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Winter Utah: Canyon Solitude

Think slickrock in July and your throat clenches, your skin shrivels, and parched bones rattle in your subconscious. But in winter, the snow sends the tourists and dry desert demons packing, and the frosted wonderland is all yours.

“A bit different than last time we were here,”Drew says wryly, sitting on his pack and wringing out is socks.

“But is ‘here’ where we were?” I reply, glibness masking my uncertainty.

Our precise location is currently the hot issue, although the word “hot” isn’t exactly apropos at the moment. We’ve come to this twisted, carved up, convoluted section of southeast Utah to enjoy the canyons without the rock-melting heat that characterizes the region in summer, and for the most part the February weather has been blissfully cool and refreshing. Our dialogue has more to do with the whereabouts of the Texas Canyon Rim Trail, a faint route that begins at Texas Flat in the Four Corners Region about 15 miles east of Natural Bridges National Monument. An hour or so earlier we’d gotten off track on our winter approach to what’s normally the summer trailhead, and that, in turn, started a game of “Which way now?”

The reason for our confusion is simple: Things aren’t as I remember them, which is good and bad. Good in the sense that when I was here a few years ago, it was a hot, dusty July day and this place was an overgrazed meadow spitting grasshoppers into the desiccated air. Now, in late February, what should be the same spot instead resembles a beautiful fairyland forest of stunted bansai juniper, with everything covered in snow and sparkling frost-including the warm-season landmarks. It’s striking how winter alters the mood, and your perceptions, of canyon country.

Gentle flurries filter through the pygmy forest. To the east is emptiness, ochre rim rock, and the void of Arch Canyon. To the north rises Elk Ridge, a massive white mound cloaked in fresh snow and deep green ponderosa. All told, a spectacular example of the mesas and gorges that typify canyon country. We consult the map again and trade more theories about where to head and why, taking turns rolling eyes at each other’s strategies. Drew says continue north toward Elk Ridge, which would mean hours of high-stepping through crotch-deep snow, otherwise known as postholing. I, on the other hand, propose heading due east to the wind-scoured canyon rim, simply because I’d been lost on Texas Flat before, at night no less, and the strategy worked then.

When a deep boom rumbles through the junipers, our reasoned discourse quickly resolves. We spin around to see a menacing gray wall steam-rolling toward us, lit to ominous pearlescence by flashes of lightning. Seconds later we’re blasted by snow the consistency of laundry detergent. We head east, because it’s downwind and keeps the snow out of our faces.

As we posthole along, thoughts of prior winter canyon trips parade through my memory: the blessed emptiness of February in Canyonlands’ Needles District, a stark contrast to the summer hordes of four-wheelers and dayhikers; the fantasy-like pinnacles of Bryce etched to vivid relief by a dusting of fresh snow; the eerie San Rafael Reef slot canyons, their floors covered by ice and avalanche debris, much of it atop the clean surface of yesterday’s snowfall. My sweetest canyon country memories were all born in the depths of winter.

The chill contrast of snow and sand keeps luring me back to the mysteries of this frozen-stone landscape, but so does the solitude. In the 1960s and ’70s slickrock country was ignored by all but a few. Now it’s world renowned, and from March through October legions of desert pilgrims pour through these canyons. In winter, you may find a hiker or two near the popular trailheads on a sunny weekend, but head into the backcountry and the only hint of other travelers are the tracks of mule deer and the fur-ruffed prints of the cougars stalking them.

There are logistical advantages as well. With the arrival of cold the evaporation rates drop, seep springs and seasonal creeks regain the surface, and snow is everywhere for the melting. Water. A summer rarity. In winter you don’t have to carry heavy liquid loads, arrange troublesome caches, or cope with the angst of hoping you’ll find critical waterholes. You’re free to wander where you wish, a refreshing alternative to traveling through often stupefying heat, swilling gallons of lukewarm water that never quench your thirst.

In winter your climatic options are plenty. You can escape the chill in the canyon bottoms, or seek out snowy scenery by traveling the high rimrock. January often sees long spells of clear tanning weather. But most often Ma Nature will deliver a smorgasbord of conditions-cold mornings, warm afternoons, frigid nights, maybe even rain, hail, lightning, and snow, all in the space of a day. The weather is so varied and unique that you could call canyon winters their own fifth season.

Consider, for example, that only yesterday we were toiling up North Mule Canyon through autumnal temperatures, the invigorating air scented by damp earth and resinous pi?on pine. Silver-tipped willow buds, rich in luxuriant fuzz, were ripe with the promise of spring. It was chilly but comfortable in the shade, and during rest breaks we baked in solar-oven alcoves decorated with crumbling Anasazi ruins.

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