Snowy Moki Dugway, Goosenecks, and Monument Valley

The southern escarpment of Cedar Mesa, looking toward Monument Valley.

The southern escarpment of Cedar Mesa, looking toward Monument Valley.

The Christmas snow storm really cloaked Cedar Mesa, the Goosenecks of the San Juan River, and Monument Valley.

Highway 261 below Cedar Mesa.

Highway 261 below Cedar Mesa.

Driving to the southern edge of Cedar Mesa on Utah Highway 261, I once again peered down onto the San Juan River valley. Highway 261 descends the 1,100 feet from the top of Cedar Mesa down to the valley floor via a steep series of switchbacks called the Moki Dugway. The Dugway is the only section of the highway that isn’t paved, and it has no guard rails except for some concrete barriers along the outside edge of the uppermost switchback. Which gives a lot of visitors…apprehension…when they encounter it for the first time.

The Moki Dugway portion of Hwy. 261.

The Moki Dugway portion of Hwy. 261.

Seeing the cliffs and canyons of this high desert country in snow really accentuates the landforms. Shapes and formations not usually apparent stick out much more.

Goosenecks of the San Juan River, with snow.

Goosenecks of the San Juan River, with snow.

Once down the Moki Dugway, be sure to stop by Goosenecks State Park. The overlook of the San Juan River goosenecks near the hamlet of Mexican Hat is spectacular.

Monument Valley from Redlands Overlook, east of Kayenta, Arizona.

Monument Valley from Redlands Overlook, east of Kayenta, Arizona.

After driving west through Mexican Hat, the next area of interest is Monument Valley. I stopped at the Redlands Viewpoint off of Highway 163 for a nice early morning scene.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

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Frozen Treasures In White Canyon

White Canyon in snow, from upper Sipapu Bridge trail.

White Canyon in snow, from upper Sipapu Bridge trail.

At Natural Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah’s canyon country, winter is the time of extremely low visitation. You can all but have the park to yourself. And that’s even if you limit your experience to the loop drive road and walking out to the overlooks for the three bridges rather than hiking down into the canyons.

Traction devices for the boots are a must in canyon country in the winter.

Traction devices for the boots are a must in canyon country in the winter.

For a much more awesome experience, you have to hike the really cool trails down into the canyons. The trouble is that, after a big snowfall, it can be hard to discern where the trails go. And since they often descend quickly down the canyon wall, one wants to make sure they aren’t going to make a misstep.

Snow covered switchback in Sipapu Bridge trail below the Ledge.

Snow covered switchback in Sipapu Bridge trail below the Ledge. You don’t want a mis-step here.

In such instances it takes someone familiar with the trails to go first. Lead the way.

Recently I did another hike down into White Canyon in the park via the Sipapu Bridge trail. A few tentative visitors had tried to walk down from the trailhead, but had quickly turned around when it became clear to them that they didn’t know where they should go. So I made some tracks to show them.

The second of three wooden ladders on the Sipapu Bridge trail.

The second of three wooden ladders on the Sipapu Bridge trail.

Down the sandstone slickrock section, then down the metals stairs and along the upper ledge. Then down the wooden ladder to the main ledge to the halfway overlook down above Sipapu Bridge from Vulture Point.

Below The Ledge, traction devices are essential when there is snow and ice on the trail. I was certainly glad for mine. To be comfortable in the winter weather and trail conditions is such freedom. Such a joy.

Snow covered sandstone slickrock can be scary when it's at a steep angle.

Snow covered sandstone slickrock can be scary when it’s at a steep angle.

However, the last pitch of snow covered slickrock on the trail gave me great pause. I was used to it in the warm season, bare gray sandstone with great traction. Now with it covered by several inches of snow, I wasn’t sure. Would my boot’s traction devices hold…or not? I was alone and especially didn’t want a fall. I was only a short way above the canyon bottom and more easy hiking for the rest of the way. I hated the thought of turning back now.

I tested the way forward, slowly, one step at a time. The first step held. Then the second one. I was going to make it. Then both feet slipped, but only about a foot downslope. I was going to make it.

