The Many Sides of Utah’s Desert Sun

Sunrise is nature’s visual bribe for early risers. Nowhere is this more evident than Mesa Arch. Located in Canyonland National Park’s northern half, this brow of sandstone carries all of the waking power of a muted rooster. Every morning it attracts camera-toting masses, which, depending on the season, can range from a handful to a mob scene.

Two weeks ago, on a Thursday morning, I arrived to a mob scene. Approximately 100 people were jockeying for camera position, snapping photos at a pace normally only reserved for Hollywood red carpet events.

The arch’s changing colors dictated the unremitting camera clicking. The underside of the arch chameleoned from brick red to pumpkin orange, the sun’s rising angle serving as an invisible paint brush. A  wow-burst for the eyes.

Within 20 minutes the color show was over I was in my car speeding west across the Utah desert to Horseshoe Canyon. A 2.5 hour drive, with the last 32 miles over dirt road, this canyon houses the Great Gallery, one of the most famous panels of American Indian rock art.

Accessing the panel requires a seven-mile round-trip hike. Relatively easy by most standards unless, as I soon learned, you time it on a day with triple-digit heat.

Which probably explained why there were no other car’s at the trailhead. A stark contrast from three hours earlier at Mesa Arch.

No problem, I convinced myself. Carry plenty of water. Rest in shade. Be smart. I can do this. Similar words, I imagine, Aron Ralston, said prior to his hike, one canyon south of here, that cost his arm.

Following a 780-foot descent over and around blistered sandstone I accessed the canyon floor and turned right. I followed a sandy, bone-dry creek bed better suited for beach volleyball than hiking.

I reached the Great Gallery in 53 minutes, which included water breaks and stopping to snap photos of three other teaser Indian art panels. The wow of spying it, from afar, on the canyon’s western wall, exceeded expectations. Similar cognitive impact to when I first stood before Van Gogh’s Starry Night Over the Rhone. Boom – history and art firsthand. Pure wow.

But given the heat factor the hike had the feel of an Everest climb in that there was little time for celebration after reaching the objective. The sun was now all business. Heat its lone focus. The temperature in the shade read 101. I was down to one liter of now warm water. I needed to get out of the canyon – fast.

I reached the trail that climbs out of the canyon in 40 minutes. From here, under normal conditions, the ascent to the car would take 20 minutes. But drained by heat, it lasted 65 minutes. Shade was limited. The climb steep. My pace slow. It’s the closest feeling I ever had to Kryptonite.

Upon reaching the car I did not know whether to celebrate, curse myself, or give the sun the finger.

Several hours later, all was forgiven. From the convenience of my campsite, I watched the sun slip below the western horizon, coloring the sky above the distant Henry Mountains with such artistic flare I wondered if it would have any colors left for tomorrow’s sunrise.

It did.