Arches National Park, Monument Valley, & Canyonlands National Park

VISITED: DECEMBER 2015

Winter travel can always prove to be a challenge with airport delays and road closures, but a snow-covered landscape's beauty is hard to beat. I particularly enjoy visiting national parks during the winter because you see a different side to the park then you would during the summer. Not only that, but they are less crowded and it gives you the feeling that you have the whole park to yourself. Although it can get cold for sunrise and sunset setups, I have always found that when you dress appropriately and are prepared, that the reward is what ends up on your memory card. Taking into account that hiking conditions are vastly different during the winter, partly due to ice-covered trails, I created a collection of hikes that will highlight all of the parks best features.

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK:

* Delicate Arch - Easily the star of the park, and of Utah, the delicate arch is something rare and beautiful to behold firsthand. The park offers two options depending on your ability:

a) Delicate Arch Viewpoint Trail - A steady 1.4-mile roundtrip hike that culminates in a distant view of the Delicate Arch, so be sure to have a decent zoom.

b) Delicate Arch Trail - A strenuous 3-mile roundtrip hike that leads visitors to the base of the arch. Be vigilant as the cairns (rocks stacked on one another) are the indicators of the trail and it is easy to veer of course and end up with a more treacherous decent. If you are in good health, and don't mind breaking a sweat, then this would be the hike that I would put at the top of your list. From this vantage point you will be able to photograph the Delicate Arch in the foreground and the La Sal Mountains in the backdrop.

* Courthouse Towers - The Courthouse Towers is a section of the park that includes landmarks such as Park Avenue Viewpoint, Tower of Babel, The Organ, La Sal Mountains Viewpoint, Sheep Rock, and the Three Gossips. All of these landmarks have pull-out areas with a small parking lot and trail leading up to the viewpoint. Once at the viewpoint, there will be signs describing the formations, their creation, and their history.

a) Park Avenue Hike - This is a moderate 2-mile roundtrip hike that takes hikers down the middle of Park Avenue. Park Avenue is a rock formation that resembles the Park Avenue, New York City skyline and is just as impressive. The trailhead can be accessed from the Park Avenue Viewpoint parking lot and starts via descending rock steps. The lighting is best during the late afternoon and evening, since the hues of red, orange, and yellow are unmatched.

* The Windows Section - This section of Arches includes North Window Arch, South Window Arch, Turret Arch, Cove Arch, Garden of Eden, Ham Rock, and the Parade of Elephants. Although there are pull-outs and parking lots in this area, these arches will require a small hike to view them in their entire splendor.

a) Windows (North and South) Arches - To get to the windows, the hike begins at the parking lot and is a 1-mile round-trip excursion. The round-trip hike (if you go left at the fork in the trail) will take you to the North Window first, then the South Window, then to the Turret Arch, and will drop you off back where you began.

b) Double Arch - This is an easy .5-mile round-trip hike that takes you to the base of the Double Arch. The best time to photograph this arch is in the late afternoon/evening, since the light is perfect and will create the perfect lighting against the rocks.

* Devils Garden Trailhead - The Devils Garden section is the furthest north in the park and includes trails that take visitors to Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, Wall Arch, Landscape Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, Private Arch, and Dark Angel.

a) Landscape Arch - This is an easy 1.6-mile roundtrip hike that is best done during the early morning hours when the sun hits the arch just right.

b) Double-O Arch - Starting on the same trailhead as the Landscape Arch, the Double-O Arch is a more strenuous hike that is 4.2-miles round-trip. Like the Landscape Arch hike, this arch is best photographed during the early morning when the sun is at your back and the lighting is perfect.

c) Skyline Arch - As you drive towards the Landscape Arch Trailhead, there is a small pull-out along the way and is on the right side of the road. This pull-out is for the hike to the Skyline Arch, which is an easy .4-mile round-trip hike. If photographing the Skyline Arch, the lighting of the sun is best during the late afternoon or early evening hours.