The stream in White Canyon below Sipapu Bridge.

The stream in White Canyon below Sipapu Bridge.

Then I was down the last little ladder, onto the canyon bottom that I knew so well.

I stepped over the cottonwood log at the trail junction. The one where a visitor last summer told me she’d been lying upon while her family played nearby, only to look at a rattlesnake gliding by just a few feet from her face. She had the picture to prove it. (There hasn’t been a case of snakebite in the park in at least a decade, and there wasn’t that day, either).

Frozen stream, White Canyon.

Frozen stream, White Canyon.

Down the canyon, down along the frozen stream. Mostly frozen, that is. The stream gurgled around the rocks in the riffles, and flowed silent beneath the big frozen pools in between. Ice crystals radiating out from stones. Snowy rocks looking like some kind of coconut topped marshmallow cookies.

Large ice crystals around stream bottom stone, White Canyon.

Large ice crystals around stream bottom stone, White Canyon.

Coyote tracks, deer tracks in the snow. No people tracks except when I looked behind me.

Snow covered rocks and ice, White Canyon.

Snow covered rocks and ice, White Canyon.

Sometimes I followed the trail — unmaintained here on the canyon floor because it would be an incredible expense to make it flash flood proof — and sometimes I just walked down the frozen stream itself.

Frozen White Canyon can be easier walking than the trail at times.

Frozen White Canyon can be easier walking than the trail at times.

Walking onto one such frozen pool, I noted how slippery the bare ice was. Good thing I had my traction devices on…and just like that my left foot shot out to the side like it had been yanked by a rope. I recovered without falling, thinking: what the…? Had my traction thingys gotten clogged up with snow and sand again? Nope. There was no longer the device on my left boot. It had somehow gotten off, and I didn’t know how far back. No real choice but to trudge back and look for where it had happened.

Ice crystals along the flowing water, White Canyon.

Ice crystals along the flowing water, White Canyon.

Fortunately it didn’t take that long before I found it, that black rubber oval with silver metal spikes, pulled off by a root underneath the snow.

Back to the hike. I passed by handprints of the ancient ones on a cliff wall. I passed beneath the ledge holding Horsecollar Ruin itself. I once again found petroglyphs (images pecked into the stone) along the canyon wall.

Room blocks of Horsecollar Ruin, from the trail below.

Room blocks of Horsecollar Ruin, from the trail below.

Then I came to Kachina Bridge, the youngest of the three and so also the most massive in terms of rock bulk.

Kachina Natural Bridge, White Canyon at the mouth of Armstrong Canyon.

Kachina Natural Bridge, White Canyon at the mouth of Armstrong Canyon.

After once again admiring the ancient artwork pecked into the buttresses of Kachina Bridge, I started the hike up out of the canyon to the truck.

Stone axe sharpening grooves and petroglyphs on buttress of Kachina Bridge.

Stone axe sharpening grooves and petroglyphs on buttress of Kachina Bridge.

A wonderful winter hike. May it always be so.

Snow covered stone steps on the Kachina Bridge trail.

Snow covered stone steps on the Kachina Bridge trail.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

Winter Walk to Horsecollar Ruins Overlook at Natural Bridges

White Canyon and Red House Cliffs, from Horse Collar Ruin Overlook.

White Canyon and Red House Cliffs, from Horse Collar Ruin Overlook. (Click on image for larger version).

I took another walk out to the Horsecollar Ruins Overlook at Natural Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah.

Handrails along trail to Horsecollar Ruin Overlook.

Handrails along trail to Horsecollar Ruin Overlook.

Some of the recent snow had melted, but not much. In fact on this hike I was the first one out to the overlook. Amazingly. It’s an easy walk despite the snow, especially with the handrails on the steeper pitches of sandstone slickrock near the end of the trail. The views are fantastic. Not just down into White Canyon and Deer Canyon, but of the surrounding cliffs, such as those below Deer Flat (an extension of Elk Ridge even higher above) and the Red House Cliffs and Moss Back Butte. If you like easy solitude, with great photography and no crowds, Natural Bridges is your place.

