Hiking and Camping in Moab over Christmas

Comet Leonard blending into a starry night sky above the Green River Overlook. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

The wind was still howling pre-sunrise. The sparsely occupied campground in Dead Horse Point State Park was still quiet, gusts aside. I woke up well rested after the previous night’s ordeal, eager to get on a nearby trail. I started the car to head to the namesake point to begin hiking around the loop in the park.

Roughly halfway through on my 8+ mile hike, a small shower began to fall. I had just reached the Big Horn Overlook, snapping only one quick photo from the viewpoint, a spattering of water droplets now on the front of the lens. Expecting a shower or two through the day, I already had my rain jacket on. I began a brisk hike continuing my route that would bring me past the Visitor Center. Once there, the rain had only intensified, evolving from a sprinkle to a downpour. I was discovering that my trusty rain jacket was a bit ineffective as it had finally reached the end of its usefulness lifespan.

With the Visitor Center now growing more distant behind me as I pushed up the East Rim Trail, I looked down at my now soaked legs and my rain jacket living up to its name in the least desirable way. Four miles through a consistent downpour later, I at last reached my car. I crawled into the back, and quickly changed out of the soaked clothes and into the first dry ones I could grab.

Colorado River Twisting Through Canyons
The Colorado River twisting through canyons below a clearing storm. Dead Horse Point State Park, Utah

Along the way back I had spotted a few points that I wanted to revisit once the rain stopped to get a few photos of, happy to discover that my camera was still mostly dry, despite being only tucked away underneath the rain jacket that I clearly wasn’t giving enough credit to. Happily warm and dry, I waited patiently in my car as sideways rain made a minute-long transition into snow. Within a few more minutes the sideways snow began to accumulate on the ground, struggling to maintain a bit of depth. The one other car in the parking lot rolled down a window and stuck a phone out to capture a quick shot. I didn’t want to see snow, though. I had traveled hundreds of miles to get away from the snow. Temporarily beaten, I pulled out a trail map to look at potential targets for the afternoon, provided the storm would let up.

Nearly as soon as I had hatched a plan for the afternoon, I heard silence. The pelting of the snow and rain had stopped. I looked out my passenger window to the west. The precipitation had vanished in an instant. The thick white clouds engulfing the landscape for hours were gone. Blue skies were emerging over the distant rims of northern Canyonlands National Park. A few inches of snow clung to the top of the mesa, fog forming and shifting along the rims.

Happy to get some dynamic weather, I threw the map down and began back on the trails, wanting to capture some shots I was forced to skip earlier. I grabbed some from the point, jumping from one vantage point to another. I got back in my car and drove down to The Neck a short distance north. I began up the East Rim Trail for more backtracking and missed opportunities. I repeated the pattern back at the trailhead at the Visitor Center, then left the park and headed for the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park.

Having already hiked the congested Mesa Arch, I opted to skip this one and head to new territory. My goal for the rest of the short winter day was to get in a few small hikes, then get a larger hike in first thing in the morning before switching over to Arches National Park.

A granary tucked away in an alcove on a snowy ledge on Lower Aztec Butte. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

I pulled into the Aztec Buttes parking lot and began up the trail, locating the first ancient granary after some rather sketchy hiking up the melting snow covering the small sandstone butte. After slipping several feet on the way down, I opted to skip the second butte. Several feet doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you don’t have control and don’t see any good holds to stop yourself, it can be intimidating.

Already in the area, I headed over to Whale Rock, only slightly lower in elevation, but enough to be mostly void of snow. The sweeping sandstone fin was already perfectly dry, as one would expect in the desert. Stunning views abound at the terminus of the short but sweet hike.

With the sun already getting low, I then headed to the White Rim Overlook Trail for my final hike of the day. Out at the point, I watched a long and peaceful sunset, enjoying the trail to myself after one other person behind me was quick to leave. In all the miles I had hiked that day, I was able to count on one hand the number of other people I had seen on a trail.

My initial goal for the morning was to hike the Syncline Trail, an 8 mile loop around Upheaval Dome. In checking in with a couple of guidebooks the previous night, I opted to swap that for the Murphy Trail, which would bring me below the rim and down to the White Rim Road to make an 11 mile loop. I was on the trail about twenty minutes before sunrise.

A small juniper tree along the edge of the canyon rim along the Murphy Trail overlooking the labyrinth of canyons below at sunrise. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Utterly entranced with the scenery and the adventure of the loop, I was happy with my decision to call a last-minute audible on my hiking plans. It was an exciting way to spend the morning and became a hike I could easily see myself doing again at some point. Toward the end of the hike, I hiked back to the trailhead with another friendly hiker out for the Christmas break who I had seen at the halfway point heading in the other direction. He was older than me and visiting from New Mexico, and though I enjoyed his company, neglected to even get his name.

