Winter Break Road Trip : Part 1/2 – Southern California to Brian Head Utah

I’m back from a blogging hiatus to share our adventure filled road-trip from last February’s Winter Break 2021. I planned this trip around skiing, but we also hiked and visited some really cool spots and went canyoneering!

Due to the pandemic situation in 2021, I focused on ski areas within driving distance (8 hours or less) from Orange County, CA – where we live. This narrowed our options to : 1) Big Bear/Snow Summit, 2) Mammoth and 3) Brian Head. We chose Brian Head Resort because we had heard great things about it from our friends, and the lift tickets are among the most affordable (kids ski free with the Power Pass – see below for more information).

While researching this road trip, I didn’t find any driving and sightseeing itineraries for the route from Southern California to Brian Head, so I came up with our own.

This trip could have been spread over an entire week, which would have allowed for more time for stops, and more time for skiing. However, we were on call for President’s Day #doctorlife, so we could not leave until Tuesday – making our trip a 6 day, 5 night trip through Sunday. This ended up working out, since we heard that everywhere was very crowded over the holiday weekend. On the days we travelled, the hotels, parks and slopes were quiet.

DAY 1: Travel Day – Southern California to Mount Carmel Junction, Utah (approximately 8 hours, 490 miles. Note: There is a one hour time change from CA (PST) to UT (MST)

As I do for most of our trips, I packed and loaded the car the night before. We aren’t morning people, and didn’t have any major goals for this day other than to get to our destination, so we set an achievable goal of leaving home at 10 am. To break up the drive, we stopped at one of our favorite spots along the way – The Seven Magic Mountains.

Seven Magic Mountains, Las Vegas Blvd S, Las Vegas, NV 89054

The Seven Magic Mountains is an art installation by Ugo Rondinone near Las Vegas, NV.  Initially opened May 2016, it was only originally scheduled to be on view for two years. Due to it’s success and popularity, it has remained on display for several years. In 2018, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a three-year permit extension for the artwork, allowing the installation to remain on view through the end of 2021. It is unclear how much longer it will be available beyond that, but let’s hope they keep it up!

Directions to see the Seven Magic Mountains: From Los Angeles, head north on I-15 to Jean, Nevada (Exit 12). Turn right (east) on NV-161 toward Las Vegas Boulevard. Drive approximately 5 miles north on Las Vegas Boulevard and you will see the installation on your right side. (From downtown Vegas, take I-15 to Exit 25 (Sloan Road). Turn left (east) to Las Vegas Boulevard for 7 miles. You will see the artwork on your left side.). After you park, there is a short, flat, easy walk to the installation. Please leave no trace and do not graffiti.

Visiting this site only takes about 30 minutes, but you can spend more or less depending on your interest. After this stop, we continued to drive all the way to our lodging for the night.

Stay:
Best Western East Zion Thunderbird Lodge, 4590 South, State Street, Mount Carmel, UT 84755, USA

DAY 2 : Highlights of Southern Utah and Kanab en route to Brian Head

This was a big day full of adventure and many incredible stops. If you have the time, this could be spread over two days.

Canyoneering

Photo by Zion Adventure Photog

A major highlight of this trip was a half day canyoneering trip led by Allways Adventure , and family photographs by Arika of Zion Adventure Photog.

Canyoneering was a new adventure for our family, as was hiking in freezing temperatures. It was below 20 F when we started, and just over freezing when we finished. We wore several layers including base layers and snow pants! Despite the chill, we had a blast. Brian (5 years old at the time) was tentative initially, but he overcame his fears quickly with the reassurance from the guide. Nathan was a wonderful guide, ensuring we felt safe and secure the entire time.

For those who are curious what to wear for winter hiking*:

  • Kids: Iksplor wool base layers, Nui Organics wool sweaters, Zara Kids jackets, Jack Wolfskin winter/ snow pants
  • Felicia: Fera Ski Bibs,Woolx top, Uniqlo heat tech sweater, Jack Wolfskin down jacket
  • Jason: Jack Wolfskin winter/snow pants, Uniqlo base layers, Wool and Prince wool sweater, Jack Wolfskin down jacket
  • * Some of these items were gifted, but we have purchased gear from all these brands and trust their quality and comfort. We wear these items hiking, camping, skiing and sledding.

