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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.

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“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.

Deep in the night I stick my head out the tent to find fat snowflakes sliding diagonally through the broad beam of my headlamp. In the warmth of a slickrock afternoon it’s easy to forget that canyon country is not true desert. Climatologically speaking, it’s the Colorado Plateau Semiarid Province-typically too high, too cold, and too wet to qualify as a North American desert. This place sees 12 to 20 inches of precipitation a year, most of it in the form of snow.

Blue skies arrive with the sun. We dry our gear on the steaming rocks, then climb out of North Mule, the snowbanks deepening with altitude. Winter hiking hereabouts means you may have to do a fair amount of postholing, and for the next two hours we do. Working hard to find the laziest route, we wander across a labyrinth of concealed gullies, sticking to melted-off south-facing slopes whenever possible.

Sundown finds us pitching camp on a blustery viewpoint overlooking Texas Canyon. The latest storm has subsided, and with the clearing comes high winds. While the elegantly swirled snowbanks turn purple in twilight’s glow, we lash the tent down with a short canyoneering rope to keep it from bucking like a mad bronco. As soon as it’s anchored we dive inside. In summer this tent would be a cumbersome solar oven, useful only against rain or insects. But in winter the lengthy tent time offers a chance to recoup and savor the luxury of a warm dry bag. It also lets you appreciate the fact that you’re a tiny speck in a grand, open place, a point reinforced later that night when I’m gathering snow for melting. After wandering a bit I look back at our lamp-lit tent, and see only a tiny, glowing island in an immense white sea of winter.

There’s something oddly appropriate about traveling these canyons when it’s cold, since ice created them. It’s a widely held misbelief that the deep ruts throughout the Southwest were carved over the eons by the patient trickle of water. The imagery is more poetic than accurate. Other than the huge canyons of the Colorado and Green rivers, most were created in swifter and more violent fashion by catastrophic floods, the result of high plateau glaciers melting in the waning days of the last Ice Age. The glacial sediments these floods left behind allowed the Anasazi to farm and thrive in the canyon bottoms, until the climate dried and the thin soils gave out. When the Ancient Ones suddenly and mysteriously moved on, they left behind the evocative ruins we’ve passed on our journey.

Morning’s light awakens me early. Drew shows no signs of life, so I brew a quick cup of coffee and stumble off to a sheltered alcove to await the thawing sunbeams. Slowly, the sound of dripping water returns to the canyons, as does the hum of a campstove in the distance.

“I think I’ve found the perfect breakfast food,” Drew proudly announces when I return. “Try some.” I do. I gag. It’s instant oatmeal made with black coffee. And I thought my backcountry palate was beyond horror.

We set out and hike for hours along the canyon rim, but deep snow keeps dampening our ambitions. We made a tactical error leaving our snowshoes back at the trailhead, where in the warmth of the tailgate discussions we concluded that the snow wouldn’t be too deep. So much for low-elevation assumptions. Oh well, we’d come looking for winter in canyon country and found it.

Our original plan was to stay up high, skirt Texas Canyon, then cross over Elk Ridge to Hammond Canyon, sampling a variety of elevations and climates along the way. But the snow is just too deep, so we spend most of the day struggling back through our now-hard-frozen, knee-deep postholes, down to where the smarter animals had stayed all along.

North Mule’s sandy wash reads like a scroll of desert life, with the clean tracks of coyotes and cottontails everywhere, and not a waffled boot print to be found. The slickrock pools are covered with delicate plates of ice, fragile artwork etched by frost and suspended like glass tabletops above cold emerald water.

As the sun begins to set on what looks like it’ll be a cloudless evening, we grab our sleeping bags and rest against the most comfortable rocks we can find. Twilight slowly fades and we can feel the dry winter air losing its warmth. Shooting stars slice through the sky before melting in flares of gold and orange, and the pale moonlight turns juniper berries into blue-white pearls.

In this place of ice and beauty and solitude, it’s hard to imagine-much less remember-the tongue-parching season that’s just the other side of spring, a time of year when these canyons will be little more than dust and dreams of cool, refreshing water. But the heat will come. It always does, and with it the promise of yet another winter and the transformation of the land into a white-dusted world of wonder and solitude.

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.

How to Pack for Backcountry Skiing

Get to know the winter safety gear you need in your pack.