Hiking Zion National Park: Kolob Arch in Winter

There's something so special about visiting our nation's most popular outdoor places in the off season. If you're anything like me, you relish in the few quiet moments you'll have on a normally busy trail when there's no one else around. And that's precisely why my husband and I chose to visit Zion National Park in January.

In addition to trails being exponentially less crowded, the park is stunning in the snow! (PC: D. Herscovitch)

Zion's peak season currently extends from late spring to early fall, making winter travel one of the only opportunities to escape the biggest crowds. I say "biggest" because we still saw more people than we expected on some of the more popular trails. And even in some winter months, the park requires use of the shuttle system to manage visitor flow. (The shuttle system is fantastic, for the record.) But our early January trip meant we could drive the car we rented to any open parking lot, provided the roads we needed to drive on were open and safe, legal parking was available.

Though we had better known trails like Angel's Landing and the Narrows on our to-do list for the week, we also wanted to see some of the less popular parts of the park. On our first full day, we made the 45 minute drive from our hotel in Springdale to Kolob Canyons. Our destination? The second longest arch in the world.

Getting to the Lee Pass Trailhead

There are two non-technical routes hikers can use to reach Kolob Arch. The more popular option, and the one we chose, is to park on Kolob Canyons Road here at the Lee Pass Trailhead and head down the trail toward La Verkin Creek. The other route starts at the Hop Valley Trailhead. Both are about the same length and have similar elevation gain, but we wanted to see more of Kolob Canyon and opted for the Lee Pass route.

Heading down the first section of trail toward Timber Creek.

The parking lot holds about 20 vehicles, and we saw three other cars parked there when we arrived around 9:30am to start our hike. I can imagine the parking lot fills fast in peak season; an early start is likely important, especially given how hot it gets in warmer months.

Hiking to Kolob Arch (14 miles, 1,450' Elevation Gain)

Even driving up to the Lee Pass Trailhead from out hotel in Springdale was a treat, and once we realized the trailhead was a short walk south of the parking lot, we were on our way. The trail drops steadily into Timber Creek Canyon with incredible views of deep red sandstone towers. Seeing the features dusted with snow was super special, as was knowing we wouldn't have to deal with the heat that most hikers visiting in peak season do.

Beautiful, frozen Timber Creek.

We followed footprints frozen in mud, and the further down we ventured, the more snow we encountered on the trail. I was glad we decided to bring YakTrax, even though we didn't end up using them. And I couldn't help but imagine what hiking back up out of the canyon in the sun felt like in the summer as we continued down, crossing Timber Creek.

I lost count of the number of creek crossings around 18, and luckily, most of the frozen sections were strong enough for us to stand on. That wouldn't be the case in the afternoon; we experienced temperatures around 25ºF in the morning and 55ºF by midday. But in the morning, icicles dangled from the banks and rocks stuck out of the water like little icebergs, surrounded by ice crystals.

Pausing to take in the view at one of the backcountry campsites. Can you imagine waking up to this? (PC: D. Herscovitch)

By 11:00am, we noticed the frozen mud starting to thaw, making going a bit slower. Two hours into our hike, the trail flattened and became sandy. We continued following the route along Timber Creek, staring at the brilliant Navajo sandstone features, catci, dried grasses, sagebrush, and Cottonwood trees. Our pace was slower than expected, mostly due to how often we stopped to take photos.

Sand, sand, and more sand, but it's just so beautiful!

Eventually, the trail turned and we left Timber Creek behind in favor of La Verkin Creek. We'd been told the section of Timber Creek we followed can be dry in the summer, and for backpackers, La Verkin Creek is the most reliable water source. Following La Verkin Creek up the canyon, we passed taller and taller trees before arriving at the Kolob Arch trail junction.

The trail to Kolob Arch is a small side trail, narrower and trickier to hike on than the La Verkin Creek Trail, but the terrain is stunning. We followed the trail adjacent to a small tributary with high canyon walls on either side of us, traversing a variety of rock obstacles. Small frozen cascades lined the walls, and after about 15 minutes of hiking, we arrived at a small sign warning hikers that travel beyond that point was not recommended. But where was the arch?

Making our way up the side trail toward the arch. 

Luckily, of the eight people we saw on the trail that day, two of them mentioned the arch wasn't as obvious as one might imagine a 287 foot long feature to be. After arriving at that sign and turning to face it, we looked up, and there it was. Massive trees had all but completely hidden the feature, towering high above us. We did see footprints in the snow leading to a different vantage point, but we didn't follow them far, stopping our exploration to sit on a rock and have lunch.

The arch! It's up quite high, making it tougher to photograph than others.

We didn't sit long; given the early sunset, we set our turnaround time at 1:00pm and ended up leaving out lunch spot at 12:45pm. The route is out-and-back, so we followed the little Kolob Arch side trail to the junction with the La Verkin Creek trail, turned right, and headed toward the parking lot. I knew we'd have to gain back all of the elevation we lost, which proved to be quite a challenge between the now completely melted, muddy, messy trail and the fact that the trailhead sits at a relatively high elevation.

Looking back from whence we came on the way out, with the canyon nearly in full sun.

But it was worth it, getting to see a feature many of Zion's 4.4 million annual visitors don't get to see. It was incredible to see the landscape transform as the afternoon sun crept up and took over every visible piece of land in our path. In some sections, the snow all but disappeared, and sturdy frozen creek crossings required more finesse. We arrived back at the car early evening, completing the hike in about seven hours including many, many breaks. Take a look at our entire route below.

Things to Know Before You Go, Winter Edition

Make sure Kolob Canyon Road is open if you're taking the route we took. In the days and weeks prior to our visit, I monitored the park website and Instagram account for travel alerts and on some days, the road had been closed due to snow. Consider postponing, or using the Hop Valley Trail instead if that's the case.

Stop in at the Kolob Canyon Visitor Center before you head out. Technically, you have to; showing an Interagency Park Pass or paying the Zion National Park entrance fee is required. Plus, it's always good to check in with the rangers to ask about conditions and learn more about where you're going. And if you need to pick up a wilderness permit, that's one place to do it. Speaking of wilderness permits...

This is a long day hike, but if you don't want to do it in a day, you don't have to. There are multiple designated backcountry campsites for visitors interested in turning a trip to Kolob Arch into an overnight. Use of these sites requires a wilderness permit, and depending on the season, they can be tough to come by; plan ahead.

In winter, these trails are muddy. Be prepared for slippery conditions, and wear sturdy hiking boots. Mine got so covered in gunk, I doubt they'll ever be the same color, but it was absolutely worth it.

Consider traction devices for your feet. We brought YakTrax and didn't end up using them, but depending on the freeze-thaw process on any given day, they can come in handy.

Have you done this hike in winter, or another season? What are your favorite hikes in Zion, if you've been there? I'd love to hear from you in the comments!