* Fiery Furnace - This part of the park has the Fiery Furnace Viewpoint and the Salt Valley Overlook. The Fiery Furnace is a collection of slender sandstone canyons and natural arches that are best photographed during the late afternoon or early evening hours. Unlike all of the previously recommended hikes, the Fiery Furnace hike requires a private permit ($6) or a ranger-led tour ($16). Reason being is that this hike is a strenuous 3-hour hike that will have hikers walking and climbing on irregular sandstone with narrow ledges over large drop-offs. The hike is demanding and will have hikers crawling on all fours, squeezing into tight spaces, and even jumping across large gaps.

* Panorama Point - Panorama Point lives up to its name by providing a panoramic view of the landscape of Arches National Park. The vista provides a sweeping view of the lower Salt Valley with the La Sal Mountain range in the backdrop.

Recommendations of locations for photographing sunrise and sunset:

SUNRISE - North Window Arch - Although this is a popular location, the sunrise adds a different element to the 'arch seen through the arch' composition. To get to this spot you will need to hike to the North Window Arch and will see stacked rocks in front of you on the other side of the North Window. Proceed down and to the left and carefully make your way up to your desired vantage point. Don't be surprised if you see others there, as it is a popular view.

SUNSET - Delicate Arch - Even though this is a strenuous 3-mile round-trip hike, the real danger comes on the hike back to the parking lot in the dark. As mentioned before, the Delicate Arch hike is not a well-marked trail and it can be easy to get turned around. Be sure to bring a head lamp and watch your step as you make your way back due to the thin ledges with steep drops. Despite all of my warnings, the sunset (and even night photography) from this viewpoint are unmatched.

If you have time and are up for some driving, there are other prominent attractions that are within an acceptable driving distance. The first is Canyonlands National Park, which is only a 50-minute drive away and is to the north west of Arches. The second is Monument Valley which is approximately 2-hours south of Arches.

CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK

Mesa Arch - The hike to Mesa Arch is a short and easy .5-mile hike round-trip. Mesa Arch is a low arch where you can look underneath it and view the valley and rock formations below. If you are up for it, getting to the Mesa Arch and photographing the sun rise over the mountains beyond is spectacular. As the sun rises, the light splashes against the rocks, and the arch, creating brilliant oranges, yellows, and reds.

*Full Disclosure* - I wish I had more recommendations for Canyonlands National Park, but unfortunately I fell extremely ill during this portion of the trip and it was a miracle that I mustered the strength to get up, drive, hike, and photograph the sunrise at Mesa Arch. That alone should be enough of a selling point as to how magnificent the Mesa Arch at sunrise really is.

MONUMENT VALLEY NAVAJO TRIBAL PARK

Visitor Center - Entry to the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park is $20 per vehicle and gives you access to the Monument Valley Road. After passing through the pay station, you will enter a parking lot, which is for the Visitor Center and a handful of photo opportunities. The vista from the Visitor Center is the iconic view of the Mitten's and Merricks Butte that is most commonly photographed. This is best photographed during the late afternoon, early evening, and sunset.

The Valley Drive - This is a 17-mile round-trip route on Monument Valley Road, which is only open during the day. The full drive can take upwards of 3-4 hours, depending on traffic, and the speed limit is 15 mph due to the conditions of the road. Even though you are seeing the same rock formations during this drive, its the different angles you see these rock formations in that are the most appealing. The ideal time to take the drive is during the early morning, as you will avoid most of the tourist traffic and the sun is in an ideal spot for photographing the rocks.

Forrest Gump Road - This is Highway 163, which is a long, flat road going towards the valley that was made famous in Forrest Gump (thus the name). It is best photographed during sunrise or the early morning. There isn't a designated pull-out, but there are areas on the side of the road that you may safely park your car and photograph this viewpoint (depending how close or how far you want your vantage point to be).

Now we've come to the foodie recommendations! Most are for Moab, Utah, but since we flew in and out of Salt Lake City I included one for downtown Salt Lake City:

*Moab Brewery - Their homemade root beer is crisp, unique, and refreshing.

*Quesadilla Mobilla - This is the first and only food truck in Moab, Utah. It is a seasonal food truck and may sell out by the afternoon, so be sure to arrive early. These are the best quesadillas that you are bound to taste.

*Crown Burgers - Found in downtown Salt Lake City, Crown Burgers is known for its namesake burger, The Crown Burger, which is a delectable burger topped with pastrami.

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