Horse Collar Ruin site, from the overlook.

Horse Collar Ruin site, from the overlook.

At the overlook itself, you are gazing down into White Canyon, the main canyon through the park, and in which two of its three natural bridges are located.

The Horsecollar Ruin cliff dwelling site is situated on a ledge on the other side of the canyon wall, just above the stream bottom. On this winter morning the sunlight hadn’t yet gotten down the canyon wall far enough to warm it. But it would soon. And remain on it for most of the rest of this short winter day. That’s one big reason the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi) chose to build in these south-facing cliff alcoves: maximum solar warmth in the winter when the sun’s angle is low, and then maximum shade in the summer months when the sun’s much higher angle was cut off by the overhanging alcove during the hottest portion of the day.

Horsecollar Ruin closeup, from the overlook on the rim of White Canyon.

Horsecollar Ruin closeup, from the overlook on the rim of White Canyon.

It’s interesting to stand at this precipice in winter and imagining living here. Down there, I mean. Archaeologists aren’t even sure if the site was occupied year around, or if the ancient ones migrated seasonally down to lower elevations in winter. Wood would have been plentiful above the site on the mesa top. But that was far above the site, vertically, and they only had stone headed axes with which to cut wood.

To see what Horsecollar Ruin looks like up close and personal in wintertime, see my post “Beauty Between the Snows“.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

December Moonrise, Bears Ears Buttes

Early evening moonrise, from Natural Bridges Visitor Center.

Early evening moonrise, from Natural Bridges Visitor Center. (Click on image for larger version).

The December 2015 Full Moon will occur on Christmas day for the first time since 1977. Moonrise will occur just before 6 PM here in the Mountain Time Zone in the U.S. That’s about 45 minutes after sunset, so landscape photos at that time will be black, or nearly so, by the time the moon clears the eastern horizon.

Visitor Center at Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah.

Visitor Center at Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah, with snowy Deer Flat and the Woodenshoe Buttes in the distance.

So, as usual the time to get great moonrise landscape shots is the day before. Sometimes two days before, depending on when moonrise and sunset times occur.

Moonrise over the Bears Ears Buttes.

Moonrise over the Bears Ears Buttes.

This time it occurred two days before, on December 23. That’s because the moon would reach 100 percent illumination at about 4 AM on the 25th, making the evening of the 24th the effective rise of the Full Moon. So one day before that was landscape photography time.

I was heading out to one of my favorite vistas on the 23rd for possible sunset shots when I saw the moon rising over the Bears Ears Buttes. I got some shots from the parking lot at the Visitor Center at Natural Bridges National Monument, then looked for a clear vista of the Bears Ears somewhat closer. The pinyon-juniper forest was in the way from the views on the entrance road, so I parked and hurriedly trudged into the woods through the snow looking for a high spot, a clearing, or both. I certainly didn’t have much time; I would have to get lucky.

Moonrise over Bears Ears, from pinyon pine-Utah juniper forest, Natural Bridges.

Moonrise over Bears Ears, from pinyon pine-Utah juniper forest, Natural Bridges.

I was fortunate to find a spot within about five minutes. So I shot, waited, and shot some more as sunset neared.

The recent snowfalls, including another heavy snow squall a couple hours previous, had the surrounding cliffs of Elk Ridge and Deer Flat freshened up with even more white than in the morning. Indeed, what was showing to the north of me was competing even with the moonrise scene. Because the Woodenshoe Buttes were lit up with evening light, too, only more from the side than the Bear Ears were.

The Woodenshoe Buttes in snow, from Natural Bridges.

The Woodenshoe Buttes in snow, from Natural Bridges.

Finally the sun was down. I was hoping for some alpenglow, but there were no clouds above the setting sun to create that tonight. I contented myself with the last pink clouds to the east above the Bears Ears, now deep in the shadow of dusk.

Last of the sunset colors over the Bears Ears.

Last of the sunset colors over the Bears Ears.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

 

Canyon Country: The Snow Awakens

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Still snowing from the rim of White Canyon, looking down onto Sipapu Natural Bridge. Yes, it’s hard to pick out from way up here. (click on image for larger version).

