Winter's quiet gives Utah a new beauty

I spent six hours scrambling across the frosted red rock, eyeing the endless blue above and surrendering to the quiet that commands this place in late January, when the obvious was finally put to me.

"What are you doing out here - in winter?"

The question came from a woman I encountered in the midst of a 7-mile hike through Devils Garden. I'd passed nearly a dozen of the park's 2,000 red sandstone arches, carved from hundreds of thousands of years of erosion. Some of the arches soared, framing miles of spectacular valley. Others were so minutely hidden, you'd miss them if not for a map.

Much of the year, Devils Garden is a pleasantly demanding trek across well-groomed trails and smooth red rock. In the depths of winter, when the rocks and trails are topped with snow and ice, Devils Garden graduates to mildly harrowing. I wanted to see Arches in winter. I wanted to see its roads unclogged and its red rocks glazed with snow. I had wondered if they looked different this time of year and found a firm and rewarding answer: yes.

Topped with unsullied white, southern Utah's red rocks seem even redder. The thrill is in the contrast, especially at sunset, when the rocks turn a warm orange-red and the snow, reflecting the fading sun, becomes softly rosy. Add short, scrubby green grasses and the sky's piercing blue, and Arches National Park sings in winter - albeit to a small audience. Which makes it even better.

Winter travel most often calls to us in the form of beaches and ski hills, with little in between. It leaves places such as Arches attracting one-tenth of the traffic in December and January that it does in June and July.

I usually would have finished the 7 miles through Devils Garden in three or four hours. In January it took nearly six. Yes, going was slowed on the snow and ice, but a combination of sheer beauty - the twisting, soaring red rock is unrivaled - and solitude made me linger. When no one bothers you for 30 minutes while staring through Partition Arch at a still, snow-covered valley, there's no reason to leave.

In the age of cellphones and music wherever you go, it took awhile to realize that the solitude also meant quiet. Slowly I noted bird trills. I heard a low-passing raven's wings cut through the mountain air. And I heard nothing; in the deepest reaches of Devils Garden, looking at the land unfold 100 miles in every bright direction, I heard only me: the wind in my ears, my breath, a click in my jaw. There was nothing else to hear. Only see.