Until The Last Leaf Falls: Autumn Ends At Natural Bridges

Sipapu Bridge trail down into White Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument.

Sipapu Bridge trail down into White Canyon, Natural Bridges National Monument. Click on the image for a much larger version.

Winter has come early this year. The third snowfall has already occurred at Natural Bridges National Monument and Cedar Mesa in southeast Utah.

And I am glad for it. Because after the leaves are off the trees and shrubs, after there is no green of deciduous foliage in the stream bottoms and among the pinyon pines and junipers, the grasses and forbs and wildflowers all being long done, the canyons look so drab by comparison.

Snow coated Douglas-fir, Pinyon pine, and Utah juniper trees.

Snow coated Douglas-fir, Pinyon pine, and Utah juniper trees. And desert varnish on the cliffs.

Snow sure fixes that. Because Cedar Mesa is a desert, visitors are often surprised to hear that it snows here. But then again many people think that desert means low desert, like the Sonoran Desert zone in southern Arizona.

The ledge below Vulture Point, Sipapu Bridge Trail.

The ledge below Vulture Point, Sipapu Bridge Trail.

But this is the high desert. In fact, Natural Bridges is the uppermost of the high desert. It lies just below Elk Ridge, which is mountain country: Ponderosa pine and aspen forest type. You can drive up there in just a few miles and you’ve risen two thousand feet in elevation.

Meanwhile, down here at Natural Bridges, I hiked down the Sipapu Bridge trail to see how conditions were for the park’s visitors. The overcast sky, after the snow storm, made for reduced contrast, while still providing a nice soft and bright light. A welcome change from the deep shadows and blue sky.

People ask me all the time: which Bridge is best in the morning, the afternoon, etc. I usually reply: I don’t care when I go down into the canyons. The trails lead you right down underneath each bridge, so you can get great shots from either side, depending on how the light is at that time of day. So the important thing is: just get down there! Even better, do one of the loop hikes, and you will see even more.

And that’s just the canyon landscape. There are only three ancient ruins in the park that the staff is allowed to talk about. The others are located throughout the park and are some of the best preserved of their kind. After all, President Teddy Roosevelt declared this park Utah’s first National Monument in 1908.

Ancestral pueblan (Anasazi) ruins, Natural Bridges National Monument.

Ancestral pueblan (Anasazi) cliff dwelling ruins, Natural Bridges National Monument. No, I won’t tell you how to get to this site.

After enjoying another hike down the Sipapu Bridge trail, I returned to the canyon rim and drove on. Fall colors are one of my things, and any remaining colors, no matter how scant, catch my eye. Like these Fremont Cottonwood leaves, still holding out in the snow. Not for long, though.

Fremont Cottonwood last gasp fall colors, Natural Bridges National Monument.

Fremont Cottonwood last gasp fall colors, Natural Bridges National Monument. The Utah junipers in the background, especially with shadows and touches of snow, make for a nice canvas.

Last leaves, Natural Bridges.

Last leaves, Natural Bridges.

Then it was on to Owachomo Bridge. The old lady of the trio. The one that will collapse the soonest, “soon” being very relative in geologic terms. Tomorrow? A thousand years?

Owachomo Bridge, early snow.

Owachomo Bridge, early snow.

Owachomo Bridge was the one that actually had some snow on her by the time I got there that afternoon. She’s the most wide open, rather than tucked down at the bottom of White Canyon like Sipapu Bridge and Kachina Bridge are. So I got to angle around quite a bit for some good snow shots. Especially when the late afternoon sun made a brief appearance and lit up her southside buttresses. Lovely, very lovely.

But back to imagining when the last leaf of autumn might fall. When? Where?

Fremont Cottonwood leaf and third snow of the season.

Fremont Cottonwood leaf and third snow of the season.

It’s rather a trick question, because in a way it never does fall. Not in autumn, anyway. Some trees shed all their leaves in the fall, while others — notably the oaks — hang onto at least some of them throughout the winter. There’s lots of variation: climate, microclimate, genetics. Nothing happens all at once.

Thus the last leaf might actually not fall until spring. When the new growth pushes any remaining holdovers off the twig.

Watch your own favorite trees and try to notice what they do. It’s fun to contemplate.

Frost on Gambel Oak leaf and cryptobiotic soil crust, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Frost on Gambel Oak leaf and cryptobiotic soil crust, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

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