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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.

Winter Pilgrimages

Five Utah canyon trips we wouldn’t dream of recommending in summer.

Arch, Texas, and Butts Canyons

San Juan Resource Area

Arch Canyon is a 12-mile-long gorge that, after about 7 miles, fans into three upper tributaries including Texas and Butts canyons. The canyon complex offers excellent hiking, wonderful campsites, numerous arches, and ruins tucked high up on the canyon walls.

Why winter? Beautiful scenery, easy routefinding, and a variety of elevations and temperatures. Besides, in summer it’s buggy, and Jeep traffic will ruin the experience; a controversial four-wheel-drive track runs into this wilderness study area.

Getting there: The trailhead begins about 10 miles west of Blanding, Utah, on UT 95 just east of milepost 107.

Maps: Trails Illustrated’s Grand Gulch Plateau #706 shows the lower canyon to its confluences; Manti-La Sal National Forest #703 covers the upper canyon. Both are $8.99 from Trails Illustrated, P.O. Box 4357, Evergreen, CO 80437-4357; (800) 962-1643.

Contact: BLM San Juan Resource Area, P.O. Box 7, Monticello, UT 84535, (435) 587-1500. Or Monticello Ranger District, La Sal National Forest, P.O. Box 820, Monticello, UT 84535; (435) 587-2041.

Under the Rim Trail

Bryce Canyon National Park

Under the Rim runs 23 miles (one way) from Bryce Point in the north to Yovimpa Point at the park’s southern end. Along the way the trail passes through the magnificent pinnacles and unique “hoodoos” of Bryce Canyon. Several spur trails offer shorter loops back to the rim.

Why winter? In summer the park trails are crowded, noisy due to all the tourists on the rim overlooks, and water is nonexistent. Bryce is higher and colder than many canyon destinations (7,000 to 9,000 feet elevation), so in winter be prepared to use either skis or snowshoes. Backcountry permits are required.

Getting there: Bryce lies on UT 12, east of its junction with Highway 89.

Maps: Trails Illustrated’s Bryce Canyon National Park #219; $8.99, Trails Illustrated, P.O. Box 4357, Evergreen, CO 80437-4357; (800) 962-1643.

Contact: Bryce Canyon National Park, Bryce Canyon, UT 84717; (435) 834-5322.

Muley Twist Canyon

Capitol Reef National Park

This scenic canyon winds enough “to twist a mule” for 12 miles (one way) through the southern portion of the Waterpocket Fold, a striking fault of sandstone that defines Capitol Reef National Park.

Why winter? Because it’s an oven in summer, and like much of the region, water is nonexistent. In colder months it’s a great out-and-back trip, with easy routefinding, and several huge alcove campsites at the southern end. You’ll need a backcountry permit.

Getting there: In winter Muley Twist is best approached via the asphalt Burr Trail from the town of Boulder on UT 12. Approaches from the east and south are dirt, and may be impassable when wet.

Maps: Earthwalk Press’ Hiking Map and Guide, Capitol Reef National Park ($7.95), available from Mountain N’Air Books, P.O. Box 12540, La Crescenta, CA 91224; (800) 446-9696.

Contact: Capitol Reef National Park, Torrey, UT 84775; (435) 425-3791.

White Canyon

San Juan Resource Area

This magnificent, sandstone canyon runs 70 miles through southeast Utah, paralleling UT 95. There are lots of opportunities to explore sidecanyons to the east, and the option of starting or ending at Natural Bridges National Monument to the south.

Why winter? White Canyon is hot and waterless in summer, and the highway provides easy (read: solid road and no mud) access to the trailheads.

Getting there: White Canyon runs from Hite Marina on Lake Powell, to Natural Bridges National Monument west of Blanding, Utah. You can enter the canyon from UT 95 at several points: A) simplest entry is via a dirt road at milepost 61 about 10 miles south of Hite; B) at Fry Canyon, milepost 72, where a cross-country route follows the east rim of Fry Canyon; C) via the Sipapu Bridge Trail (can be slick in winter) in Natural Bridges National Monument; park or start at Natural Bridges and you’ll need an overnight permit.

Maps: BLM or USGS 1:100,000 metric series topo Hite is available for $11.50 from Map Express, (800) 627-0039.

Contact: BLM San Juan Resource Area, P.O. Box 7, Monticello, UT 84535; (435) 587-1500.

Devil’s Canyon

San Rafael Swell

Devil’s Canyon is a wild, beautiful, seldom traveled sandstone gorge about 12 miles long, not including side hikes. Most of the time you’ll be less than a mile or two from I-70, but you’ll never notice. There are plenty of interesting bench campsites and scenic tributary canyons.

Why winter? Stunning winter scenery and easy route-finding in a canyon that’s bone dry in summer. Plus I-70 offers dependable access and a beautiful approach drive from the east.

Getting there: Devil’s Canyon parallels I-70 in the western region of the San Rafael Swell, about half way between the towns of Salina and Green River, Utah (110 miles between the two). From a dirt road turn-off just west of milepost 116, hike south on dirt roads or head cross-country about half a mile until you drop into the canyon.

Maps: The USGS or BLM 1:100,000 series San Rafael Desert, Utah. Available for $11.50 from Map Express, (800) 627-0039.

Contact: BLM Price Field Office, P.O. Box 7004, Price, UT 84501; (435) 636-3600.

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