Finally, a real snow in canyon country. We’ve had several nice teasers, but this was all the weather service forecast, for once.

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Down the trail to Sipapu Bridge in White Canyon.

I’m a snow pessimist. I never believe we will get as much as they forecast. Not until I’m sweeping it all off of my truck the day after. And sometimes not even then.

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Cedar Mesa and White Canyon cliffs in fresh snow. The storm isn’t done yet, either.

My attitude is: when the deciduous trees and shrubs are bare, coat that (relatively) drab landscape with snow. Who cares if it’s cold out? That’s what indoor heating and insulating clothing are for. Your car’s heater has been lonely all summer. Use it.

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The metal stairs near the top of Sipapu Bridge Trail.

At Natural Bridges National Monument in southeast Utah, the sandstone capping Cedar Mesa is beige, or a light gray. So different than the red rock canyons and arches that are iconic of much of southern Utah.

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Looking down on Sipapu Bridge from The Ledge at Vulture Point.

I take the park’s Loop Drive (technically, Bridge View Drive on the maps) to the Sipapu Bridge trailhead parking lot. Sipapu Bridge is the mightiest one of the three in the park. The second largest natural bridge in America, or even on this side of the world. (Rainbow Bridge near Lake Powell is the largest on this side of the globe; there are four in China even larger).

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Sipapu Bridge in snow, from above. Notice the rivulets of melting snow.

The trail down to Sipapu Bridge is the steepest in the park: dropping 500 feet from rim to canyon bottom in just 0.6 mile. There are even three wooden ladders to climb down, a favorite with kids. They think they’re cool. Adults are mixed in their opinion. I like them, how they were made from nearby wood to blend in with the landscape.

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The upper ladder on Sipapu Bridge Trail.

There were icy patches on the trail before this latest snow fell. They are now covered by several inches of snow, and the sun never shines here in the winter, it’s a north facing canyon cliff. So I have my traction devices on my boots, and they work well. Lightweight but tough and sharp edged, just what I wanted out of them.

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Sipapu Bridge, wide panoramic image merge.

It’s still snowing on and off. So quiet you can hear a raven’s squawk or chortle from a long ways. I have the place all to myself. Me and the ravens.

At The Ledge, the approximate halfway point down to Sipapu Bridge, I walk out to the point for more photos of the mighty span still a ways below. This is called Vulture Point by the rangers because it’s a favorite hangout of Turkey vultures in season. But they left in October and won’t be back until spring.

Down the trail from The Ledge, switchbacking down, down through the Gambel Oak among the boulders.

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Down the trail through the Gamel oak, Pinyon pine, Utah juniper, and boulders.

To my turnaround spot: where the trail touches the abandoned meander where the stream once flowed around the rock wall that had no opening then. Until one day, one more big storm and flash flood with muddy water that slides and rolls much larger boulders than clear water ever could, one more episode of boulders bashing and rocks scraping away, and a hole in the rock fin was created. And slowly enlarged with countless more events. Until the stream had a large enough shortcut to bypass the old meander. Bye-bye. This way’s faster. And water always takes the fastest way. It doesn’t mess around.

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Sipapu Bridge and melting snow in the abandoned meander.

But enough geology stuff. I like the spot because it’s low enough in the canyon to show the sky through the span — the opening — of the bridge, while close enough to show off its mass. Earlier this year I once again paused at this spot while a first time visitor remarked: “It’s even bigger than I thought it would be.”

Which poses a bit of a problem, photographically. There you are, gawking up at the lovely beast, and you’re so close that only an ultra wide angle lens could fit it all into the frame. Which doesn’t portray its immense size very well.

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Sipapu Bridge and manzanita.

So why not hike back up the trail until you’re somewhat farther away? Because then you’re not low enough for that lovely glimpse of sky through the bridge’s span.

What to do, what to do? What I do is the high resolution panoramic image. A series of overlapping shots to take it all in, then merged in Adobe Photoshop. And with today’s Lightroom 6 (which runs on the Photoshop engine) you can do it insanely easily.

