Thursday, January 17, 2013
National Parks in the winter
National Parks in the winter are a completely different thing than their summer cousins. While I can't pretend to be an authority on all national parks (so far, we've covered all the ones in southern Utah--oh, and one in Tennessee), I've visited enough in the summer to be able to offer a comparison.
First of all, it's cold. COLD. Temperatures have ranged from 9 below to a steamy 54 degrees at Zion National Park today. Mostly, though, cold. As in below 20 degrees. Mesa Verde National Park never got above 16 degrees, and let me tell you, when you're touring a stone cave in 16-degree weather, your toes go numb in a hurry. There can also be a lot of wind chill: I learned how to operate my camera with gloves on in a hurry.
The good news about the cold is that you will have the national park pretty much to yourself. This morning, we drove from Moab to Capitol Reef National Park, a three-hour journey over back roads, and for one memorable 45-minute stretch, we saw no cars. None. Not one. All of the parks that we've toured so far have been deserted, compared to summer numbers. I've toured Arches National Park and Zion National Park in the summer, and it's like Christmas Eve at the mall: jammed with people, and largely infuriating. In winter, we've been able to stop in the middle of the park road, get out, take pictures, leave the car running, and return some minutes later with no one inconvenienced. We can park anywhere we like, we can drive at 4 miles an hour and take pictures out the window, we can do pretty much whatever we want because there's no one else around.
Which is awesome. The downside of that is that most of the services around the parks are closed for the winter, and all the side roads inside the parks are shut down. The main roads are plowed, and open, but there have been things we haven't been able to see because only one road in each park is plowed and clear. Bring coffee, bring sandwiches, stop at every open gas station (just in case), and be prepared to pee in some very cold settings.
(Bonus, though: there's one road in Zion National Park that is usually closed to private vehicles: but we were able to drive right down it today, because there's so little traffic in winter.)
Because there's so little traffic, wildlife comes right up to the side of the road. There's no getting stuck behind some yahoo in an RV on a windy mountain road. For that matter, there's no getting stuck behind anyone. There's no waiting in line for a bathroom. There's no having to bypass a scenic pulloff because it's full of other cars. Gas is cheap, gift shops are empty, and group tours consist of six people.
A couple of reminders. One: daylight is short. Lighting gets weird around 4 pm, and it's full dark by 6 pm. You'll have to plan carefully around that. You'll probably be leaving the hotel in the morning, and returning to it at night, in the dark. Two: winter sun is BRIGHT. It's blinding in the morning, it's blinding when it's going down, it will bleach out everything in its direct path and create stark shadows elsewhere. That's not necessarily a bad thing--better crazy sunshine than snow--but again, you'll have to plan around it for the best pictures.
Obviously, keep a close eye on the weather. We've been lucky in that it's been clear. If there's a storm, you may be stuck in a remote place for a few days. Backcountry and National Park roads don't get snowplows right away. Dress warmly, and bring supplies just in case. (Food and water of course, but if you get stuck in a sudden storm, you'll also want a blanket, a shovel, snow boots, and jumper cables.) Alert someone as to your plans and intended departure time. Bone up on your snow and ice driving skills.
However, cold aside, it's been awesome. More awesome than seeing the parks in the summer, even: though I've missed the selection of decent restaurants, the lack of people and traffic has more than made up for that. I very much like being able to drive through at my own pace, to take the back roads without worrying about getting stuck behind an RV or a big rig, to park wherever the hell I want.
An empty road stretched out ahead of you, a full tank of gas, breathtaking scenery on either side: isn't that the American dream?