Newspaper Rock archaeological petroglyphs, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Winter Solstice Time at Canyonlands

Utah Highway 211 to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

Highway 211 through the Indian Creek Recreation Area. La Sal Mountains in the distance.

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.

Utah Highway 211 along the upper part of the Indian Creek canyon, in winter.

Upper Indian Creek area of Highway 211 east of the Needles.

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.

Wintertime snowy cliffs above Indian Creek Recreation Area, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Snowy sandstone cliffs above Indian Creek Recreation Area.

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.

Sandstone cliff face in upper Indian Creek, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Sandstone cliffs and snow along Highway 211.

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.

Newspaper Rock State Historical and Archaeological Site, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Newspaper Rock site, from the parking lot.

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.

Newspaper Rock petroglyph panel archaeological site in winter, San Juan County, southeast Utah..

In winter the sun’s angle is low enough to keep much of the petroglyph panel in sunlight.

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.

Newspaper Rock archaeological site, petroglyph panel, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Newspaper Rock in winter.

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.

Newspaper Rock archaeological site petroglyphs, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Newspaper Rock petroglyph panel, upper portion. (Click on image for larger).

So many symbols that it is mind boggling. Animals, tracks, imposing horned humanoid figures (shamans in sacred regalia? Alien beings from outer space?).

Newspaper Rock archaeological petroglyphs, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Newspaper Rock petroglyph panel, lower portion. (Click on image for larger).

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.

Newspaper Rock archaeological petroglyphs, San Juan County, southeast Utah.

Sun and shadow made for a nice vertical composition of petroglyphs and rock angles. Notice that some footprints that have six toes.

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.

Utah Highway 211 to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

Highway 211 through the Indian Creek Recreation Area. La Sal Mountains in distance.

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.

"Roadside Ruin" ancestral granary site, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park, southeast Utah.

“Roadside Ruin” ancestral granary site, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park.

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.

"Roadside Ruin" ancestral granary site, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park, San Juan County, Utah..

“Roadside Ruin” ancestral granary, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park.

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

 

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Above Canyonlands – Part 1

Abajo Mountains, near Monticello, Utah.

Abajo Mountains, late February snowstorm.

For the next part of my excursion, I drove north from Bluff and Blanding, Utah to San Juan County’s other little town, Monticello. Which is also the county seat, there being no sizable towns in all of sprawling San Juan County. Plenty of room to roam, and much to see.

 

After three weeks of unseasonably warm February weather, a small winter storm front was moving in to make things a little more interesting. The Abajo Mountains (often called the “Blues” by locals, who also pronounce Monticello (like “Montisello”) were wreathed in a veil like snow squall already.

The Horsehead, Abajo Mountains from Monticello, Utah.

The Horsehead, a distinctive grouping of forest patches on the mountain slopes above Monticello.

But I was still able to easily pick out The Horsehead on one of the most prominent peaks above town.

Wind farm at Monticello, Utah.

Wind farm just north of Monticello.

On the northern outskirts of town I drove back a public dirt road to get a closer look at the massive structures of the new wind farm.

Monticello, Utah, in winter.

Monticello, Utah: gassing up before heading in toward the Needles district of Canyonlands.

Then it was further north on U.S.191 to Canyonlands country.

La Sal Mountains and red sandstone, Utah.

Red sandstone, sagebrush, and the La Sal Mountains, from the Needles Overlook Road. (Click on image for larger version).

Canyonlands National Park is divided into three huge sections, Island In The Sky, The Maze, and The Needles. The dividing lines are the two major rivers, the Colorado and the Green, which join within the park to rather divide it into thirds.

In fact, the Colorado River above the confluence used to be called the Grand River. But the state of Colorado wanted it all named for itself, since the river’s source is high in the Rockies in their state. It got its way, too. Ever since then, the Green has joined the Colorado, not two rivers meeting to form a third one. I hope that clears thing up for you.

La Sal Mountains, Utah.

La Sal Mountains telephoto panorama shot.

I wasn’t going into the park itself on this trip, but to an adjoining area of public land called the Canyon Rims Recreation Area. The entrance to this area is called the Needles Overlook Road, because…guess what it overlooks? You got it.

Needles Overlook, Canyon Rims Recreation Area, Utah.

Needles Overlook, in the Canyon Rims Recreation Area.

Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, from Needles Overlook.

The Needles district of Canyonlands, from above. The Abajo Mountains are in the distance.

Needles District of Canyonlands, from above.

The Needles, from above at Needles Overlook, Canyon Rims.

Lockhart Basin area of Canyonlands, from Needles Overlook, Utah.

Red rock canyon country: looking down onto Lockhart Basin and the Colorado River (barely visible), from Needles Overlook.

Colorado river and Canyonlands from Minor Overlook, Canyon Rims.

Colorado River, from the Minor Overlook (named for a person, not because it’s a lousy view. Obviously).

I then worked my way north from the Needles Overlook. North up the length of Hatch Point, toward the Anticline Overlook. I intended to make camp near there, in case the clouds would clear in time for the rise of the Full Moon. Stay tuned.

Photo location: Canyon Rims National Recreation area, San Juan county south of Moab, Utah.

© 2016 Stephen J. Krieg

 

Mesa Arch, Island In The Sky

The White Rim and Green River.

The White Rim and Green River.

I returned to Island In The Sky in Canyonlands National Park recently. It had been some years, so I wanted to get back up there.

Early February, the offseason there. The Visitor Center was closed until March. Perfect. Not that I don’t enjoy visiting Visitor Centers in our incredible parks, I do. It’s that I avoid crowds, and winter affords that luxury. Unless you’re a downhill skier, which I’m not.

So, north out of Moab, past the entrance to Arches National Park (the even more heavily visited one around here). Climbing up to I-Sky. A high mesa above the rest of Canyonlands. So good to be back.

I walked out to Mesa Arch. for the first time. Such an easy hike, how could I not have done this before?

Every photo published of Mesa Arch seems to be of it at sunrise, the low sun lighting up the underside of the arch with a reddish glow. I had no urge to repeat the conditions, it’s been done to death.

So, when I’d finally trudged out the sandy and sandstone path to the arch, I was rather glad that it was late afternoon. And dull light, too. I was alone there, so I could take my time to inspect it.

It was much smaller than I’d expected. But being on the rim of Island In The Sky mesa, it was amazing. Maybe even moreso because it was small. A gem. Hanging out there on the edge.

Mesa Arch, Island In The Sky, Canyonlands.

Mesa Arch, Island In The Sky, Canyonlands.

Photo locations: Canyonlands National Park, southeast Utah.

© 2015 Stephen J. Krieg