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Melting snow flowing down the flanks of Sipapu Bridge.

From above I had noticed the rivulets of melting snow running down the side of the bridge. Now I was standing where they had collected and were draining down this side of the abandoned meander. I admired the patterns they formed.

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Back up the Sipapu Bridge Trail. Only my footprints, I had it all to myself.

At some point it was time to admit I was satiated with the experience, and begin the steep sweaty hike back up the cliff face. Calories well burned, especially during an experience like this.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

Beauty Between the Snows

Trail down White Canyon, between Sipapu Bridge and Kachina Bridge.

Trail down White Canyon, between Sipapu Bridge and Kachina Bridge.

December. Usually one of my favorite months, because the fourth season — winter — is here, and I like the change of seasons. I enjoy the beauty of snow, how it adorns the landscape and shows off shapes.

Residue from past flash floods, White Canyon.

Residue from past flash floods wrapped around a cottonwood tree, White Canyon. Twigs, branches, roots, you name it.

This year, though, I’ve felt somewhat of a letdown. Because after a green spring and summer, and a colorful autumn, it suddenly looked so drab to have all the leaves down. It has snowed several times already, but lightly and the beautiful ground cover didn’t last long.

I knew what I had to do. I had to get back out there with my camera and see what I could find that was beautiful among the drab. Nature never lets you down.

Coyote Willow's last leaves, White Canyon.

A Coyote willow’s last leaves, White Canyon.

So at Natural Bridges I once again hiked down into White Canyon. To Sipapu Bridge and then downstream on the un-maintained trail that follows and repeatedly crosses the stream course.  As always it felt good to have the body moving, tasting the fresh outdoors. It’s not a maintained trail because to build one that would survive the frequent flash floods would be a massive, expensive undertaking, and greatly scar the canyons. Easier and better to let hikers follow the stream course wherever it’s easiest to walk.

I paused to photograph a willow bush along the stream bank, its last leaves hanging on but not for long. “Until the last leaf falls” I keep appreciating them.

Condensation drops underneath ice.

Condensation drops underneath ice.

My attention gets snagged by some bright little circular lights in the ice in a frozen pool. What is that?

Ice condensation beads and Cottonwood leaves.

Ice condensation beads and Cottonwood leaves.

As I walk closer I can fathom how the dry spell since the last snowfall has had the water level dropping in the stream, while the ice cover remained, the air temps being too cold for it to melt. Then maybe it warmed up a bit to cause evaporation underneath the ice, with the moisture condensing onto the underside of the ice. How cool. A prime example of the seemingly little treasures I’d hoped to experience on this hike.

Frozen cottonwood leaf, White Canyon.

Frozen cottonwood leaf, White Canyon.

And I am interested in how the prickly pear cacti are doing in this weather. Obviously shriveled up, their tough skin keeping the remaining moisture within bounds. Their green adds a splash of color to the brown streamside bottom.

Prickly pear cactus, White Canyon.

Prickly pear cactus, White Canyon.

I come to the mouth of Deer Canyon, a side canyon to White Canyon.

The mouth of Deer Canyon, at White Canyon.

The mouth of Deer Canyon, at White Canyon.

I decide to walk up Deer. It is very nice going: no brush to push through, just bare slickrock sandstone and some very sandy-gravelly soil, but too unhospitable for plants to take root due to frequent flash floods.

Water drainage patterns left behind in sand, Deer Canyon.

Water drainage patterns left behind in sand, Deer Canyon.

More frozen pools of water with autumn’s last leaves frozen in them. I find an ancient encampment with a few petroglyphs pecked into the rock face. Which I keep to myself.

Snow traces, Deer Canyon.

Snow traces, Deer Canyon.

Continuing up Deer Canyon, it is super easy walking. No brush; the canyon floor is almost all slickrock sandstone.

The nick point about a mile and a half up Deer Canyon.

The nick point about a mile and a half up Deer Canyon.

