It was 12 degrees as we stood before the Mesa Arch in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park early on a Monday morning in January waiting for the sun to rise. But we weren’t complaining because we knew that we had this wild and magnificent place almost all to ourselves.
Photographers have gathered at the Mesa Arch to photograph the early morning light that unfolds into the vast, majestic canyonlands below since the previously obscure area became a national park in 1964. But on this day – the first workday after the New Year – there were but two photographers, Bryan from Denver and Ryan from Cortez, Colorado, and their companions trying their luck.
We compared notes on our morning drives and hikes and realized that the five of us may have represented the entire human population of the 527-square-mile park at that moment. If you want to commune with nature but hate visiting our national parks out west when the roads and hiking paths are clogged with visitors, go now, in the dead of winter, when you’ll feel like you have some of our greatest natural treasures all to yourself. On a recent five-day road trip, I enjoyed blissful quiet at all three national parks I visited: Mesa Verde, Canyonlands and Arches.
“We got there an hour before sunrise, but it was already too late,” he lamented. “There was a row of about 35 photographers here, all with their tripods spread out, and I couldn’t even get near the arch.”
We had no such problem on this morning but we did have to contend with the cold. As we waited for the sun to rise, Julia and Ryan regaled us with stories about her four years working in the ER of a hospital on an Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona.
“They don’t shoot each other,” Ryan said, when I asked if Julia treated a lot of gunshot wounds. “The Apache are still warriors. Shooting people is considered kind of wimpy. They’d be more likely to attack someone with knives, baseball bats, two-by-fours, you name it.”
It was an overcast morning and by 7:40 the sun was two minutes late rising and we started to fret. But a few minutes later, the sun peaked through and gradually blanketed the canyonlands below in a lovely, golden light. We could see for miles and the landscape of colorful canyons, mesas, and buttes was peculiar, wild and unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
The official Canyonlands map boasts that “Canyonlands is wild America” and that is not an exaggeration. Canyonlands is big enough that you can find places to escape the crowds even in the peak season, but in the dead of winter the whole place is blissfully empty. (It gets about half the number of visitors as nearby Arches NP.) The park has five distinct sections and I had time to visit just two, the Island in the Sky and Needles districts, which are both an easy day trip from Moab.
Island in the Sky is often referred to as the park’s observation tower because it provides a view of the canyons with the backdrop of three mountain ranges – the La Sals, the Abajos and the Henrys. I took hikes around Mesa Arch and near the Grand View point overlook and barely scratched the surface of what’s possible in this area.
Needles is a longer drive from Moab, but it’s worth the trek to see the massive sandstone spires that give the place its name. On the way there or back, be sure to visit Newspaper Rock, a remarkable collection of petroglyphs that were carved by Native American peoples between about 700 B.C. and 1300 A.D.
If you want to go way off the beaten track in this area, check out the view at the end of the Needles Overlook road, and on the way back stop off at Rockland Ranch, a unique community of modern day cliff dwellers, some of them polygamists, that is a few miles down a dirt road that forks off the Needles Overlook road.
And while you’re in the Island in the Sky vicinity, definitely check out Dead Horse Point State Park, which has amazing panoramas some 2,000 feet above the Colorado River.
On my last hike in Canyonlands, I sat on a rock and looked out at the Wooden Shoe arch and realized what I loved most about this place: the absolute silence. I live in Chicago, where it’s nearly impossible to find a truly silent place with no chatter, no cars zooming by, nothing. But this place, this place is so blissfully silent that you really do feel at one with nature.
A few caveats about visiting Canyonlands NP in the winter. Daytime high temperatures are typically in the 30s and 40s and you should be prepared for snow. Bring your own water and food – even the vending machines are shut down for the winter at Needles. The roads can be a bit snowy and icy (they were pretty clear when I was there in early January) but there are so few cars that you can drive at your own pace, and stop in the middle of the road to take photos whenever you want. And be extra careful if you’re hiking because no one is going to find you if you get lost in the winter.
I asked Kati Thomas, a park ranger at Canyonlands, if she thought I was on safe ground recommending Canyonlands in the winter and she didn’t hesitate.
“People should be prepared for snow, but it’s pretty unusual for us to have to close the roads for more than a few hours,” she said. “I think winter is a great, great time to be here.”
[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]