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Winter in Moab

A man is dwarfed while standing under one of more than 2,000 arches in Utah's Arches National Park. The photo was taken around sunset, one of the best times to get dramatic pictures. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

MOAB, Utah — Some people call the Moab area the most beautiful place on Earth, and even if beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, it is hard to argue the point.

Look down almost any street in town and you see canyon walls, setting the scene for what is beyond.

Five miles north is Arches National Park with more than 2,000, well, arches. About 33 miles to the northwest is Canyonlands National Park, with a bonus of a neighboring state park with a spectacular view.

Southeast of the 5,000-population community are the underappreciated La Sal Mountains, a small range with a dozen peaks higher than 12,000 feet.

The Moab area is well known for off-road trails, which attracts thousands just before Easter each year to try out their Jeeps and other four-wheel-drive vehicles on some of the country's most challenging trails. Bicycle enthusiasts also flock to the area on what is becoming known as the best place on Earth to go mountain biking.

Sightseeing and off-roading draw a million people to Moab each year, mostly during summers that average almost 100 degrees. That is when the 29 motels and 55 campgrounds overflow.

Even travel promoters warn of the extreme heat and extreme hydration needed to survive the desert.

But winter in Moab brings a different experience.

For one thing, crowds are down, dramatically. While it often is tough to get pictures of the most famous attractions without other people standing in the way during the summer, I usually was by myself during my early-December visit.

The trip was my first to Moab, a destination where I long have wanted to take a “photocation,” a time to concentrate on photography.

As a reward, I enjoyed taking photos without crowds hanging around giant arches or gazing into vast canyons. However, I also endured subzero temperatures and 9 inches of snow in my week there.

Visiting Moab in winter needs more than a day. Of course, to see just a portion of the sights, a proper Moab visit always needs time.

When I was there, roads were closed for a while as snowplow drivers used to working in a desert cleared roads. Many secondary roads were not passable. And venturing off major walking trails could be risky because it was hard to see what was underfoot, a sometimes difficult situation given extreme drop-offs in some areas.

Like others from the Upper Midwest, the cold did not stop me from enjoying what relatively few people see: the desert canyons, rock fins, sandstone arches and cloud-shrouded mountains covered with snow.

It was a rewarding experience for someone who tends to travel in early summer and fall.

One advantage for a vacationing photographer turned out to be short days, which meant I did not have to get up as early for the sweet light of dawn. Low winter sun angles all day made for more dramatic shadows, which usually mean better photos.

While the white snow softens some of the photographic drama, it delivers a photographer something different than what most Moab visitors take home.

Being a former Wyoming resident and still a frequent visitor to the Rocky Mountains, I did not think Moab would surprise me. It did.

Approaching Moab at dusk on my first day, a bit of red sunshine enveloped the La Sal Mountains, a range discussed in travel brochures, and that appears in the background of many photos, but is severely under-recognized as a southeast Utah star. As the mountains turned red, sandstone closer to me became a brilliant orange.

The next day was cloudy and simply not the best for photos, but an orientation drive through Arches National Park left me leaning toward those who claim Moab is the prettiest place on Earth.

A snowstorm the following day was accompanied by plunging temperatures (average December highs are in the 40s and lows in the 20s). That day and others, when winds were strong, conditions were bitterly cold with wind chills well below zero.

After the snow, both national parks were closed in the morning so roads could be plowed. Arches' crews left roads clean and I was one of the first in the park, greeted by pristine snow cover and a chance for once-in-a-lifetime photos.

While the statistic of more than 2,000 arches in the park is impressive, the relatively compact park is much more than that. Fins of rock jut hundreds of feet in the air, and large boulders balance on thin spires of rock. Ancient sand dunes, now petrified, provide a look into the past.

But arches are the stars. Some are tiny; others are large enough to drive a beefy semi-trailer under, if you could get the truck there.

The most famous arch, Delicate Arch, can be seen from a distance (a short walk from a parking lot) or up close via a somewhat strenuous three-mile hike. Some arches are visible from road turnouts, while others require tough walks made even more difficult by snow.

The arches were formed by millions of years of water action, including freeze-and-thaw cycles that push away weaker rock. When that weak rock is in the middle of a fin, a hole known as an arch can form.

Canyonlands National Park is a vastly different experience from Arches. Instead of looking up at rock formations (through there are a few arches in Canyonlands), most of your time will be spent looking down and over at numerous massive canyons formed by the Colorado and Green rivers.

When I was at Canyonlands, snow piled so high that walking trails were difficult, impossible or dangerous to use, and even the plowed roads were snow- and ice-covered. But you need not walk far to see grand views in Canyonlands.

A stop at the Green River overlook (my footprints were the second set in the snow that morning, a day and a half after the storm) produced a view of the Soda Springs Basin and its canyons stretching for a hundred miles. That view and others could be seen after short walks from parking spots along the park road, although even those trails proved difficult in the snow.

Sliding around on the trail was well worth it.

Canyons dusted or covered in snow may not be quite as spectacular as the solid-rock versions normally seen, but they are not too shabby. Snow can accentuate parts of canyons while covering other parts.

At the Green River overlook, the early morning sun lit ice crystals floating in the air to become almost magical. At one point, looking into a canyon, a column of crystals gleamed and shimmered so that it looked like a scene from "Star Trek," with the crew beaming up.

Actually, the 2009 filming of the recreated "Star Trek" movie series was one of more than 60 movies and television shows partially filmed in the region, beginning with "Stagecoach" in 1939. Other films range from "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" to "Mission: Impossible II."

The otherworldly sights, spectacular scenes, dramatic wonders and colorful images can be seen by normal people, not just filmmakers. Those who can make a little more effort, to drive off road or walk long distances, can see a bit more, but the beauty is available to all.

More of Don Davis' photos can be found in the Jan. 18 Republican Eagle print edition. 

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.