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Southern Utah is America’s Winter Wonderland (and a Secret BBQ Mecca)

When it comes to bucolic winter scenery and snowy slopes, destinations like Jackson Hole, Lake Tahoe and Big Sky are some of the most popular mainstays. In Utah, Park City is an international go-to for snow sports and aprés ski traditions. However, the ultimate—and quintessential—winter wonderland is located a few hours south.

Anchored by quaint cities and towns like Beaver, Brian Head and Cedar City, southern Utah is a pastoral haven packed with all the winter activities the northern part of the state has come to be heralded for. The fact that this region is much more affordable and much less crowded is icing on the cake.

Eagle Point: A Snow-capped Oasis

Eagle Point Resort; photo by Henry O. Welles

In every way, Eagle Point Resort sets itself apart. For one, it’s the only place in the state that allows people to literally rent out the entire resort, but even if you’re not looking to basically book your own private mountain range, it’s unique qualities don’t stop there.

Tucked away along a series of long, winding roads through Fishlake National Forest and the town of Beaver, this is a place that promises serenity with a side of adrenaline. It’s a combination so rare it seems almost oxymoronic, but Eagle Point pulls it off with 600 skiable acres, 40 runs, 450 inches of annual snowfall and lush forests that achieve a fairy tale-like ambience when draped in powder and set aglow by the sunset. All within four hours drive of both Salt Lake City and Las Vegas, to boot.

A far cry from the aforementioned resorts, where long lift lines are the norm, this is a place so relaxed and vast that it’s entirely possible to feel like you’ve got a run to yourself. A wide range of trails offer ample options for all skill levels and styles, from tree-lined routes and a terrain park to some of the steepest black diamonds for the well-versed and fearless.

Eagle Point Resort; photo by Austen Diamond

Eagle Point’s lodging and dining raise the bar as well, delivering quality at accessible prices. You won’t find any typical slope-side resorts here. Rather, Eagle Point features vacation homes and condos available to rent, making it easy to feel right at home in fireplace-equipped rooms with all the cozy amenities one would fantasize about having in their very own dream lodge. There’s also a bar and restaurant in the main building, where crowd-pleasing comfort food runs the gamut from beer-battered cauliflower bites and build-your-own calzones to salmon BLTs and chicken Marsala. This isn’t just fuel for skiing—it’s culinary art where you’d least expect to find it.

Brian Head: Winter Sports & BBQ

Brian Head Resort; photo by Mike Saemisch

The highest base elevation in Utah. Snowmobile trails overlooking hoodoo-filled Cedar Breaks National Monument. A lively saloon boasting fire pits, live music and barbecue. This is Brian Head Resort.

At 9,600 feet in elevation, Brian Head soars to new heights in more ways than one. Achieving the perfect middle ground between bustling resort community and underrated gem, the town features a smattering of curated hotels, shops, restaurants and bars, including both hip newer spots and timeworn icons. And considering the resort’s history, there’s plenty of timeworn institutions to be found.

Brian Head opened in 1964, paving the way for the surrounding town of the same name 10 years later. In the ensuing decades, the small one-chairlift resort evolved to encompass 650 acres over two mountains with eight lifts, 71 runs, three terrain parks and two tubing hills—all with 360 inches of annual snowfall. Numbers like these are pretty staggering for such an intimate—and comparatively un-crowded—ski destination like this.

Both Navajo and Giant Steps mountains offer myriad runs at all skill levels, including a thrilling NASTAR course that allows skiers and boarders to test their speed and agility as they weave through flags to the bottom of the slope. At some point, be sure and stop by Georg’s Ski Shop, a cozy family-run lodge that’s been selling apparel and equipment since the resort’s inception. Initially opened by Brian Head founder Georg Hartlmaier, the shop is today operated by his two sons Georg and Robby.

Last Chair Saloon; photo by Austen Diamond

Another essential stopover is Last Chair Saloon, a convivial watering hole that’s so fun and delicious it could stand on its own as a destination in and of itself. Located inside the Giant Steps Lodge, with sweeping views of the mountain and fire pits at the base, the saloon boasts an above-and-beyond beer list and food menu at below-average prices. Look for lots of local brews alongside hearty, endurance-boosting fare like sliders, cheese curds, fish and chips and sausage linguine. Visit on Saturday for a slew of barbecue specials, too. The owner of the resort hails from Kansas City, and he brought a taste of home to Utah with expertly cooked pork ribs, tri-tip and pulled pork heaped over Texas toast. There’s also live music on Saturdays, which adds a nice entertaining touch.

Beyond skiing, Brian Head is a great place to zoom through the woods on a snowmobile. Thunder Mountain Motorsports provides scenic tours that are great for newbies and pros alike, with just enough twists and turns to keep the blood pumping. The coolest aspect is that the trails take visitors right alongside Cedar Breaks National Monument, a sprawling expanse of hoodoo-filled canyon that looks like a mini-Bryce Canyon.

