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

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