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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Coyote tracks, deer tracks in the snow. No people tracks except when I looked behind me.
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.
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.
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.
Then I came to Kachina Bridge, the youngest of the three and so also the most massive in terms of rock bulk.
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.
A wonderful winter hike. May it always be so.
Photo location: Natural Bridges National Monument, southeast Utah.
© Copyright 2015 Stephen J. Krieg