I traveled to southwest Utah (and points beyond) during a 6-week trip in January/February of 2011 to seek new landscapes and warmer temperatures. Wow, minus 6 degrees on my first morning at Bryce! I haven’t experienced cold like that since growing up in Glasgow in eastern Montana. As a kid, temperatures below minus 20 degrees were common every winter. Since moving to Washington (and especially western Washington with the marine influence), I haven’t come close to feeling those kinds of temperatures.
I was traveling in my camper with all the comforts of home, minus the space. I felt so fortunate, though; camping next to me were two young guys in a tent. Sorry, but I’m way past that stage of my life.
I had long wanted to photograph Bryce Canyon with snow. I’ve been to Bryce on several occasions, and the red spires are always, well, inspiring. The multiple spires form a very rugged and beautiful landscape, and I’ve followed the trails throughout these formations. But the combination of red rocks, white snow, and blue skies has always been intriguing, and I was wanting to experience this myself.
I arrived at Bryce mid-afternoon and quickly found a campsite. Only one campground is kept open at that time of year, but there were only a handful of campers. It’s too bad that so many people miss the beauty that challenging weather often brings. I went to Sunset Point as the sun was setting, and then returned to the campsite for the long winter night.
I like to be at a location to begin photographing well before sunrise, and a flashlight is a standard part of my equipment. So it was at Bryce, and I arrived an Sunrise Point in the dark. Unfortunately, I got mixed up with Sunset Point, and I was looking for the landmarks that I had seen the previous evening. I walked around in the dark for about 30 minutes looking for the trailhead, drove around some more, and finally set out on the only trailhead I could find.
When I got to the rim a short distance away, I turned left, confident that I would find the overlook along this trail. I was dressed warmly around my torso, but my feet, legs, hands, and head were not adequately protected from these cold temperatures for long periods of time. I walked along the rim for about 30 minutes, realized I was going in the wrong direction, so I retraced my steps back to where I had turned and continued along the rim in the other direction. By this time I had been walking for about 90 minutes, and light was beginning to creep over the horizon.
Within a short distance I came to Sunrise Point. If I had initially turned right instead of left, I would have easily found the vantage point much sooner. I set up and took some photos of the rock towers prior to sunrise when the light was softer and more evenly distributed across the landscape.
As soon as the sun crests the horizon, the light becomes directional and intense, shadows form, and the contrast is much greater. The resulting image at this moment is shown at the top of this page.
During the winter months, the sun rises much further to the south. As a result, the entire canyon doesn’t fill with light, and the southern part of the canyon remains in shade for quite some time. In the spring when the sun moves northward, the entire basin will catch the first rays of the sun, and this will be repeated again in the fall as the sunrises retreat to the south. While the entire basin filled with light is certainly dramatic, it doesn’t (usually!) have snow, and snow was my goal.
I was amply rewarded for my efforts. The light was beautiful. The red rocks were beautiful. The snow was beautiful. The blue sky with cloud patterns was beautiful. And I was freezing. I took as many pictures as I could, switched to film in the Pentax 645 for some additional photos, and then thought about hiking down the trails for some additional photos. By now I had been out in the cold weather for nearly 3 hours. I realized it was getting difficult to walk and to talk. Any thought of hiking into the canyon was quickly dismissed.
I tried to warm up by the fire at Ruby’s Inn, but finally paid $3 for one of the best showers I’ve had in my life. Even after the shower, I didn’t feel too well for several hours. This was a warning to me, and it should be to others as well, that cold temperatures are nothing to fool with, especially in areas where few people are to be found. I’ve since purchased pac boots, lined pants, warmer gloves, and headgear that will cover my ears, neck, and much of my face. Next time I’ll be more prepared for the cold.
I had driven past the entrance to Zion on my previous trips to Bryce, but I had never turned right to visit this national park. Wow, what I had been missing.
Zion is a relatively small national park. It is surrounded by tall peaks and buttes, but most of the human activity is concentrated on the valley floor. An extensive trail system covers portions of the park, and this is the best way to get away from the crowds and have a more intimate experience with the park.
I entered on the east entrance on Highway 9. Once past the entrance station, there are several pullouts that offer the first good views of what Zion has to offer.
The rock formations and surfaces in the area past the entrance station were exceptionally interesting, but relatively few trails can be found in this area. The east rim trail heads north from the entrance station. It is a relatively long trail and eventually connects with other trails on the valley floor. A much shorter and popular trail begins at the east entrance to the tunnel and leads to a dramatic overlook of the Zion valley below. I was anxious to experience the valley in the few hours that remained in the afternoon, so I postponed the overlook trail to the next day.
The 1.1 mile tunnel that takes park visitors to the valley below was completed in 1930. However, it is a relatively narrow tunnel, and large vehicles must travel down the center. For this reason, traffic coming from the other direction is stopped while a large vehicle is in the tunnel, and a $15 fee (as of 2011) is charged to the driver of that monster; I was one such driver. Driving through such a long tunnel is an experience in itself, as the road is anything but straight.
Once I was safely through the tunnel, I continued the numerous switchbacks to the valley floor. Now the sandstone cliffs and rocky peaks towered above me, and I could understand why the park was so popular with visitors.
I continued north on the main valley road and looked for a trail that I might take into some areas removed from the roadway. But I quickly discovered one of the difficulties of winter in the park: icy trails. The many hikers had turned snow-covered trails to ice, and it was treacherous footing in many sections. With my artificial hips, the thought of slipping and falling on hard ice did not appeal to me, and that greatly limited the trails I was able to attempt.
Despite warning signs that the trail was closed a short distance ahead, I did head out on the Emerald Pools trail. By walking on the edge of the trail, I was able to avoid much of the ice created by previous hikers. The trail eventually came to an overhang, and a small stream above sprayed water across the trail to the slope below. Of course, water and sub-freezing temperatures had created huge amounts of ice here, and this is where the trail had prudently been closed. Not only was the ice several inches thick on the trail and short section of railing that keeps hikers from falling, but I could hear large chunks of ice breaking and falling above. Still, I wanted a better angle for a photo, so I inched around the barricade to a location where I could look back up the trail at the icy conditions.
Icicles hung down from the overhang. The small ones were photogenic; the large one were dangerous. After getting a few photographs, I quickly retraced my careful steps and left the area.
The next day found a completely overcast sky, and that precluded any more photos of the towering cliffs. I drove back up the valley road, imagining what all of the trees lining the North Fork of the Virgin River must look like in the spring, summer, and autumn. I came to the end of the road where, during warmer weather, many hikers continue on up the river through narrow canyons. I was content to explore the area and look for interesting ice patterns in the small pools at the edge of the river.
Because of the overcast skies and my desire to get to Bosque del Apache, I left Zion after only a day and a half, an area in which a person could easily spend a week or more exploring. At least I left knowing what a beautiful place this little valley is and that I would be returning during a spring or fall season.