Once on my way, I went against both mine and my new nameless friend’s better judgement and headed to Arches National Park, which he had described as being way too crowded for this time of year. Still, I wanted to get some new shots for my galleries and log a few more hikes that I had been wanting to complete for a few years now.

With only a few hours left in the short day, I stuck to the main goal of knocking out Delicate Arch in the evening, getting the obligatory sunset shot of the arch. On the way I “hiked” the Balanced Rock Trail, a simple meander around the namesake rock, though in doing so, was happy I found a site I would wind up using the next night for sunset.

Upon reaching the Delicate Arch Trailhead, I found a parking lot overflowing with cars, something I didn’t expect during the winter months. The outhouses were also left in a disturbingly disgusting way.

Delicate Arch rising high above nearby sandstone buttes and ridges in front of the La Sal Mountains. Arches National Park, Utah

The Delicate Arch Trail was flooded with people. Some seem prepared, most did not. There was music playing from some. Others had walkie talkies. There was trash on the trail. Dogs illegally being taken up and down to the arch. The whole way I passed people panting for dear life, realizing too late what they had gotten themselves into. I completely understood why my nameless new friend evacuated to the lesser visited of Moab’s two national parks.

Once at Delicate Arch, I managed to strike up a friendly conversation with another photographer from California named, Roger. We both sat in the gusty wind with our cameras poised for action as we waited out the selfie crowds obstructing our desired shots. Sunset came and went, but the wind seemed to only increase proportionally with the dropping temperature. Roger headed out, but the wind chill biting away at me, I wasn’t terribly far behind and managed to catch up with him closer to the trailhead.

I was back at the campground in the park shortly after, having previously secured one of the last remaining sites, and the increasing clouds blocking any hope for good night photography.

The next morning I was the first to arrive at the Devils Garden Trailhead. A pair of photographers parked next to me and quickly headed for Landscape Arch as I sat in my car finishing my breakfast. As I finished not long after, I prepared for my hike and began up the trail, half of it already familiar, the other half being completely new. Of course even the familiar parts I hadn’t done with 40mph wind gusts and snow and sleet pelting my face from the side. Due to the weather, it wasn’t terribly productive for photography, but I managed to sneak in a few decent shots during the short breaks in precipitation.

Stormy weather moving in over the Devils Garden Trail and the Devils Garden. Arches National Park, Utah

Having successfully finished the new-to-me loop, I was headed back to my car along the main trail passing a family of four where a mom and her two teenage sons were playfully arguing over GPS coordinates of where they should be. Seems like people had woken up since I started my day.

On my last morning in Moab I retraced a few steps on the Devils Garden Trail to get some better shots that I had wanted, and also explored another short but new trail that I enjoyed. That night I headed up to Salt Lake City to stay for the night and wait out a strong winter storm. The hotel was a drastic departure from the tranquility and peacefulness of camping, despite the strong winds and sleeping in the car.

There was constant noise emanating from the busy downtown roads and general commotion of the streets. Bright lights lit up downtown, the shades of my window making a futile effort to block it all out. Blue light poured into my room throughout the night, occasionally forcing me awake as I mistook it for sunrise. I had adjusted to the silence of national and state parks. I made a habit of looking at the stars before bed, despite clouds on some nights. The wind was noisy but it was a natural force that I could appreciate as opposed to the mini jet engine of the air conditioner/heater firing up on and off through the night.

The next morning wasn’t still or quietly embracing like I had had the previous mornings (and often even at home). There was grumbling traffic outside. Sirens blared down the roads. Road noise and engines hummed and angrily revved. The elevator dinged every few minutes. Trucks let a half-mile radius know that they were backing up. Other guests banged their way to the elevators. Doors thudded closed. This was not the morning routine I was used to.

I missed the peacefulness of mornings in nature; the stillness of the landscape in spite of the wind. In the previous days it felt like I was waking up with the desert. As the sun slowly cast atmospheric light over the landscape before sunrise, gradually allowing my eyes to adjust to increasing detail in the landscape, I felt the urge to begin exploring my surroundings. It was a natural rhythm. A calm and inviting way to wake up. Back in the hotel in a big city I felt almost shaken around, almost like I was pressured to jump on a fast-moving merry-go-round.

The contrast of the hotel was good for one thing though: giving me a stronger appreciation for my time in the parks and planting a seed to get back to another soon.

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