Bryce Canyon Winter Festival Draws Crowds
While the rest of the state migrates to Southern Utah for Presidents Day weekend, a group of diehards heads into the rarefied high-elevation (think cold) atmosphere of Bryce Canyon National Park.
The draw is Bryce Canyon’s Winter Festival — a three-day celebration indoors and out of fresh air, snow, hoodoos, hot air balloons, dancing, races and classes to suit every interest. The mostly free event is surprisingly popular, pulling in annual crowds of 2,500 people, including visitors who have come since its inception 35 years ago this February. The event has grown from just a few little clinics and a ski race to one of Utah’s premier winter events.
Classes, Clinics and Cookies
Be forewarned that the same diehards willing to brave the high elevation are also the ones lining up in droves inside Ruby’s Inn an hour before Saturday’s 8 a.m. registration.
An estimated 200-300 people rush to sign up for their favorite classes and clinics that include everything from archery and cookie decorating to guided rim walks and ski clinics. There are approximately 50 offerings, some that repeat each of the three days. Registration is finished quickly and people appear happy. My husband and I both got what we wanted — a leather journal making class that came with a $35 fee for supplies and a guided snowshoe walk through the Dixie National Forest (free snowshoes available).
There are health classes, kayaking demonstrations, watercolor classes, an archery clinic and photography lectures. Yoga, Zumba and other exercise classes are available, as well as competitions like a biathlon and cross-country ski race. Promoters are quick to point out that about 95% of activities are not weather dependent, so even on poor snow years, there are plenty of good times to be had.
The National Park Service joins in the fun by conducting snowshoe hikes, lectures on hoodoo geology and stargazing with telescopes.
Festivities continue into the evening with Western square and line dancing followed by a free family dance at Ebenezer’s Barn and Grill, plus hot air ballooning.
Almost all activities are free and staffed mostly by about 100 volunteers who are happy to give visitors a memorable experience in exchange for a hot meal and a place to sleep.
Living the Frozen Dream
At 9,000 feet above sea level, Bryce can get cold. As can you. At last year’s event, daytime temperatures ranged from 15 to 40 degrees. But with the right clothes, all you’ll feel is smug at being one of the proud and few — kind of like a Marine — willing to risk the elements in exchange for a huge payoff. Fresh snow glistens under blue skies, and the contrast of white snow and green pines against the red hoodoos is breathtaking and endlessly fascinating.
In 2019, the park experienced such heavy snow that visitors weren’t allowed to hike into the amphitheater due to avalanche danger. But according to event organizers, this is rare.
Alternate hikes/walks that are spectacular in their own right include the Rim Trail, Mossy Cave Trail and Fairyland Overlook Trail. This time of year, none of the trails are crowded, but if you really want solitude, head out first thing in the morning. The viewpoints along the rim are so quiet it feels almost reverential. The Mossy Cave Trail is perfect for kids at only 0.8-miles roundtrip with a grotto at the end full of glittering icicles. Adults will appreciate the snow-covered hoodoos in the distance. The hike to the Fairyland Overland is essentially a walk on a snow-covered road through a pine forest. When we were there, a light snow fell intermittently, adding to its charm.
Along the Way
Even the drive to and from Bryce National Park is part of the fun, especially once you get off Interstate 15 and onto Highway 20 and then part of Utah’s Scenic Byway 12. The sun glistened on vast meadows of snow and forest. Just when we thought it couldn’t be any more beautiful, the sun began to set behind the red rock landscape, turning the sky pink and coral.
We stopped to hike in the snow at Red Canyon on our way home from Bryce. Temperatures hovered around 15 degrees and a light snow fell. There was only one other pair of hikers on the magical 2.2-mile Red Canyon Loop Trail that gave us the up close and personal view of the hoodoos that we didn’t get at Bryce because of avalanche danger. We left feeling euphoric.
The Bryce Canyon Winter Festival is slated for Feb. 15-17, 2020, and is sponsored by Ruby’s Inn. Book your lodging early for this popular event and stay at one of Ruby’s Inn’s three properties so you can be close to all the activities. The Best Western Plus Bryce Canyon Grand is Ruby’s newest property and offers spacious rooms and an extensive free breakfast buffet. The original but renovated Ruby’s Inn is where all the action takes place, so it’s a great option as well.