Winter Solstice occurred on December 21 this year. Supposedly the shortest day and longest night of the year.
However, the day length had been stuck at 9 hours and 32 minutes since December 19, and won’t be a full minute longer until Christmas, Dec. 25, when it will be 9 hrs. 33 min. for four days. Yes, a whole minute longer.
Just two days after that, on New Years Eve, the daylight will be two minutes longer than on Christmas Day, at a whopping 9 hrs. 35 minutes! You can follow along at sites such as sunrisesunset.com. The days start getting longer faster the further they get past Solstice, but until then it rather creeps along. The dead of winter begins.
The day before Winter Solstice I drove in to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. It’s only an hour’s drive from my home, and I hadn’t been there lately. The roads were cleared from a recent snowstorm, so I was sure it would be fun. Sunny and calm.
Driving north from Monticello, Utah on U.S. 191 it’s only about 15 minutes to the turnoff onto Utah Route 211, the highway into the Needles District. Route 211 parallels the Indian Creek drainage before it finally empties into the Colorado River inside the park. The easternmost part of the drive was still high enough in elevation to have snow on the cliffs, under a trademark Utah high desert blue sky.
Roughly halfway to the Canyonlands National Park entrance is the famous Newspaper Rock archaeological site. There is a parking lot with restrooms and a very short walk to this amazing petroglyph panel.
I’m not wild about the name “Newspaper Rock”, because it conjures up a modern image of ink on newsprint. Instead, these are ancient symbols laboriously pecked into rock, some of which could well be 2,000 years old. And they last infinitely longer than ink or paper.
This was the perfect time to visit the site, with the fresh snow, the low angle of the December sun lighting up the panel, and only one other visitor for a few minutes. It would make for photos much different than the typical ones you see over and over of this site.
The rock panel is perfect: Dark patina (think rock “varnish”) on a smooth sandstone face, with an overhang above to shade the panel for most of the year, which serves to slow the weathering process. Pecking through the patina reveals the much lighter sandstone beneath, making the image pop out visually.
So many symbols that it is mind boggling. Animals, tracks, imposing horned humanoid figures (shamans in sacred regalia? Alien beings from outer space?).
Not all these depictions are prehistoric. Anything showing a horse, or a wagon wheel, is after the Spanish first arrived in North America in the 1600s. There are even some fairly modern dates added, something which is strongly discouraged by the steel fence keeping visitors a safe distance away from the panel.
From the highway into the Needles District, a nice view of the snowy summits of the La Sal Mountains to the northeast near Moab, peeking above the red rock layers along the lower Indian Creek Valley.
At the Needles Visitor Center, all was quiet. The remoteness of Canyonlands National Park means that wintertime is very off season, so there aren’t enough visitors to keep the VC open at this time of year. No entrance fee, just drive on in. The restrooms do remain open, and you can get water and park brochures and maps. The campground is open year round.
Not far past the Visitor Center is a turnout for the Roadside Ruin. Again, not the best of names. I made me expect some rubble of a pueblo foundation. Instead, it’s a very nice and easy walk to a very well preserved granary tucked into a small out of sight alcove.
The interpretive sign for Roadside Ruin said that stone-and-mortar pueblo dwellings hadn’t been found in this area, indicating that it was intensely farmed (corn, beans, squash) and the dried grains stored in the granaries. So it was used in the growing season, not year around.
The doorway into the granary is through the roof. Otherwise they might have built the walls up until it met the roof of the alcove, and put the door into the side. Sometimes the ancient ones did, sometimes they didn’t.
The Needles District of Canyonlands is a hiker’s and four wheeler’s paradise. But on this day I had elsewhere to go. So I will be back throughout the winter to enjoy the lack of crowds.
© Copyright 2016 Stephen J. Krieg