Details to book a canyoneering photography adventure can be found here. In full disclosure – we planned and paid for our trip and photos. We felt it was extremely worthwhile, as it is an experience and memory we will cherish forever.

After our canyoneering adventure, we continued to make our way through Southern Utah over to Brian Head, Utah with several scenic stops.

Belly of the Dragon: Highway 89, Kanab, Utah

The Belly of the Dragon is located very close to Mount Carmel Junction, and where we went canyoneering. The Belly of Dragon is a man-made cave like tunnel. It was created to help divert water under HWY89, but over time the drainage carved the walls and created this unique rippling of tunnel. This spot is free to visit.

Directions to the Belly of Dragon:

From Mt. Carmel Junction, go south on Hwy 89 about half a mile and watch for the turnoff onto a dirt road – Barracks Rd.  

From Kanab: drive about 16 miles north on Highway 89. As you start coming down the big hill into Mt Carmel Junction, you’ll see a dirt road on the left at the bottom of the hill, known as Barracks road. Make a sharp left after the guardrail.

Once on the dirt road, go about 1/4 mile and the entrance is on the left.There is a slight drop off at the end of the main path leading into the mouth of the tunnel, so be careful here. It is dark in the center of the tunnel, so a flashlight may be helpful. Do not enter the tunnel under any rainy conditions. 

Moqui Caverns: Highway 89, Kanab, Utah

It took a bit of scrambling and scaling up steep sandstone (and scooting down) to get to these caverns, but this view was worth was 100% with it. The Moqui Caverns are man made sand caves about on Highway 89 about 6 miles north of Kanab UT. They were originally created and used in the 1970s to harvest sand for glassmaking. If you visit, please leave no trace and do not add to the carvings on the walls.

Note: the Moqui Caverns (aka the Moqui Sand or Wind Caves) are not the same as the Moqui Caves which is a natural history museum featuring Native American (Anasazi and Navajo tribe) artifacts and a large collection of dinosaur tracks.  

Directions to the Moqui Caverns :

From Mount Carmel Junction: The Moqui Caverns are about 11.5 south of the intersection with Route 9 at Mount Carmel Junction. Look for the roadside parking area on the right after passing the Moqui Cave Museum.

From Kanab: The caverns are located 5.7 miles north on Highway 89.  Parking is found on the other side of the highway, informally in the large dirt pullout on the left (west). If you’re traveling northbound from Kanab and pass the Moqui Cave Museum, then you’ve gone too far.

Hiking to the Caverns: From the parking area, it’s a short hike of only about a quarter mile up to the caves. You need to carefully cross the road and then walk to the base of the low cliffs in front of you. We found a small trail. You then have to scramble up a steep portion of sandstone before you get to the top where you can walk into the cave. If you do not have shoes with traction, please think twice before proceeding because it is quite steep and almost harder to get down than to get up.  

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park: 12500 Sand Dune Road, Kanab, UT 84741  

It was literally freezing and very windy when we arrived at this park, so we kept our visit short. We brought our sled, and the boys had a fun time trying to get down the hill without getting stuck or the sled blowing away from under them.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park sits at an elevation of 6000 feet and the dunes are thought to be somewhere between 10,000-15,000 years old. The sand comes from Navajo sandstone from the Middle Jurassic geologic period . The same iron oxides and minerals that make up the red rock in area are also responsible for this landscape of coral pink sand. These sand dunes are created as a result of the wind passing through the notch between the Moquith + Moccasin Mountains.

Tips for visiting the Coral Pink Sand Dunes:

Day Use fees:  $10 per vehicle; $5 for Utah seniors 65 and older

Hours: Daylight hours, seven days a week

They rent sleds for $25 at the visitor center. There are camping and off roading options here, but we didn’t explore this. 

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon was the last stop of our adventure packed day on the road. This video is an accurate depiction of how we felt – excited and amazed, but also really cold. It was only 17 degrees out! 

Funny backstory:  Those who know me know that I love food as much as I love adventure. After the coral sand dunes, we drove by the Thunderbird Restaurant (affiliated with the Best Western we stayed at, but we had left early in the morning to go canyoneering) where they are known for their pies. I didn’t realize our car did not adjust time zones (California to Utah), so thought we had an extra hour to make it to Bryce Canyon.  I only realized after order 3 different kinds of pie and waiting for the special butter rum sauce, that I was off by an hour.  According to our GPS, we wouldn’t make it to Bryce Canyon until 20-30 minutes after the predicted sunset. Oops.

Despite this, we still decided to make our way there (a bit of a detour from our route to Brian Head) and see what we would see.  After all, we weren’t sure when the next time we might be able to see a snow capped Bryce Canyon would be.  I’m so glad we did because we saw beautiful red rocks along the way,  cotton candy skies and this spectacular view. * We have the national parks pass for entry.

Here is a photo of the pie, that almost made us miss Bryce Canyon. It was from the Thunderbird Lodge where we stayed the previous night. It was pretty good and I’m glad that in the end I was able to have my pie and catch Bryce before dark.

Stay: We made it to our condo in Brian Head late at night, details further below. * Please consider: The shorter road from Bryce to Brian Head (1 hour and 15 minutes) was closed near the entrance to the Brian Head resort, which led us to have to circle around the mountain and add another 2+ hours to our drive. As much as we loved seeing Bryce Canyon in the winter, word of caution that if this road is closed, you will have a MUCH longer journey and it might not be worth it. Thank goodness I had some satellite on my phone, so I was able to map out an alternate path out of there.  I am thankful my husband was calm and the kids were ok (for that I have to thank downloaded movies on the iPad). There were some nerve-racking white out moments through the mountain passages. We arrived at Brian Head exhausted, but woke up to a beautiful bluebird day. ⛷ 

DAY 3 & 4: Skiing at Brian Head, Utah

This was our first skiing at Brian Head Resort. The driving distance is from Orange County is 450 miles, and it can be reached in under 7 hours without traffic or stops. As you can see, we decided to make stops along the way – both to and from Brian Head – which added time to our trip, but we felt the stops added to our overall vacation.

As I mentioned earlier, we chose to visit Brian Head Resort because of the reasonable pricing (Adult lift tickets are <$100 a day), and kids ski free with the Power Kids Season Pass which we applied for online a month prior to our trip. Power Kids ski FREE all winter at the several resorts through UT, NM, CO, and Arizona. For a wonderful list of places kids can ski free in 2022, check out this blog post by Skiing Kids.

We enjoyed a couple days of skiing at Brian Head. Our younger son and I experience some mild discomfort while adjusting to the altitude. Some considerations for altitude sickness: Brian Head Base Elevation: 9,600 ft is the highest in Utah. Peak Elevation: 10,970 ft. Mild symptoms include fatigue, headache, nausea, shortness of breath and problems of sleeping. our entire family slept restlessly the first night, but better the second. Tips to help with altitude sickness include 1) drinking lots of water , 2) taking it easy and taking some time to acclimate, 3) avoid caffeinated and alcoholic beverages. More information and tips can be found here.

Crowds: We went during our local school break which was not Utah February break, so it was quiet during the week when we skied.  According to the ski rental shop, holidays and weekends get pretty busy here.

Stay:

AirBnb: We stayed at this condo at Giant Steps. We found it to be very convenient and ski in / ski out. Something to note: We drove our SUV with a Thule roof box. Although this condo includes covered garage parking, there is not clearance if you have a roof box. We were able to park just outside the building.

In Part two, we will share the parks we visited on our drive home including Snow Canyon State Park, Valley of Fire, Red Rock National Conservation Area and Mojave National Preserve. .

* This is not a sponsored post. All opinions expressed are our own.

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I am a mom, wife, daughter, sister, doctor, adventure enthusiast, food lover, and photographer. I spend a lot of time researching fun things for my family to do, explore and eat - so I created this space to share some information that might be helpful to others.

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