If you’ve been reading Dave Seminara’s posts this week on winter hiking in Arches and Canyonlands National Park you probably already have some sense of just how spectacular this region of the U.S. actually is. But just in case you need a reminder, this beautiful time-lapse video from the American southwest will certainly do the trick. In addition to being filmed in the parks mentioned above, this short film was shot in a number of other great locations throughout Utah and Arizona, including Zion, Monument Valley and Horseshoe Bend.
At just two minutes and thirty-three seconds in length, it is a bit short, however, and by the end you’ll be left wanting more. Perhaps that is just the teaser you need to inspire your own journey to his breathtaking outdoor playground. If you haven’t been there yet, definitely add it to your list of places to visit.
How did I end up on the ass end of the famous Delicate Arch rock formation at Arches National Park in Utah? That’s the question I asked myself one afternoon last week as I was standing on the slippery base of the arch in completely inappropriate sneakers, looking down at the steep drop into the canyon below. (see video below)
At Arches, you can’t miss the Delicate Arch, a huge rock formation that stands on the brink of a canyon with the imposing, snow capped La Sal Mountains as a backdrop. (It’s even on the state license plate in Utah) But you can easily get lost trying to find the damn vantage point above the arch, especially in the winter, when the crowds range from sparse to nonexistent and there’s no one to follow.
In truth, I should have known better. I’m a fairly experienced hiker, so I know that you’re supposed to follow the cairns- those short stacks of rocks that mark trails. But I like to hike fast and when I’m wrapped up in the natural splendor of a place, I tend to lose concentration, as I did on this day, when I began to follow footprints up a series of steep rocks, rather than the cairns.
When I finally reached the base of the Delicate Arch, I looked to my left and noticed a cluster of hikers sitting up on top of a colossal wall of rock looking down onto the arch. There was a steep drop off and no way for me to walk across and up the rock to their vantage point, so I made the assumption that I needed to climb around the arch to get up to where they were.
I had planned to buy a new pair of hiking boots on the trip, but had been so busy waking up before the crack of dawn to hike and take photos each day that I didn’t have time to buy them. I was wearing a pair of running sneakers with virtually no tread left and my attempt to shimmy around the sides of the arch, which has a fairly steep drop on both sides, scared the hell out of me.
It seemed hard to believe that the park’s most popular trail would lead people along such a treacherous path, yet I couldn’t figure out how to reach the upper vantage point I could see. I considered yelling across to the hikers on the plateau but felt too ashamed to scream out, ‘HEY! HOW DO I GET UP THERE?’ But after I nearly slipped and fell down the canyon (see video above and below) I finally realized that I must have taken a wrong turn.
I retraced my steps and eventually realized that the path requires hikers to make their approach behind the steep wall of rock in order to reach the upper vantage point of Delicate Arch. It was a humbling start to my visit to Arches, but I soon fell in love with the place nonetheless. Arches is a remarkably beautiful place and it’s only a couple miles outside Moab, one of just a handful of left-leaning places in a very red state.
The park has at least 2,000 arches, formed by erosion over a period of more than 100 million years but it’s relatively easy to see most of Arches in a day or two, depending on which hikes you take. How beautiful is it? Chose any adjective you like- stupendous, awe-inspiring, breathtaking, mesmerizing- they all fit.
Delicate Arch is the most hyped hiking trail in the park but I enjoyed the Park Avenue, Windows, Balanced Rock, and Devil’s Garden trails just as much. (Though I only completed part of Devil’s Garden, due to my shoddy footwear) Arches is a popular place for most of the year, but I had the place mostly to myself on a Sunday afternoon and almost completely to myself on a Tuesday in early January. Nearby Canyonlands National Park was even quieter.
Some sections of the roads in the park were a bit icy, but given the choice between sitting in traffic at Arches when it’s 100 degrees or having the place to myself when it’s 30 and a bit icy, I’ll take the later every time. If you want to go someplace quiet to relieve stress, I can’t think of a better place than Arches in the winter. But dress warm, bring your own food and water, and, whatever you do, follow the cairns, not the foot and paw prints.
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.
Bryan had tried to photograph the Mesa Arch at sunrise last May but arrived too late and couldn’t get near the vista.
“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.”
The confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers in Utah is a maginificent sight for the adventurous traveler. To see it from above is one thing – you can access it by trail in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park – but to see it from the ground is quite another.
64-year old Amos Richards was visiting the national park while on vacation from his home in North Carolina when he decided to go hiking in the Blue John Canyon area. At some point on his trek, while trying to scramble down to a lower section of trail, he fell approximately 10 feet, fracturing his right leg in the process. After the fall, Richards discovered that he was unable to support his weight on his injured leg, and so he proceeded to crawl out of the remote area in which he was stranded.
An injury of this kind would be difficult to overcome in any environment, but in the remote backcountry of the Canyonlands, it was especially challenging. To add to the complications, Richards hadn’t bothered to tell anyone where he was going, nor was he properly equipped for extended stays in the wilderness. For instance, he carried no extra clothing, had no map, nor any kind of overnight gear. Fortunately, he did have five liters of water and a couple of power bars in his daypack.
Despite his determination to reach safety, this story could have had a potentially disastrous ending. However, park rangers came across an abandoned campsite that Richards had used, and suspected that someone was in the area. The began a search and rescue operation, and Richards was eventually spotted by helicopter. Later he was airlifted to a local hospital where he was treated for the injuries to his leg, as well as internal trauma and dehydration.
Obviously Richards hadn’t seen 127 Hours, the movie about Ralston’s ordeal, or he would have learned to never go into the backcountry without first letting someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back. He was also woefully unprepared for any kind of emergency as well, leaving behind important items that could have been the difference between life and death. Perhaps he should have reviewed the ten essentials of hiking before setting out. Lucky for him, he is expected to make a full recovery, but this is an important lesson to all of us on being smart about our outdoor adventures.