A Cold Kind of Beauty

By Sally Shivnan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 21, 2001

THE DESERT IN WINTER is missing certain things, like rattlesnakes. And that cruel, unwinking eyeball, the summer sun. This is good, but not, in itself, reason enough to visit.

Winter in the desert is not the most beautiful time there (that would be spring), and not the most active (any other season would be more lively for flora and fauna).

Still, it is the perfect time to go.

Perfect because you might, for instance, find yourself standing beneath golden, sun-washed canyon walls, listening to the coyotes call to each other, their eerie howling echoing off the rock and no one around for miles, just you and your traveling companion and the invisible coyotes, and the Rio Grande flowing slowly, silently, through the golden canyon.

Or you might walk into the elegant old El Tovar Hotel at that most notoriously overcrowded of national parks, Grand Canyon, and find yourself seated, without a reservation, at what your waiter calls "the happiest table in the room," the little table for two by the big stone fireplace, where you luxuriate in an unhurried, wonderful meal. The waiter says he can bank down the fire if you get too warm, and you tell him he must be kidding -- it's winter out there, it's cold outside!

Or you're knocking around the visitor center at Canyonlands National Park, the exhibits and the movie and the bookstore all to yourself. The clerk informs you with a smile that they're not charging the usual entrance fee this time of year. She is a volunteer, a retiree here with her husband, and in exchange for a roof over their heads for the winter they share their expertise with visitors -- they know all the great trails to hike, the best things to see. The visitor center doors swing open a few times each day, bringing a little conversation; the sun pours in the windows, warming the room. Outside, the same sun is toasting the already-warm colors of the sandstone, the red and ocher mesas and spires of this country, and melting the fine tracings of snow high up on the rock.

I don't want to exaggerate that sun. It would be a mistake to portray it as tropical. However, it is not possible to exaggerate the effects of the summer sun, which is the point here. Desert hiking in the winter is bliss -- overheating is never a problem, even when scrambling up slick rock or trudging all day out of some canyon. The extra layers of clothing might annoy some people -- peeling off with walking, layering on again at lunchtime -- but the weight of these can never begin to approach the weight of all the extra water, the minimum gallon per person per day, that must be carried in summer.

The hiking is comfortable for another reason, too. Desert hikes generally involve a variety of terrain, including up-and-down stuff that is notable for being steep but not prolonged (the exception being masochistic trips in and out of certain famous, deep canyons). None of those all-day grades you enjoy in the mountains. Instead, a little scrambling, bouldering and shouldering rewards the hiker almost immediately with exhilarating views of The Other Side of This Thing, and of Where We've Been. The desert offers more variety -- a new, wide-open view at every turn -- than mountain ranges, and exertion comes in bursts. And none of those thick collections of trees to block the view, as you find in your Rockies and your Appalachians. No dense, nasty, rock-hiding plants here. This is the land of rock, the Nothing But Rock tour.

There is always something to look at.

And the weather is wonderful for looking. In truth, maybe not always wonderful. It can be a little cool, especially at higher elevations, but this is one of the trade-offs of winter desert tourism, in exchange for not being broiled alive. If you like to dress in layers of fleece and down, and get a kick out of seeing your breath in the morning, this is the trip for you. It never rains, gray clouds are rare, snow is never more than a picturesque dusting and the night skies are clearer for stargazing than at any other time of year. Camping opportunities are wide open and sometimes free, and hotel and motel discounts are in force. The "No" part of the "No Vacancy" sign is off for the duration of the season, allowing the traveler to wander about the country, affordably and warmly.

I have to add that I am one of those particularly cold-natured people, and on my recent travels I wore a great deal more clothing than my friend Jim did, who mostly sprinted about in a sweater and pointy fleece hat, looking like a desert elf. We had mild days, some warmer than others, but even in the high desert January temperatures were in the fifties and even sixties.

And everywhere we went, we met people who really wanted to be where they were, who had gone out of their way to find the desert in winter. From the hard-body mountain bikers hanging around Moab, Utah, to the kindly retirees in their RVs, who had chosen these quiet, empty locales over the balmy climes of Florida or California, they were all there on purpose. And it may have been my imagination, but the locals -- waitresses, store owners, guys at gas stations -- seemed more relaxed than I'd expected. There may be less money flowing into local businesses this time of year, but the tourist pressure is off for a few months, and it shows.

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