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BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK - As yet another small herd of mule deer bounds through the snow to the shelter of some ponderosa pines, a cross-country skier says, 'Well, now you can say the deer outnumber the people 13-to-2."
That's the way a visit to Bryce Canyon National Park goes in winter. In its peak summer season, the popular park welcomes almost 200,000 visitors a month. But the number of visitors drops with the temperature, to an average of just 33,000 in December, making the park a quiet escape for winter enthusiasts who share the extravagant views that made Bryce famous with deer, rabbit or fox, and very few other people.
"It's very quiet," said Brent McGinn, the park's chief ranger. "But people who come in the winter often say it's their favorite time to visit."
The park remains open in the winter and its trails, combined with those of Ruby's Inn near the park's entrance, make it a worthwhile destination for snowshoers and cross-country skiers. The two landmarks are close, but worlds apart in what they offer. Bryce is wild and untamed, Ruby's offers 50 km worth of trails groomed for skate and classical skiing.
The area is at roughly 8,000 feet but has been in a snow drought for several seasons. A few storms this year have alleviated the drought, and one of the state's best-kept secrets for skiers and snowshoers is back on track.
The park's trails aren't groomed, so snowshoers and cross-country skiers must come prepared to break their own trails. The whole park is considered skiable, although skiers aren't allowed to ski off the rim because of the danger the steep cliffs pose.
The park has a designated ski trail called Paria Loop that is 5.6k. It winds through pines and skirts a large field before traversing a small ridge and returning to the parking area. The trail is marked with blue flags on trees, although it could use more on the backside, where a bit of guesswork is required, unless there are old ski tracks to show the way.
Another recommended ski trail is the 2k road to Fairyland Point. The road leads to the rim, and if there is enough snow, it's possible to ski along the rim trail a bit.
However, McGinn recommends exploring the rim trail and others that wind through Bryce with snowshoes or hiking boots with traction devices. The canyon trails are steep, and the same thawing and freezing action that developed the famous hoodoos in the park can also make the trails into an amphitheater slick with ice.
"It's warm and sunny in the day, but the temperatures plummet at night," he said. "Visitors need to be aware of the weather because it can be vicious when the sun goes down."
Breaking trail can be an adventure and a great workout, but those who aren't up for stomping about the wilds will love Ruby's trails. The trails that lead from the inn meander through the property and adjacent forest service land. The loops have gently rolling terrain and offer wide views on top of a plateau. Another set of trails crosses through old Bryce town and out to the rim of the canyon.
On a recent visit, trails were meticulously groomed, and free from human interruption. The only tracks belonged to deer and other animals.
Ruby's hosts the popular Winter Festival Feb. 17-19 with various clinics and races, but otherwise the trails remain quiet, said Jean Seiler, the director of marketing for Ruby's.
"People don't realize Bryce is open in the winter, but if people take the opportunity, they'll discover we have some of the best cross-country skiing terrain around. There are no crowds and no inversions."
Ruby's rents cross-country skis and snowshoes, but in keeping with the laid-back winter attitude, it's a self-service area near the front desk. You pick out your equipment and pay at the desk, so make sure to know what size ski you need before heading down.
Surprisingly, the inn's employees aren't helpful when it comes to giving advice about the trails. Four inquiries over three days were met with the same answer, "I don't ski but we have a map."
Luckily, the map is good and the trails are so well-marked, the employees' limited knowledge was just mildly irritating.
Bryce Canyon's rangers offer snowshoe hikes and talks, but availability is hit and miss on the availability of rangers, said Colleen Bathe, the park's chief of interpretation.
"It depends on who we have around," she said.
If it's winter, that doesn't mean many, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon is in southern Utah, at elevations reaching 9,100 feet. When there is snow, it's a great place to ski and snowshoe.
* FEES: The entrance fee into the park is $25, but many of the trails are outside the park and at Ruby's Inn, which doesn't require a fee to use its trails.
* RENTALS: Ruby's offers 50 km of groomed trails, and rents skis and snowshoes for $10 a day.
* CHECK THE WEATHER: I-15 and U.S. 89 leading to Bryce can be iffy during a storm.
* FOOD: Ruby's has a dining area that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and a general store, but services are limited. Picky eaters may want to take their own snacks or must-haves.