I finally come to a nick point, a geologic pinch-off point beyond which I can go no further. Unless I want to swim through icy water; it’s that deep. It’s my signal to turn around and enjoy the walk back down to White Canyon, noticing more details in the canyon walls along the way.

Narrow leaf yucca, Deer Canyon.

Narrow leaf yucca, Deer Canyon.

Then it’s back out the mouth of Deer Canyon, back into White Canyon. Heading west or downstream once more.

Horsecollar Ruin north unit, from below in White Canyon.

Horsecollar Ruin north unit, from below in White Canyon. The only part of the site visible from below.

And soon to the object of my desire: Horsecollar Ruin. The fascinating remains of an Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) cliff dwelling on a ledge above the stream bottom.

Horsecollar Ruin north unit, room blocks.

Horsecollar Ruin north unit, room blocks.

I scramble up the steep slickrock sandstone slope to the base of the cliff, then walk along it onto the ledge where the small cliff dwelling remains are.

Horsecollar Ruin granary ruins, with their horse collar shaped doors.

Horsecollar Ruin granary ruins, with their horse collar shaped doors.

From below, the only visible part of the site are a few room blocks at the north end of the site. While hiking below on the Loop Trail, if you miss seeing that structure you miss the entire thing. At the Visitor Center they can give you detailed instructions on how to not miss it.

I walk through the site once more, trying to notice details I’d missed the other times I’d been there.

Structures at Horsecollar Ruin south end.

Structures at Horsecollar Ruin’s south end.

The site features two differently styled kivas, which are semi-subterranean ceremonial chambers. There is a square kiva with most of the original roof intact, which is the style of the Kayenta branch of the Ancient Ones in what is today’s northern Arizona.

The square kiva at Horsecollar Ruin.

The square kiva at Horsecollar Ruin. A ladder in the center opening was used to enter the chamber.

The other kiva on the site is round, said to be of influence by the Mesa Verde people in what is now southwest Colorado.

The round kiva at Horsecollar Ruin. Note small ground level passageway for air to enter when a fire is burning.

The round kiva at Horsecollar Ruin. Note small ground level passageway for air to enter when a fire was burning.

Finally it was time to descend from the ledge, back down to the trail down the canyon. To Kachina Bridge, the youngest of the three in the park, and so the most massive in terms of its bulk. Lots more Cedar Mesa sandstone to be eroded away compared to Sipapu Bridge and Owachomo Bridge.

Kachina Natural Bridge, White Canyon at the mouth of Armstrong Canyon.

Kachina Natural Bridge, White Canyon at the mouth of Armstrong Canyon.

At Kachina Bridge, the North Loop Trail (about 5.5 miles total) leaves White Canyon’s bottom. Up, up for 400 feet of elevation gain in just 0.7 mile. Crossing the Loop Drive road at the Kachina parking lot, it was just two miles across the mesa top to where I’d started.

Manzanita shrub in the afternoon sun.

Manzanita shrub in the afternoon sun, its leaves turned to catch the maximum amount of sunlight.

A very satisfying early winter hike when there wasn’t much color. I certainly did enjoy seeing details I might not have ordinarily noticed.

Cedar Mesa Sandstone on Mesa Top Trail, Natural Bridges.

Cedar Mesa Sandstone on Mesa Top Trail, Natural Bridges.

Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg

Early Winter At Cedar Mesa

Cedar Mesa, Comb Ridge, and the Abajo mountain range, from Highway 95.

Cedar Mesa, Comb Ridge, and the Abajo mountain range, from Highway 95.

At November’s end, the Abajo Mountains are lightly shrouded with new snow. Sunsets can bring alpenglow through the clouds just after the sun is below the horizon. And more snow is on the way.

Sunset colors and snow clouds over Moss Back Butte, from Natural Bridges National Monument.

Sunset colors and snow clouds over Moss Back Butte, from Natural Bridges National Monument.

Bring on December in the high desert canyon country of southeast Utah and the Four Corners region.

Snow curtains at dusk, from Natural Bridges National Monument.

Snow curtains at dusk, from Natural Bridges National Monument.

Photo locations: San Juan County, southeast Utah.

©  Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg