Gripping my wooden walking stick with gloved hands, I plant it into the water and secure my footing on the loose stones of the riverbed. The red sandstone walls of The Narrows in Utah’s Zion National Park rise high above me. Wading through sections of the Virgin River, its green waters rise nearly to my waist. This is not a place to stumble and fall.
Not that anyone is around to observe any missteps. For much of our hike in Zion’s most popular canyon, my guide, Wil Donohue, and I have the place almost to ourselves. An early start on a crisp fall day and an overcast sky leaning toward sunshine is a good reason why.
“This is the gift of Zion in the off-season,” says Donohue, who in addition to being an excellent hiking guide sports the most fabulous mustache I’ve ever seen.
Although Zion National Park is open all year, 70 per cent of visitors come during the busiest six months, April through September. For those lucky enough to be walking The Narrows outside of those months, the appeal of a less-congested hiking path is its own reward.
In addition to the obvious draw of its national park crown jewel, Greater Zion’s off-season attractions include vast public spaces with sunny skies, outdoor activities for all ages and temperatures that are warmer than those in Toronto or Vancouver.
With 365 days available for trip planning annually, the opportunities to experience travel during off-season periods are attractive to both destinations and visitors. In some places, the need to market low-season visitation has become more pressing.
National parks on both sides of the border have grappled with surges in high-season visitation – Zion was on track to hit a new record of five million visitors by the end of 2021 – necessitating new access permits and ticket systems, and in some cases, the closing of popular attractions and trails to ensure physical distancing and protect fragile park lands.
In Alberta, Jasper National Park receives about 12 per cent of its annual visitation of 2.5 million people during the winter months between November and March. Those who appreciate the value of layers of clothing can enjoy skiing, skating, sightseeing, ice climbing and winter hiking in pristine conditions, with access to full-service restaurants and hotels.
“The people who only know Jasper in the summer are missing out,” says James Jackson, president and chief executive officer of Tourism Jasper. “There’s so much more to do here in the snowy months than people realize.”
In Tofino on Vancouver Island, the inspiration for the B.C. village’s winter storm season stemmed from a desire to showcase the awesome power of nature. Growing up in what was then a remote village, Charles McDiarmid, managing director of the Wickaninnish Inn, and his family frequently gathered around a wood-burning fireplace, watching winter storms rage outside their cabin on Shell Beach.
“Mother Nature put on a spectacular show,” McDiarmid says. “When it came time to create a vision for the inn, which opened in 1996, we thought that others might enjoy storm watching, too.”
They certainly have. Prior to 1996, Tofino’s hotels and restaurants shuttered in winter. Today, the popularity of storm watching has allowed economic opportunities and community-building to flourish.
“We can remain open all year, providing full-time jobs for staff who can stay and raise families in Tofino,” says Jay Gildenhuys, owner of popular local restaurants Shelter, Shed and Pizza Moto.
On Canada’s East Coast, Nova Scotia’s South Shore is capitalizing on its natural bounty with the annual Nova Scotia Lobster Crawl Festival. Growing from 50 events in 2018 to more than 150 events in 2020, February’s Crawl is “an opportunity to showcase local, celebrate local and support local,” says Stephanie Miller-Vincent, co-ordinator of the South Shore Tourism Cooperative.
Prior to the pandemic, the Crawl provided economic benefits to local small businesses, restaurants and hotels, 96 per cent of whom indicated a plan to participate in future Crawls.
“We are so excited to see the Lobster Crawl back in 2022,” says Andrew Tanner, founder of Saltbox Brewery. “The lobster fishery is a critical economic component for our region, and we are delighted to have the ability to showcase it through these events.”
Just south of Lake Ontario in New York’s Finger Lakes Wine Country, Christina Roberts, vice-president of brand development, points to another benefit of off-season travel, the chance to indulge in more personal experiences.
“Getting a table at your favourite restaurant or a reservation at your favourite winery is easier and you may be greeted by an owner, chef or wine maker, who will have more time to engage with guests,” Roberts says.
While the Finger Lakes region can’t boast the warm temperatures of southern Utah, she sagely notes that, “Our Canadian friends certainly won’t let a little snow get in the way of their winter travels.”
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