Dust off the backpacks and sweep last fall's leaves from your tent. It's springtime, which of course means prime time for hiking and camping in the canyons of southeastern Utah.
While snow storms may still be blanketing the valleys of northern Utah, scarcely a trace of Old Man Winter can be found in the canyons of southern Utah.Literally thousands of outdoor enthusiasts have already taken to the canyons. Popular destinations, like the Grand Gulch National Primitive Area and the Dark Canyon National Primitive Area, are already receiving heavy visitation, despite teeth-rattling nighttime temperatures.
Whether you are a serious backpacker, a casual hiker or a 4-wheel-drive adventurer, balmy spring weather in the southeastern corner of the state has made hiking and camping conditions good-to-excellent in all but the very highest elevations.
"Things are looking real good just about everywhere," said Alex VanHemert, outdoor recreation specialist for the San Juan Resource Area, Bureau of Land Management. "The low country has been accessible for a couple of months, and some of the higher country (up to about 7,000 feet) is now dry and accessible."
The Blue Mountains (Abajo La Sals) near Blanding and the La Sals east of Moab are still snowpacked and inaccessible. And very cold.
The nighttime temperatures at the lower elevations in Canyonlands and other areas, such as Comb Ridge, are pleasant, rarely reaching freezing. If you camp at the higher elevations, such as the 6,500-foot Cedar Mesa, the temperatures often dip into the low 20s.
One night recently, the mercury dipped into the teens, turning water supplies into rock-solid ice.
Daytime temperatures range from the high 60s to the high 70s. And with the heat reflecting off the red sandstone rocks, the canyons feel much warmer. Short-sleeved shirts, hats and sunglasses are a must.
But VanHemert urges caution when venturing into the canyons during the early spring. "Be prepared for snow," he said. "One minute you'll be warm, and the next a storm front will dump snow on you. You'll want to be sure to carry warm clothing with you."
With the traditionally warm temperatures this time of year, the temptation is to hike without proper clothing. If a spring storm were to strand you in a canyon overnight, the lack of proper clothing could mean severe hypothermia and possible death.
Spring hiking in southeastern Utah actually began in late January in some places and February in others, when unseasonably warm temperatures melted most of the ice and snow. A second heat wave that started in mid-March finished the thaw, warmed the ground temperatures and resulted in excellent hiking and backpacking conditions.
Spring is unquestionably the perfect time to hike the beautiful canyons of southern Utah: The temperatures are mild (compared to June, July and August); there is plenty of water; there are few bothersome insects, and snakes and scorpions are not much of a concern; the wildflowers are beginning to bloom; and the sun is still low on the southern horizon, casting long shadows and making for excellent photographs.
But there are also inherent risks in hiking the canyons during the spring. The most dangerous concern is the lingering snow and ice on the north-facing canyon slopes and on the sandstone pour-offs.
Because the sun is still low on the horizon, the north-facing slopes receive little, if any, direct sunlight. While the south-facing slopes are ice-free and dry, the north-facing slopes can be nothing short of terrifying if you're not wearing crampons.
Even the most experienced hikers will find it slow going, if not unacceptably risky, to tackle the north-facing canyon walls until the ice and snow is fully melted. On one recent trip to the Cedar Mesa, ice up to two-feet thick still coated many trails and access routes.
"The ice should be clearing out rapidly in the next few weeks," predicted Dave Minor, outdoor recreation specialist for the Grand Resource Area, BLM. "As the air warms more and more, it melts faster. But it's melting slower this year than others."
Another concern this time of year is the loose sand and rocks. Most of the hiking in this country is over slickrock sandstone and talus slopes all of which has been further softened and loosened by a full winter of erosion.
The trails over the slickrock have a dusting of loose sand, which makes footing unsure at best. Footing on talus slopes is soft, and rocks often shift under even the lightest weight.
The temptation is to sit and slide down the soft slopes where footing is unsure. "But that tears out a lot of vegetation," cautions VanHemert.
Proper footwear and extra caution are required to ensure proper footing on trails. In terrain where one slip could mean a disastrous drop over a ledge or cliff wall, that advice is appropriate any time of year. But it is especially true during the spring.
One distinct advantage of spring hiking or camping is the abundance of ice-cold, clear water. However, VanHemert said hikers should remember that the Giardia parasite, as well as some bacteria, thrive in cold water. If you're not going to pack in your water, you should plan to properly treat it before drinking.
VanHemert and Minor also remind hikers and campers to register at ranger stations or at trail heads.