Once you’ve visited some national parks in the off-season, you’ll fall in love with the idea. I certainly have. And that’s why I decided to visit Arches in January. Arches National Park is special any time of the year. But in winter, a lack of crowds, cool temperatures, and the chance to see the park covered in snow all combine to give you a unique experience.
Yeah, I know you don’t want to burn those vacation days so early in the year. And maybe you’re worried about ending up in a snowstorm. If you’re not sold on the idea yet, these reasons might convince you.
1. Arches in January: Have the place to yourself.
You probably know that America’s National Parks are being loved to death. If you’ve tried to visit one during the busy summer months, you know that the lines at Disney World are more pleasant. Huge crowds on trails, a lack of parking, and traffic jams can ruin the experience.
You won’t have to deal with any of that in Arches in January.
From May through September, Arches National Park sees 9 to 10 times the daily visitors it does in January. In January 2017 (a year before my visit, but the most recent numbers available), the park had 21,549 visitors. That averages less than 700 per day — but since visitation spikes around New Year’s Day and Dr. Martin Luther King Day, the true average for any other day will be far less.
Compare those numbers to July 2017, when 192,767 people visited the park (6,218 visitors per average day, with spikes on the weekends and around Independence Day). With numbers like that, it’s no wonder that you’ll face the frustration of full parking lots and big backups at the park entrance during the summer months.
Check out my hike to Delicate Arch here.
2. Stand in the middle of the road.
You just can’t do that when the park is crowded. In January, fewer people means more creativity. You can take selfies that would cause a traffic jam in July. You can take pictures of an arch without some person, or a dozen people, wandering into your shot. You can perch yourself on top of a rock and sit there for an hour, without other people, who also want to sit on that same rock, giving you dirty looks.
It’s not just the lack of people and traffic that make Arches in January so quiet. It’s also the snow. If you’re lucky enough to visit during a snowfall, or shortly after, you’ll experience a haunting silence, thanks to the added sound absorption.
Check out my hike to Landscape Arch and Devil’s Garden here.
4. White snow on red rocks.
Will you see snow during your visit? The odds are not great, but they’re not terrible, either. January is the second-snowiest month in Arches National Park, behind December. On average, the park sees 2.7 inches of snow in December, 1.7 inches in January, and 1 inch in February. November (0.7 inches) and March (0.6 inches) are less likely to see snow.
If you really want to see snow on a trip to this area, keep in mind that the Rocky Mountains and the Wasatch Mountains are not far away. Drive to Arches from Denver or Salt Lake City, and the odds are very good that you’ll see some snow along the way.
5. It’s Cool.
Well, yeah. It might snow. Some would even say it’s cold. But you might discover that cold is a lot better than hot. The average high in June, July, and August is well over 90°F (33°C). Compare that to January, when the average high is 40°F (5°C). It’s a lot easier to stay hydrated at 40° than at 90°. And while you can get a sunburn at any temperature, more of your extremities will be covered when it’s near freezing, so you’ll need a lot less sunscreen. If you get hot in the winter, you can lose a layer. Get hot in the summer, and you’re just hot.
6. Amazing sunsets, earlier.
There’s no better place to take pictures of a desert sunset than at Arches National Park. I’ve outlined some of my favorite sunset spots on a separate page. But there’s more to a sunset than just a great location. In winter, I think you have a better chance of having an interesting sunset — that is, one with some clouds and texture in the sky, as opposed to an orange ball dropping below the horizon. And as an extra bonus, the sun will set around 5:30 p.m. You can enjoy the sunset, then drive back to Moab and enjoy dinner, and get to bed at a reasonable hour. A vacation is a lot more fun when you’re not pushing yourself until 10 or 11 o’clock at night.
7. You can afford it.
Have you noticed that hotel room prices are un-freaking-believable these days? It’s especially true in tourist towns like Moab, where a limited supply is dwarfed against the huge demand. And you can’t just drive to the next town, because the next town (either Green River or Monticello) is at least an hour away. Good luck finding a room in Moab that isn’t in the triple digits during the summer months. In January, though, hotels are desperate for business, and you should be able to snag a high-end room for a bargain.
Oh, and you’ll probably also save on your plane ticket and rental car in January since demand for both will be lower.
Here’s a look at the drive around Arches National Park in the snow…
… and another clip, showing Arches just before sunset:
The Bottom Line
Visiting a national park in summer is almost unthinkable to me, now that I’ve visited a few of them in winter. When you visit Arches in January, you’ll get to see the park in a way that 90% of visitors miss. You avoid the crowds, save money, and get great pictures. It might be inconvenient, but it’s worth the extra effort (and worth burning those vacation days so early in the year) to experience Arches in January.