January represents a gateway into winter in Canyon Country and a harbinger of spring. It is a time when cold and darkness settles over the landscape, offering a dramatic change from the sun-blistering days of summer. It is a time when inversions block out the sun or when dense fog cloaks the river bottoms. It is a time of peace and quiet, a time when visitation is low and a great time to explore.
During January, temperature inversions may hang over the Moab Valley, shutting out the sunlight. Caused by an increase in temperature with altitude and often with snow cover on the ground, the canyons take on a blasé that betrays their true colors. Stagnant air and dense clouds cap the valley, although one can drive higher up into the mountains or surrounding plateaus to punch through this inversion layer. From these higher vantages, buttes and spires may poke through the clouds, giving the landscape a surreal feeling.
Snow and ice are often present during January, creating opportunities to ski, snowshoe or ice skate, to access the wilds with unique modes of transport. As snow levels in the La Sals and Abajos accumulate, wildlife is forced to move to lower elevations in search of browse or prey, depending upon their diet. Deer and elk migrate into mountain brush or oak thickets at mid-mountain elevations or gather out on the sagebrush flats. Pronghorn herds swell in the Cisco Desert grasslands; a herd of over 100 animals is not uncommon. Even if the animals are not present, the snowpack creates a canvas painted with tracks that betray the presence of pronghorn, rabbits, mice and other creatures.
The reptiles are nowhere to be seen during winter, the temperatures too low for these cold-blooded creatures. But when a warm front passes through, small side-blotched lizards may stir and soak in the warmth. Temporary excursions exploit the conditions and they forage for hardy insects that also appear during these brief respites.
January also offers temporary housing for wildlife, mostly birds that escape the frozen terrain of their northern or Arctic homes. Rough-legged hawks, summer residents of the Arctic tundra, hunt for small mammals, while rosy finches descend from their high elevation summer habitats to search for seeds and varied thrushes, nicknamed “Alaskan robins,” visit town before returning north in spring.
This winter, a flock of sandhill cranes have been seen in the Moab Valley. Their graceful long-legged moves and feathery bodices are a contrast to their harsh, trumpeting calls that hark back to a time when woolly mammoths and Harrington goats roamed this landscape. Sandhills generally winter farther south in New Mexico or Arizona, so does this wintering group herald some change in ancestral patterns influenced by changes in climate? Or are they returning to old haunts, vacated in recent history for reasons unknown?
Of course, every January is not the same. Past winter recollections of cold and snow may melt during a warm spell the following year. A cross-country ski outing up in Arches National Park might be a once-in-a-decade adventure or a reality for several weeks. A winter backpacking trip might be possible without carrying multiple sleeping bags or crossing treacherous expanses of ice-covered slickrock. Or the reverse could be just as true.
To me, that is the beauty of January: dynamic, unpredictable, opportunistic, adventurous. When the possibilities to have a canyon or hike all to your own exist, accompanied by nothing more than the conditions and creatures of winter, that is a time worth savoring.