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

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