Bryce Canyon and Cedar City: From Hoodoos to Wineries

Courtesy of Bryce Canyon National Park Service Photo

Speaking of Bryce Canyon, one of the country’s most popular national parks is a mere snowball’s throw from Brian Head, as is the charming hub of Cedar City. Although they’re close together, these two destinations feel worlds apart, complimenting one another perfectly with activities and destinations that span the spectrum from full-body outdoor workouts to leisurely dinners and drinks.

Bryce Canyon counts nearly 3 million annual visitors from around the globe—and for good reason. This is the most iconic and visible place to marvel at hoodoos, rock formations jutting out of the ground like spires, comprised largely of sedimentary and volcanic earth, and capped by durable stone that protects the columns from rain and snow. Technically, the hoodoos populating Bryce Canyon are less a canyon and more of a geological amphitheater. Pull up to panoramic lookout points like Fairyland Canyon to see for yourself—orange-colored hoodoos seem to grasp for the sky, surrounded by verdant trees and sheer canyon walls. In the winter, there’s the added bonus of vivid color contrast, with fresh white snow draped over the rocky alcoves. It’s also far quieter this time of year, and there’s truly nothing quite like looking out over Bryce Canyon in complete peace and silence.

The best way to experience Bryce at its wintry best is with a cross-country ski excursion. Rentals and equipment are available right outside the park entrance through Ruby’s Inn. Suit up and shimmy along the groomed ski trails through the woods to reach the rim of the canyon. The sport may seem leisurely, but all the back-and-forth motions mean a full-body workout, so be prepared to feel it. The vistas, which just get better and better around every bend, are well worth the hustle.

Back in town, aptly called Bryce Canyon City, Ruby’s Inn is also a great place to rest up and eat well. Decked out like a vintage, wooded lodge from the wild west, the hotel sports comfy rooms, a huge pool, jacuzzi and an immersive on-site store filled with everything from books about the national parks to craft beer. There’s also plenty to eat, between Canyon Diner, Cowboy’s Buffet & Steak Room and Ebenezer’s Barn and Grill.

In the nearby town of Tropic, another worthwhile dining destination awaits. idk barbecue started as a food truck before capitalizing on its following to open a brick and mortar restaurant. If the constant dinner lines are any indication, the expansion was a smart move, and it also cements southern Utah as a totally unexpected destination for quality barbecue. Unlike Last Chair Saloon, which skews decidedly towards Kansas City traditions, idk is a mashup of different styles, with a few tweaks and touches that the owner uses to affectionally bill his brand as “Utah-style barbecue.” Come hungry (and BYOB) to feast on meat-heaped nachos, rib tips, sliced brisket platters and cornbread the size of a birthday cake.

Courtesy of Milt's Stage Stop

It’s all too easy to spend days and weeks in the Bryce Canyon vicinity alone, but Cedar City stands out on its own as well.

The happening hamlet features an impressive array of restaurants, bars, shops and theater—this is the home to the wildly popular Utah Shakespeare Festival, which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors in the summer and fall.

This is also the home to IG Winery & Tasting Room, one of only a few wineries in the state, doing a masterful job with varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Alicanté. It’s all poured out in a chic tasting room with a wraparound bar, funky art installations and a sleek fireplace, making this the perfect place to nurse a toasty red wine while the snow falls outside.

From the new to the old, Milt’s Stage Stop is requisite dining in Cedar City. Open since 1956, the rustic, taxidermy-filled roadside eatery features time-tested steak and seafood recipes, along with a salad bar, shareable appetizers (the smoked trout is legit) and the kinds of desserts you’ll want to order no matter how uncomfortably stuffed you are. It’s apt dining no matter the season, but the cozy confines and elevated comfort food make Milt’s an especially fitting repast during the winter months.

Between the steaks, the barbecue, the snow-capped hoodoos, the snowmobiling, the skiing and the crowd-free runs down some of Utah’s most striking peaks, it’s crystal clear why the southern part of the state deserves its title as the quintessential winter wonderland.

Matt Kirouac

Written by Matt Kirouac

Matt Kirouac is a Chicago-based food and travel writer, editor and author. After graduating culinary school, he took his education in a different direction, writing for companies like Daily Candy, Kimpton Hotels, TripExpert, Flight Network, Time Out, Food Fanatics magazine, Brand USA and numerous others. Currently, he works for Zagat, Plate and other freelance positions. His first book, The Hunt Guides: Chicago, came out in 2016, and his next book, Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago, hits shelves at the end of 2017.

Read more posts by Matt Kirouac

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