Westworld Winter Wonderland
Las Vegas is a beautiful outdoor destination year-round, and the wintertime brings moderate temperatures perfect for exploring areas like Red Rock, Lake Mead, and Valley of Fire. But Vegas is also centrally located to so many other beautiful—and very popular—national parks and outdoor destinations, and winter is an excellent time to visit! Within just a few hours’ drive from Vegas, you’ll find some of the most popular national parks and destinations in the Southwest—and in the winter, they’re blanketed with a dusting of snow that makes everything sparkle, with far fewer crowds and at a fraction of the cost of high tourist season. So grab your warm, fuzzy hats and winter boots, and enjoy the splendor of the Southwest during the most quiet, tranquil time of the year!
There is never a bad time to visit the Grand Canyon, but there are “better” times depending on your preferences for crowds and weather. One of the most-visited national parks in the country, the Grand Canyon gets over 6 million visitors per year, and most of them come during the peak summer months and the slightly-less-peak spring and fall months. But December through February? You’ll feel like you have one of the seven natural wonders of the world all to yourself! Because of heavy snowfall, the North Rim is closed to visitors in the winter, but the South Rim and all of its lodges stays open; stay at the wonderful El Tovar Hotel with a view of the rim for a fraction of the price that you would pay in the summer (if you could even find a room, which you wouldn’t be able to anyway). To see the Canyon lightly dusted in snow is breathtaking, and you can still hike down to the bottom via the South Kaibab Trail, which gets more sun exposure and therefore usually has little snow and ice to contend with. Still, come very prepared for the elements and winter conditions.
Monument Valley in Southwestern Utah is a Navajo Tribal Park located right on the Arizona border near the “Four Corners” (where Utah, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico all meet). It is absolutely otherworldly—you have never seen a sky so vast and blue, a land so wide and open, or rock formations so dramatic and dream-like. This is a lesser-known tourist destination, for the moment, but it won’t stay that way for long. But even with generally lighter clouds, the fewer people the better so you can soak in the nearly spiritual nothingness. Fourteen miles of graded dirt road will take you past most of the major monuments—The Mittens, Three Sisters—but Navajo guides can show you much more. Hikes for all skill levels will also take you to natural bridges and ancient Anasazi ruins.
Even if the name “Antelope Canyon” isn’t immediately familiar to you, you’ve seen it. TRUST me, you’ve seen it. The Instagram-famous slot canyon in Northern Arizona, especially iconic for the candy-colored shades of purple, blue, yellow, and orange that the narrow walls take on in different light, is only accessible by private tours (there are different operators, but they are all Navajo-operated as this is Navajo land), and these tours will sell out FAR in advance during peak season, all collectively taking thousands of people per day through the 660-foot slot canyon (the more famous Upper Antelope Canyon, anyway; Lower Antelope Canyon is twice as long, just as beautiful, and becoming just as popular). In the winter, though, you can still get lucky enough to have a tour to yourself. No promises though! And while you’re in the area, a stop by the iconic Horseshoe Bend is also a must.
Bryce Canyon in Utah looks like an alien landscape with the spindly hoodoos—irregularly eroded rock spires anywhere from five to 150 feet tall—jutting into the sky. But with a gentle blanket of snow, Bryce becomes a kind of fairyland—and one of my favorite hikes here is the eight-mile Fairyland Loop, a more strenuous, less crowded trail (in the dead of winter you might even have it almost entirely to yourself) past well-known formations and towering hoodoos. Make it a full moon hike for extra magic!
It’s not that winter is a better time to hit Death Valley in Southern California; it’s really the only time. In the summer, the temperatures are too hot—hence the name of the park. The best months to go—really, the only months to go—are November through April (and April is even pushing it). This is the hottest place on earth, with triple-digit temperatures holding steady May through September and exceeding 120 degrees. It’s much nicer in the winter, when being outside won’t immediately kill you. You can hit the major must-sees in a day, including Badwater Basin, a vast landscape of surreal salt flats that is also the lowest point in North America (282 feet below sea level); Artists Drive, a scenic loop through rainbow-streaked hills; and the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, silky-soft sand rising upwards of 100 feet. Also, be on the lookout for wildflowers in bloom, which start at the lower elevations as early as mid-February.
Another somewhat-less-touristy park, Joshua Tree is full of massive, otherworldly boulders and its namesake twisted, knobby trees, which look like something straight out of a Dr. Seuss book and grow on average about 20 feet tall (though the oldest are much taller) and can live for hundreds of years. Joshua Tree National Park is a particularly great park for camping, since it is designated as an International Dark Sky Park and campsites all tend to be incredibly scenic.
Zion in Utah is another national park that most people might not consider during the winter months, because snow and ice can make for poor hiking conditions and some of the more scenic spots in the park—like the ever-popular Narrows, or the highly-coveted permit-only Subway—are through lots and lots of freezing-cold water and impassable in the winter. But I know a little secret that I’ll share with you: There are a LOT of other hikes in Zion that aren’t the Narrows, or the Subway, or even Angel’s Landing (a trail that can also be treacherous in snow and ice). Plenty of other hikes remain open, and as a bonus, you can drive your car right up to the trailhead and skip the whole shuttle system that can take HOURS in peak summer months.