are four different districts of Canyonlands:
- The Island in the Sky is the area that most people explore. With jagged canyons carved out by the Colorado River, The Island In The Sky is a feast of stunning overlooks and sweeping desert views. It’s the easiest to access and has hiking trails for every ability. It’s also the closest district to Arches NP and Moab.
- The Maze is a remote, backcountry area that is best left to hikers with experience backpacking. As the name suggests, it’s quite easy to get lost out there. Winter travel through the Maze is only recommended for experienced adventurers. You can learn more about The Maze here.
- The Needles is made up of clusters of colorful sandstone spires that are incredible to hike around. Because it’s out of the way (75 miles from Moab), most people never make it there. If you have the time, are a fan of hiking, and love the idea of minimal crowds, it’s a worthwhile addition for the traveler who likes off the beaten path travel. It’s accessible and a good option for winter travel. You can learn more about The Needles here.
- The Rivers District is the area where the Colorado and Green River flows through the canyons. If you love kayaking, white water rafting, or canoeing you might want to explore the Rivers…when it’s warmer. Not the best district for winter travel. Because of their inaccessibility, most people only visit through a guided tour. You can learn more about The Rivers here.
For this post, we will only be covering the Island in the Sky district.
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK WINTER WEATHER
Let’s break down Canyonlands winter weather so you can be prepared for what to expect. Here are the average temperatures for Canyonlands National Park in December, January, February, and March.
Canyonlands National Park In December: High of 45 deg. / Low of 23 deg.
Canyonlands National Park In January: High of 44 deg. / Low of 22 deg.
Canyonlands National Park In February High of 52 deg. / Low of 28 deg.
Canyonlands National Park In March: High of 64 deg./ Low of 35 deg.
These are averages only, but it gives you an idea of what to prepare for. Canyonlands is a high desert landscape with an average elevation of 6100 feet. Temperatures within a day can have extreme fluctuations. We visited Canyonlands in January, where the temperatures at night dipped down to 7 degrees, but the daytime temperatures were a comfortable 45 degrees. Yes, that’s comfortable if you’re prepared with the right clothing! We’ll get into what to bring below.
Does it snow in Canyonlands National Park? Yes, but not much. On average, Canyonlands National park will get a light dusting of snow in December and January. Even though it doesn’t snow too much, you’re likely to see snow on the ground in areas that are shaded all day. While the park doesn’t receive huge amounts of snow, the ground does get icy, and roads and trails can become hazardous.
BEFORE YOU GO
If you’ll be visiting several National Parks in Utah, we suggest buying a National Parks Pass. The pass allows you entrance into over 2000 federal land parks for a one-time annual fee. You can learn more and buy the national park pass here.
WHERE TO STAY IN CANYONLANDS IN WINTER
Since there is no lodging inside Canyonlands National Park, the best place to stay for a trip to Arches National Park is a hotel or home rental in Moab, Utah.
Moab, Utah, is typically the jumping-off point for visiting Canyonlands, Arches, and the nearby Dead Horse Point State Park. Moab in the winter is a little less lively, but it’s a great, small town with a good collection of restaurants, boutiques, and grocery stores.
The drive from central Moab to Canyonlands is 32 miles and roughly 40-45 minutes long.
Here are some great choices of where to stay in Moab.
Moab Home Rentals
We always prefer VRBO (vacation rental by owner) over a hotel since they tend to be cheaper, are more private, and enjoy having our own kitchen to prepare meals. Check out these cute VRBO’s in Moab below:
Blue Haven In The Center Of Moab (Two bedrooms, Sleeps 10, Great for families or if you have a trailer)
Artsy Al Fresco Abode (One bedroom, Sleeps 4, Great for a couple or small family, walking distance to restaurants)
Modern Downtown Moab Home (Three bedrooms, Sleeps 6, Great for families or if you’re traveling in a group, great walkability)
A hotel can be a great choice if you want the extra amenities of a pool, hot tub, and concierge. We ended up staying at the SpringHill Suites by Marriott when we had a propane issue with our renovated vintage camper, and we needed somewhere to stay at 11 pm! The SpringHill Suites is the closest hotel to Canyonlands and is a great choice for its comfortable rooms and amazing outdoor hot tubs. Because winter is the slow season, you might even have the hot tubs to yourself. We did!
Winter Camping In Arches
You can also opt to do winter camping in Canyonlands at the only campground offered in the park, Willow Flat Campground. It’s a tent-only campsite and operates on a first-come, first-served basis.
WHAT TO WEAR TO CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK IN WINTER
High-quality cold-weather gear is essential for enjoying your time at Canyonlands in winter. Layering is the essential piece for how to dress for Canyonlands. Even though it might be in the lows 40’s, hiking will get your blood circulating and your body feeling warm, so you may end up wanting to peel off that heavy fleece sweater.
When we visited Canyonlands in January, the weather was a cool 40 degrees, but the sun was blazing down and we actually got a little hot at points. We even got a mild sunburn.
Here are our recommendations for what to wear to Canyonlands National Park in winter.
LIGHTWEIGHT JACKET: A lightweight jacket that is easy to pack and can be thrown in your daypack is ideal. We love Patagonia’s Insulated Jackets because they are lightweight and pack down to a water bottle’s size. You can check out the women’s jackets HERE and the men’s jackets HERE.
FLEECE SWEATER: A fleece jacket or sweater is the perfect layer to go under your lightweight jacket. It might keep you so warm that you won’t even need your lightweight jacket on top. The fleece sweaters from LL Bean are of great quality and with proper care, will last a long time. You can check out women’s fleece sweaters HERE and men’s sweaters HERE. If you want something at a lower price point, I also like this fashionable looking fleece I bought off Amazon. It did a great job of keeping me warm in Canyonlands.
HAT: A cozy, snug beanie will keep you extra warm on the trail.
GLOVES: A good pair of winter gloves can make all the difference in the world when it’s cold outside. You’ll no doubt be taking photos on your phone, so it’s best to get gloves that are leather or have a pad on the pointer finger. You don’t want to have to continually take off your gloves! I love my Sheepskin Leather gloves from Amazon. I love that they’re timeless looking, are cozy to the touch, and keep me warm.
HIKING SHOES: The main activity in Canyonlands is hiking, so you’ll want a good pair of hiking shoes that have excellent ankle support. It can get muddy in the winter, so you’ll also want shoes that are waterproof and rise to your ankle or mid-calf. We use the Danner Jag Boot, a great all-around hiking boot with a nice retro style.
TRACTION CLEATS: You’ll definitely want these! I can’t recommend a traction device enough for when you’re visiting Canyonlands in the winter. Many of the trails can get a thin layer of ice, making them slippery and dangerous, especially in areas with steep drop-offs. A traction device like Yak-Trax slips onto the outside of your shoes and gives you stability in icy conditions. I like the Yaktrax traction chains best because you can wear them on sections without snow and ice and still be comfortable. We tried the Yaktrax spikes and while they were great when walking on ice, it was awkward on the sections of the trail that didn’t have ice. Too much of a hassle to switch back and forth!
DAYPACK: A backpack is a must for when you inevitably want to peel off all those winter layers! My husband always sticks to The North Face backpacks and I like Fjallraven because they’re smaller and have a range of cute colors.
WHAT TO PACK FOR CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK IN WINTER
PAPER MAP: If the visitors center is closed when you visit, they will typically leave out paper maps with info on the park. The day we visited, all the paper maps were gone! A good paper map from National Geographic is a godsend and more detailed than the one provided by the NPS. You can also download the park map from the NPS site to your phone. You can view the map here.
SUNBLOCK: Yes, you will need sunblock in Canyonlands! Even though it’s cold, the sun will (hopefully) be shining bright on the days you visit. Also, the higher elevation will cause you to burn faster.
SUNGLASSES: It was bright and sunny for our winter trip to Canyonlands, so be sure to bring sunglasses.
CHAPSTICK: Cold, dry winter is the perfect environment for chapped lips. Bring your favorite lip moisturizer.
LUNCH AND SNACKS: There is no food available in the park, so you will need to pack in a lunch and snacks for your time there.
WATER BOTTLE: Even though it will be cold, you will work up a sweat hiking the trails. Bring a reusable water bottle like a Hydro Flask that is filled up with water BEFORE you get there. The great thing about a Hydro Flask is it can keep your drink ice cold or piping hot for 24 hours. On brisk mornings you can pour coffee into your Hydro Flask and keep yourself toasty warm.
POWER BANK: The cold weather, lack of a good cell signal, and constant photo taking will drain your phone faster than you’re used to. Bring a high-quality power bank or solar power charger so you can have your phone working at all times.
FLASHLIGHT OR HEADLAMP: Canyonlands at sunrise and sunset is a popular time for photographers and nature lovers. Bring a flashlight or headlamp if you’ll be there before or after the sun sets or if you plan to do nighttime hiking.
HIKING POLES: If you don’t feel steady on your feet or need extra support, hiking poles are a great addition to your Canyonlands packing list. Hiking in icy conditions is inherently “slippery” so having a sturdy pair of lightweight hiking poles can give you some much-needed stability. If you’ll be doing harder trails, hiking poles are highly recommended.
TRASH BAGS: Winter conditions make for muddy hiking trails. Bring some bags to put your shoes on for when you go back into your car. Otherwise, you’ll have red sand in your car for days!
SNOW CHAINS: If you have a 4×4 and are wanting to explore the dirt roads of Canyonlands, make sure you are prepared with snow chains that fit your tires.
WHAT TO DO IN CANYONLANDS IN WINTER
For all of the hikes listed below, you’ll need to use your best judgment if they are icy the day you hike. Some trails will be fine, while others will be covered in snow or ice. Bring traction cleats! I can’t say it enough. For up-to-date conditions and trail closings, you can look on the official website or talk to a park ranger.
The most famous landmark in Canyonlands is Mesa Arch. In the busy months, you’ll have hundreds of people clamoring to get their sunrise photo right at the moment the sun peeks through the arch. While Canyonlands in winter is remarkably crowd-free, this is the only spot where you might have a small crowd at sunrise. If that deters you, then do the short .5 mile loop hike in the late morning or mid-day to see this beautiful arch that sits at the precipice of a canyon. It’s an easy trail and recommended, especially if you won’t be visiting the nearby Arches National Park.
TIME NEEDED: 30 minutes to 1 hour
GRAND VIEW POINT OVERLOOK AND HIKE
You can walk out to the Grand View Point Overlook to take in sweeping views of Monument Basin. If you also want to get a hike in, you can continue to do the 2 miles out and back Grand View Point Hike. It walks along the canyon and offers exceptional views. For many, this is the ideal hike when visiting Canyonlands. An easy hike that gives you a great overview of the geography of Canyonlands.
TIME NEEDED: 30 minutes to 1 hour
WHITE RIM OVERLOOK TRAIL
This 1.8-mile out-and-back hike takes you out to a viewpoint that gives you views of Monument Basin and Buck Canyon. I thought it was a better hike than Grand View Point and liked that fewer people were there. Plus, you get two different views in one hike.
TIME NEEDED: 1 to 1.5 hours
UPHEAVAL DOME HIKE
A moderate hike takes you to clear views of Upheaval Dome and the peculiar-looking crater. There are two overlooks on the trail with the first one being an easy .3 miles away from the trailhead. You can choose to turn back from there or continue on .5 miles to the second overlook. The hike to the second overlook is steep in areas, and traction cleats are recommended when doing it in winter.
TIME NEEDED: 1 to 1.5 hours
WHALE ROCK TRAIL
This short but moderate .8 mile out and back hike is fun for those who want light thrills. The end of the hike requires scrambling up slickrock to get great views of Upheaval Dome at the top. Depending on winter weather, the slickrock could be icy and dangerous. Scrambling up slickrock in icy conditions is never suggested.
TIME NEEDED: 30 minutes to 1 hour
SHAFER CANYON OVERLOOK AND VIEWPOINT
A sweeping overlook that gives you views of Shafer Canyon and the winding dirt road (that road is only accessible by 4×4) that leads down into the canyon. It’s an easy stop-over and a beautiful view. For an even better view, go to Shafer Canyon Viewpoint to see the hairpin turns of Shafer Road.
TIME NEEDED: 15- 30 minutes
GREEN RIVER OVERLOOK
A pretty lookout that shows the Green River carving its way through the basin floor. It’s a slightly different view than previous overlooks, so it’s worth the easy walk from the parking lot. You can also see the Maze district, White Rim Road, and Ekker Butte.
TIME NEEDED: 15- 30 minutes
This 5.4 miles out and back hike takes you below the canyon’s rim to give you a different view. The Gooseberry Trail takes you down 1000 feet, so only hike down if you’re willing to hike back up! It’s well worth the work though, and nice to get a different perspective on Canyonlands. In the winter, the trail will most likely be covered in snow. If you haven’t hiked in snowy conditions before and don’t have hiking poles and/or traction cleats, it’s best to pass on this hike.
TIME NEEDED: 3-5 Hours
A strenuous 8.5 miles round trip hike that is best suited for experienced hikers only. Syncline Loop is perfect if you’re looking for solitude and a long hike. A good choice if you’ve been to Canyonlands before and are looking for a different type of trail and view. In winter, parts of the trail will be icy, so you must use caution and common sense.
TIME NEEDED: 7-8 Hours
Enjoy the solitude of Canyonlands in winter!
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