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Chillin’ in Canyon Country
Winter's a Wonderland in Utah’s Red-Rock Desert

By Tony Huegel

Note: Be sure to visit Backcountry Byways Journal!

Even with four-wheel drive and ABS brakes, I felt the Mitsubishi Montero Sport’s tires slip on the tortuous dirt road scratched into a canyon wall in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, not far from Moab.

That was unsettling, given the killer drop-off to my left, but not surprising, since it was late January.

Signs at the top of the Shafer Trail Road, a vertiginous series of dirt switchbacks, had correctly warned that there would be icy spots on the 1,400-foot plunge to the White Rim, a mantle of pale rock formed of primordial coastal sands.

The vista across the deeply incised desert, where the higher rock of dusky reds and browns was frosted by snow, is a dangerous distraction anytime, but especially under these conditions.

So I saved my sightseeing for a pullout.

Then, I gazed across a geologic story told in a stairstep landscape of canyons, cliffs, terraces, buttes, mesas and benchlands that rise from the meandering chasm of the Colorado River.

How easy it is, I thought, to say “three hundred million years,” the span of time revealed here by the erosive power of water, wind and time. But even when confronted with the evidence, one cannot comprehend it. So I focused instead on a comprehensible number: 60, as in degrees, the temperature of this unusually warm winter day.

Wondering About Winter

Down Town MoabI had explored the unpaved backroads and four-wheel-drive trails through Utah’s canyon country many times before. But I’d always visited in spring, when jeepers take over the town of Moab for their annual hajj, the Easter Jeep Safari; and fall, which I think is best. I’ve stayed away in summer, when temperatures reach triple digits.

That left me wondering about winter, the off-season.

I’d heard that winter, when the arches, spires, hoodoos and monoliths wear a lace of snow, is a quiet and uniquely beautiful time. Campgrounds that book solid in spring are barely occupied, although night comes early. Moab’s motels offer bargain prices, but many restaurants and shops are closed.

Average high temperatures range from 30 to 50 degrees F., lows 0 to 20, and the skies are often gray. Ice and snow can cause hazardous driving conditions in the backcountry, where many 4wd routes are closed.

Yet amid one of the world’s most exotic wildlands, solitude, beauty and adventure abound in winter.

Anticipating a day in the glistening La Sal Mountains, which rise to 12,721 feet at the summit of Mount Peale, I had loaded my cross-country skis onto the roof rack. Responses to my advance inquiries suggested that the weather would be dry and daytime highs springlike. So I brought my mountain bike, too.

Mining to Mountain Biking

I arrived in Moab at twilight. Already the town of 4,100 souls seemed to be asleep. Once an isolated Mormon settlement in a red-rock valley underlain by shifting salt formations, Moab’s economy has made the switch from ranching and uranium mining to outdoor recreation and tourism.

Today, Moab is a commercialized and cluttered base for forays through exquisite expanses of slickrock desert, sandstone canyons and the piney La Sals.

My first morning dawned overcast and glum, yet the day held promise. I took Highway 191 north from town, then followed Highway 313 onto Island in the Sky, a mesa that rises 2,000 feet above the Colorado and Green rivers.

I began the exhilarating descent on snowy Shafer Trail Road just beyond the entrance to Canyonlands National Park. Far below I could see the junction of Potash Road, which winds for 30 spectacular miles to Highway 191 just north of Moab, and White Rim Road, my destination for the day.

White Rim Road, among America’s most spectacular backcountry byways, makes a remote 100-mile loop below Island in the Sky, from the benches above the Colorado River to the banks of the Green. I’d driven it a number of times before, both in segments and over several days. I’d driven it in a single day, too, but that made the experience akin to an IMAX drive-in.

Primordial Playground

I’d come this time to hike, bike, ski, drive, get it all in within the few days I had available. Yet when I reached the White Rim I pulled onto an overlook and dawdled.

With my legs dangling over a cliff that towered hundreds of feet above the Colorado River, I looked down into a gorge that rivals the Grand Canyon in grandeur, and saw a chronicle of creation.

There was the brownish Jurassic-period Navajo Sandstone, left by what may have been the greatest desert the Earth has ever known; the hard, ledgy Kayenta Formation, formed of river deposits and marked by the footprints of dinosaurs; the massive crimson walls of Wingate sandstone, made of still more Jurassic desert sands; the uranium-bearing Chinle Formation, varicolored sandstones and siltstones where petrified wood and volcanic ash abound; and the Moenkopi Formation, in which ripple marks record the ebb and flow of a Triassic Period sea.

White Rim Road

After a while, I took my bike off the roof rack and pedaled farther down the road. When I reached Musselman Arch, a long ground-level span at the edge of a side canyon that led down to the Colorado River, I saw a couple parked there, watching the shadows move through the canyon below.

I continued on for another mile or so, watching for desert bighorn sheep. By then it was getting late. So I drove back to Moab via Potash Road, through gullies and ravines and along benches above the river.

My second day was sunny and warm. I decided to take the easy 1.5-mile hike to Delicate Arch, possibly the most famous feature in Arches National Park, maybe even all of Utah.

It was about 3 p.m. when I reached the arch, which stands 45 feet high and 33 feet wide. By then the amber light of late afternoon was illuminating not only this symbol of the Beehive State, but also the La Sals, which dominate the skyline beyond. For an hour, maybe more, I had one of Utah’s most popular attractions to myself, a rare privilege indeed.

Skiing, Four-wheeling, Biking

I was booked for two nights at Mount Peale Resort, a bed-and-breakfast on Highway 46 in the La Sals. There, I felt worlds away from the red-rock desert. Yet the inn is only 45 minutes from the color-banded rock of Canyonlands’ Needles District, and 35 minutes from Moab.

The next morning, falling snow made the day look like what it was, the third day of February, although down in the warmer red canyons it still seemed like the threshold of summer.

After fueling up on homemade waffles I got in some cross-country skiing in the La Sals. Then I headed to the Needles District, Canyonlands’ southern sector, named for its countless sandstone spires, pinnacles and towers.

Near the visitor center I embarked on the Colorado River Overlook Road, an easy dirt track for the first six miles. After that it became very rocky, so I parked and pedaled the final mile, arriving at a dizzying dropoff near the confluence of the Colorado and the Green.

Back on the asphalt, on my return to Moab, I stopped at Newspaper Rock, where Native Americans as long ago as 2,000 years created elaborate petroglyphs, artful figures pecked onto the rock.

They could be greetings, prayers, maybe just one ancient person’s caricature of another. No one knows.

Time was running out on my visit, however, so after a few minutes I left them for the next person to ponder, and drove off, satisfied that winter in this wonderland was a mystery to me no more.

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