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.
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.
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.
My attention gets snagged by some bright little circular lights in the ice in a frozen pool. What is that?
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.
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.
I come to the mouth of Deer Canyon, a side canyon to 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.
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.
Continuing up Deer Canyon, it is super easy walking. No brush; the canyon floor is almost all slickrock sandstone.
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.
Then it’s back out the mouth of Deer Canyon, back into White Canyon. Heading west or downstream once more.
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.
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.
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.
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 other kiva on the site is round, said to be of influence by the Mesa Verde people in what is now southwest Colorado.
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.
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.
A very satisfying early winter hike when there wasn’t much color. I certainly did enjoy seeing details I might not have ordinarily noticed.
Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, San Juan County, southeast Utah.
© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg