An attempted escape from a harsh Canadian winter begins by leaving Calgary and driving south for two mostly relaxed days through Montana and Idaho, before being caught in a storm when entering Utah and finally spending hours crawling along I15 in a blizzard on the way to Salt Lake City. Marc and I have skis, mountain bikes and camping gear on this trip, and although we are both keen to get into the desert and on the bikes, we decide to take advantage of this epic snowfall by exploring the Wasatch Mountains just east of the city.
Turns out Wasatch powder is famous for a reason, and the ski terrain in Little and Big Cottonwood canyons is vast and excellent! The conditions and terrain are fantastic, but the draw of the desert is too strong, and after a couple days of skiing we keep rolling south from Salt Lake city to St. George, Utah.
St George and Zion NP, Utah
There’s great mountain biking around St. George, and we get an evening ride in after the short drive from Salt Lake, and then another ride the next day.
St. George is just over 400m lower elevation than Salt Lake, and that makes a significant difference to the local climate. While it’s not exactly hot and sunny when we arrive, there’s a whole lot less snow, the high red rock desert surrounding the town is stunning when covered by a thin blanket of fresh snow, and it feels great to get on the bikes again!
Snow Canyon State Park
The south-west US desert is one of my favorite places in the world, and keeps drawing me back to its stunning geology, wild open spaces, great weather, and dark skies. It’s a vast area full of hidden geologic gems and beautiful wilderness.
Just north of the city of St. George is Snow Canyon State Park, which surprisingly is not named after the white fluffy stuff that falls from the sky, but after early Utah settlers.
Geologically the park is mostly made up of thick layers of orange and white Navajo sandstone, that was eroded into a broad canyon before being buried in lava by relatively recent volcanic eruptions. The eruptions occurred as recently as 27,000 years ago, and there are several large lava tubes in the area, a couple with accessible caves formed when the basalt roof collapses into the hollow tube.
The cross-bedded sandstone is stunning, the hiking is extensive, and the desert foliage funky and beautiful – a local gem!
Our first hiking day in Snow Canyon park ends as another snow storm comes through in the evening, and then continues dumping snow all the next day.
While the snow shuts down biking opportunities, it really adds drama and contrast to the already dramatic landscape. West of St George, in the very south-west corner of Utah, is Joshua Tree National Landmark, which is home to the only Joshua trees in Utah, and we briefly explore this region during the snowstorm, then head back to Snow Canyon, which is even more beautiful after the storm.
Zion Park blanketed in snow
Two hours east of St. George is Zion National Park, the oldest national park in Utah and one of the most popular parks in the U.S. In prime season the narrow canyon is packed with tourists hiking the trails and taking in the awe inspiring scenery, but in mid-winter it is much less crowded.
On February 21, 2019, the entire region received about 20cm of snow, and the next day we zipped out to Zion. Unfortunately most of the hiking trails in the park were closed due to icy conditions and avalanche danger, however we still managed to do some hiking and lots of gawking at red rock cliffs as the blanket of snow and blue skies took the already stunning park to a whole new level.
A local we met, who was also snapping photos as quickly as possible, said that he had never seen snow all the way down to the river level in the last 10 years, which made us feel very privileged to be here today.
The sky was still clear after dinner, and we are able to get back out to the “big bend” region, where the Virgin River has carved a massive horseshoe bend in the canyon. The night sky is gorgeous, with the Milky Way soaring overhead and the bright winter constellations of Orion and Taurus just setting behind the 1000m canyon walls to the south.
This image covers roughly 90×90 degrees of view, with Angels Landing at far left. Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, is visible to the right of Angels Landing, on the left side of the gap in the cliffs, while Orion is just on the right side of the gap, then Taurus. On the far right side, just above the cliff is the Pleiades star cluster, awash in the faint glow of the Zodiacal Light.
A few Saguaro in Arizona
Still keen to ride the bikes, we continue south into Arizona, in an attempt to escape the snow. A few days and at least one more stow storm later we find some fun riding in the Sonoran desert, in a landscape thick with beautiful saguaro cactus “forests”, just east of Phoenix. The giant cacti are stunning, and it’s great to get out into the warm sun again, and finally camp in the desert.
Our first stop is McDowell Mountain Regional Park, north of Phoenix and east of Scottsdale. The beautiful desert park is a great discovery, with a wide variety of cacti, great views to the Four Peaks, and a network of easy, cruisy mountain biking trails.
Can you ever really have too many cactus photos?
No, I don’t think so…
The famous saguaro cactus, perhaps the most recognizable symbol of the desert south-west, actually grows only in a very limited range, from southern Arizona to northern Mexico. The towering cacti are often full of holes, made by various birds that drill into them to build nests.
The Cholla cactus, very common in this area, are covered with a dense coat of incredibly sharp, barbed thorns. The ends of the branches fall off, leaving little cactus bombs all over the place that poke and stick to anything that comes too close. Nice to look at, but you really don’t want to fall on one! We laughed and called them attack cactus after being stabbed in the leg by a particularly aggressive one.
Cacti have a fascinating internal structure, with hollow ribs of fibrous wood-like material providing the support around a core of spongy, moist tissue that stores water during the hot, dry months.
Unfortunately we were too close to the sprawling city of Phoenix to have really dark skies, but the skies were still mostly clear and the nights warm enough to enjoy the stars after dinner at camp. In late February the winter constellations of Orion and Taurus are high in the southern sky in the early evening, and the Milky Way is a hazy band straight overhead, running from south to north.
After a few days riding in McDowell park we head south, skirting around Phoenix, and then east towards the mountains.
The Arizona Trail is an 800 mile (over 1200 km) non-motorized trail running north/south through central Arizona, from Utah to Mexico. We only ride a very short stretch of this incredible trail, an out-and-back next to Picketpost Mountain. Loose rocks and switchbacks that climb in and out of gullies make for fun and challenging mountain biking, and the Saguaro cactus forests are absolutely stunning.
No trip to Arizona would be complete without a stop at the Grand Canyon, and we stop for a few days at the the south rim. The winter season is far less crowded, the temperatures are much more comfortable, and you can still camp as long as you don’t mind cold nights and a bit of snow.
All of the side canyons that join the Grand Canyon follow geologic fault lines, which are weakness in the bedrock where the rock has fractured. Water tends to follow these fractures, eroding them first into gullies then larger and larger canyons over the eons.
The Arizona geological survey has a brilliant interactive geological map of the canyon, clearly showing how the side-canyons all follow fault-lines. These faults, and the side canyons that form along them, allow a few trails to be built through otherwise vertical cliff bands that form the top of the canyon.
The hike down to the Colorado River is like climbing a mountain backwards in every sense, with 1525m elevation between rim and river over about 25km return distance. But the Bright Angel trail, which follows the weakness created by the fault of the same name, is a low-angle, beautifully constructed path down into the canyon, and in February the temperatures are very reasonable for a long hike. The upper parts of the trail can be covered by snow and very icy in the winter months, however, so hiking crampons are definitely recommended.
Hiking down to the river is a fantastic trip back in time, with the Kaibab Limestone at the top dated at 230 million years old while the Vishnu Schist at the river level around 2 billion years, nearly half the age of the Earth.
While the rocks in the canyon are truly ancient, the canyon itself was formed over the last 2-6 million years, after the opening of the Gulf of California enabled the ancestral Colorado River to cut deeply through the landscape of the Colorado Plateau. The plateau itself had been uplifted around 3km during the same mountain building event that formed the Rocky Mountains.
The day after our hike, another big storm system is coming in so we flee north to Moab…
Fall, winter or spring, snow or not, I just can not get enough of the south west desert!
Darren Foltinek, 2019